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Brief Word—February 15, 2024

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Many thanks to the parents of students in grades four through eight who attended last Thursday’s Delay the Phone! event. This presentation, sponsored and ably led by Head of Middle School Bill Waskowitz, is part of a school-wide effort to reassess how our students use technology, both here at school and at home. Our goal is to foster a healthy balance between the benefits and the dangers of these powerful tools. 

On the one hand, of course, used properly, instructional technology has the potential to enrich our students’ learning experience in multiple ways. Consistent with our emphasis on inquiry-based, authentic learning, technology can be a powerful research tool. It helps give students access to a wealth of information and a variety of perspectives on the issues they study. Moreover, in all disciplines, but especially in math and science, world language and the arts, enriching visualizations, videos, and animations can help clarify abstract concepts that are difficult to understand if only explained verbally. Beyond that, of course, to prepare our students to function effectively in college and in their workplaces beyond, we want to expose them to a host of productivity tools that can help them work more efficiently, both individually and with others, as they research and problem solve. These tools can help them tremendously as they assemble, evaluate, analyze, organize, and present information and data in written and multimedia formats.

On the other hand, without proper guidance, some students can find technology distracting, at best, and addictive and downright pernicious, at worst. Bill‘s presentation summarized the work of Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State and author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” Dr. Twenge lists the hallmarks of GenZ/iGen generation, those born between 1996 and 2012, citing research that suggests that this generation is “super connected,”spending many hours a day on digital activities. She links their extreme use of technology to other hallmarks of their generation, including feelings of loneliness and a “fear of going out,” associated with forming their friendships online; a protracted adolescence and reluctance to enter the adult world; a strong desire for physical and emotional safety that manifests itself in cautiousness and risk aversion; and high rates of insecurity, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. To be clear, Dr. Twenge doesn’t ascribe all of these symptoms to technology use alone, but the patterns, nevertheless, are cause for serious concern.

With this in mind, Kristina O’Connor, our director of instructional technology, has initiated some important faculty discussions about how we can help create the most appropriate balance. Here at school, we are asking ourselves: “what are the learning tasks that can only be done digitally or that are significantly facilitated by the use of technological tools?” And conversely, “what are the tasks where a digital approach may add little or no value or where, even worse, it might interfere with the learning objectives.”  These questions will, in part, drive Friday’s professional development in-service day, which is focused on instructional technology. 

These are questions, of course, to which there are no absolute answers. An approach that might be counterproductive in fourth grade could be a huge help to students three years later. A digital tool that might be a huge boon for a student with one style of learning can be distracting or even harmful to another. There is, it is clear, a wide divergence of opinion about these issues, and good deal of subjectivity informs our opinions about them.

That said, though, these are important questions that we want to continue to ask. We want our students to become comfortable with the technological tools that they will use later in life, and we want to exploit, as fully as possible, the potential of technology to make learning, engaging, efficient, and relevant. But we also need to be mindful of the dangers involved. We want to avoid, wherever possible, uses of technology that offer no significant educational benefit. And we want, above all, to guide young people to use these powerful tools for productive and healthy purposes and to approach technology use in a reflective and responsible way.

As we do in so many areas of school operation, we want to be thoughtful and balanced in our approach. I am deeply grateful to Bill and Kristina and to others in our community who are leading these important discussions.

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