The New York Times recently ran an article by Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan in which she argued against the use of laptops and other such technological tools in classrooms. You can read it here, and you should. She makes many interesting, well-argued, and well-researched points.
However, and you knew that was coming, I disagree with some of the conclusions that are reached and the overall reaction to the research. Just as she makes clear that she’s coming at this issue from the position of a college professor, I want to make clear that I’m coming at it from the position of an elementary school teacher. As such, our methods are different, as are our classrooms. The conclusions I reach that differ from hers may differ simply because our classrooms are so distant from each other. My kids are near the beginning of their formal education, hers are near the end. I believe looking at education as a long game matters, and I think it’s one of the main problems with the piece’s thesis.
The article’s main thrust is that she will not allow students to use laptops and other electronics, with the exception of students with special needs, in her classes. The research she cites says that often students don’t think about the notes they are taking as deeply when typing because students are able to type faster than they are able to write, and therefore they tend to just send the professor’s words through their brains into their fingers and onto the screens. Students who write by hand have to use a sort of shorthand to keep up, and that means they are having to process more deeply in the moment. Now, I know my audience, I know who reads CUE’s posts, so let’s get this out of the way now- Perhaps maybe direct lecture isn’t the best instructional method if the two note-taking options can both be summed up as “kids are writing as fast as they can to keep up and write down everything I say.” But, I teach fifth grade, not college. I admit that I don’t know how much instructional needs change between here and there. In my class, when kids are learning to read we’re currently working under the impression that speed and fluency are good because it means the student has more time to think about the words, rather than thinking about getting them out. If information direction is reversed when it comes to note-taking though. So maybe here is where we can step back and look at this issue from a bigger picture.
Because saying “all lecture is bad ever forever amen” kills all other avenues to discuss this topic; we’re not going to do that. Let’s accept that that particular sea change isn’t coming immediately and deal with the more pressing problem of students taking worse notes when typing than when writing longhand. It does not seem to me that the problem is the tool, be it pencil, pen, or computer. The problem, from my perspective, is the note-taking. How are students being taught to take notes? Are they being taught bullet-points and short ideas, or are they being taught type-as-fast-as-you-can? If the latter is the case, then why aren’t they turning on voice-to-text, sitting back, and catching some ZZZs? I mean, come on college students. If the students are able to type quick enough to keep up with a lecturing professor, they should be able to type fast enough to process, modify, and write in more understandable terms.
Later in the article, another study is cited, claiming that second-hand laptop is a thing. That is to say, kids around the laptop user are distracted by the bright screen in their peripheral vision and, much like a kitten to a laser pointer, struggle to focus on anything else. Again, is banning the tool the best solution to this problem? Or is the best solution that the teachers in the lower grades, yes I’m looking at you Man in the Mirror, need to be better are preparing students for a world where they will be surrounded by screens. Screens aren’t going away. If phone commercials are to be believed, it’s edges that are going away. To make room for more screen. All hail the screen, long may it stretch. If I’m doing my job and preparing my students for that world, then by the time they get to college the screens of others won’t be nearly as distracting, plus they’ll have learned to do school at school and whatever passes for Facebook by then everywhere else.
I see this as a collaborative issue. Colleges are seeing a problem. Education then reacts from the bottom up, as a whole, to solve it. Together.
The argument I thought of as soon as I started reading the article was one that I’ve made before in this space. I need my screen to take notes. Have you seen my handwriting? No, you haven’t. You know why? Because it’s terrible and I have shame. When I handwrite notes I get to go back through them and guess at what the heck I was trying to communicate. “What is it, Past Doug? What are you trying to tell me? Oh, if only your phone had been charged! Curse you, Pokemon Go!” Typing notes on my computer or phone means that I can read them, and I know where they will be the next time I try to find them. I have handwritten notes from ISTE 2015 sessions buried in my backpack still. The article’s author’s counter to this is that students can take pictures of hand-written notes and upload them. OR, and I love this part and I swear it’s in there, “outside class, students can read their own handwritten notes and type them, if they like, a process that enhances learning.” Because typing notes in the moment hurts learning, but typing them after, simply copying what you’ve already written, enhances it.
At the end of the day, I feel like it’s safe to say that more and more students will be coming up with the skills to take notes effectively using their computers. As elementary, middle, and high schools move closer and closer to 1:1 (still a long way off, but we’re heading there), students will enter college able to think and type, and the needle will move on the research being cited. If I am doing my job well, preparing my students for a world of ubiquitous screens, then when they get to college they will be more suited to note-taking on a computer than on paper. The needle may well swing hard in the other direction and student note-taking will suffer because they won’t be used to writing by hand. Like I said, that’s already true for me, and I grew up taking notes longhand.
My final concern is that if these are education students, they are not being fully prepared to enter the teaching profession. Preventing them from taking notes on their computers is one thing, but they will enter classrooms where students will be doing just that. I understand that college is a little late to reteach someone note-taking for themselves, but in their own classrooms, that’s what they’ll be teaching students. Perhaps it’s time to flip some college classes? Move away from the lecture format for some lessons. If the students are bringing the technology to class, make use of it. Why throw away a tool? Teach them what they’ll need when they go into education, public policy, or economics.
Education is a long game and we are forced to play forward and backward. Policies that make sense based on current research should never be set in stone because behaviors, especially when it comes to the proliferation of technology in educational settings, are changing rapidly. The Laptop Generation is coming. Heck, they’re probably already there. Don’t ban things. Change, and we’ll change too, and together we’ll change education.
Doug Robertson is the CUE Blog Editor and a twelfth-year teacher currently talking at fifth graders in Northern Oregon. He’s taught in California, Hawaii, and Oregon in 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades. He’s the author of three books about education, He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One, one novel, The Unforgiving Road, and is an active blogger. Doug speaks at teaching conferences including CUE Rock Star Teacher Camps, presenting on everything from technology to teaching philosophy (or teaching The Weird Way, to use his words). Doug is also the creator and moderator of #WeirdEd on Twitter, which happens every Wednesday at 7pm PST.