Montreal Gazette – Do Kids Need Computers to Learn?

MONTREAL – Are Quebec schools embracing computers too zealously? I don’t know the answer – I’m no pedagogue – but it’s a question worth asking.

Two things are clear.

One is that most parents, school officials and politicians see children’s familiarity with computers at an early age as desirable – nay, imperative – for successful individual careers and for society’s prosperity in a “knowledge economy.” The English Montreal School Board, for one, even provides laptop computers as a teaching tool in pre-kindergarten (where the 4-year-olds use them for recognition of numbers and letters and to do puzzles). In response to strong public support for this trend, Premier Jean Charest promised a few months ago to put a smart whiteboard (a front-of-the-class board that allows for digital touch interaction) in every primary- and secondary-school classroom across the province.

The other thing that’s clear is the backlash against the trend. What makes this contrarian response remarkable is that it’s coming in part from what are arguably among the world’s least Luddite-like people – Silicon Valley’s wizards of the digital era.

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, some of the top technology experts at Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard and other such firms send their children to a private school where computers are off-limits until Grade 8 (when even then their use is limited). The school believes computers reduce attention spans, inhibit creative thinking and interfere with face-to-face interaction.

Says one father, who holds a computer-science degree, uses an iPad and smartphone and works at Google: “The idea that an app or an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.” He also notes, “At Google and all these other places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

His daughter’s fifth-grade teacher introduces fractions by slicing apples and cake into halves, quarters and sixteenths. (“When I made enough fractional pieces of cake to feed everyone,” the teacher says, “do you think I had their attention?”) Knitting socks teaches problem-solving, co-ordination and math. Research projects begin not with Google but with actual volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The school in question, Waldorf School of the Peninsula, located at Los Altos, Calif., is one of about 1,000 Waldorf schools worldwide that subscribe to “generating an inner enthusiasm for learning,” as the network’s website puts it. There is one Waldorf school in Montreal, the French-language École Rudolf Steiner in Notre Dame de Grâce. It has 100 students from daycare to Grade 8 (at which level computers are also introduced).

Of course, there’s nothing new about skepticism toward the impact of technology on the intellect. The first Waldorf school dates to 1919; it was founded in Germany by Rudolf Steiner. And, as a thoughtful essay in last weekend’s Le Devoir suggests, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who died in 1976, must now be spinning in his grave.

Heidegger wrote at a time when our only electronic distractions were television, movies and radio. Their entertainment content (as distinct from news reports and documentaries), he suggested, present an artificial world that disconnects us from the real world. It’s like the light pollution that prevents from seeing the reality of the stars.

The essay, by a CÉGEP philosophy teacher, François Doyon, suggests that were Heidegger alive today he’d see the late Steve Jobs less as a cult-worthy modern Prometheus than as a glorified pusher of intellectual drugs on which we grow more dependent with usage: “Why bother wasting time learning things when (Jobs’s) iPhone can think for us?”

Doyon says: “The calculator frees us from having to count, the GPS from knowing how to read a map, spellcheck software from learning spelling and grammar.” These and innumerable other such conveniences numb our minds. Knowledge no longer lives with us, he writes; it’s something we hold in our hands.

Many of his fellow young teachers, Doyon notes, rely on digital technology in class. With them as models, he asks, how can schools help young people hone their ability to think critically and train them to explore questions that don’t have ready-made Internet answers?

A fair question. And, given that three-quarters of the 196 elementary-school students at the no-silicon Silicon Valley school have parents immersed in the high-tech world, it’s not such an airy-fairy question, either.

haubin@montrealgazette.com

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