Henry David Thoreau wrote – way back in the mid 19th century – that “our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
It sounds dreadfully prescient as we ponder the children before us today, raised on “pretty toys” and a constant stream of instant accessible always-changing entertainment. They can’t keep still, we say, or behave as they ought to, or complete their worksheets and hand in their essays, or pay attention to serious things like history lessons and math and Shakespeare. So it’s little wonder that we worry about the wisdom of bringing “pretty toys” into schools. In our case, in our current project, we have carts of 15 devices (iPads, iPods or laptops) and place them in classrooms for six weeks. We had little doubt that students would be engaged (and they are!), but would they engage more in serious things?
As the project progresses, and I watch teachers and students use the technology to learn, create, build, share, I have become convinced that our concerns about our students’ lack of engagement and inability to pay attention – and their therefore diminishing skills – are less a problem inherent in “kids nowadays” and more related to their difficulty in connecting to school as it is currently designed. When Thoreau was writing in the mid-19th century, the world was almost unimaginably different. No cars. No planes. No phones. No TV. Certainly no iPads. No rights and freedoms for great swaths of our population. It boggles the mind to think about how different the daily life today is from 150 years ago. The design of our schools, however – teacher in front of a classroom with kids in desks – really hasn’t changed much.
But students today – whether we bemoan it or not – are used to images, motion, vibrancy, choice. It’s woven throughout their lives. It is the fabric of their future. As I observe students in this project, engaged in learning through these devices, enabled to choose their path, connected to serious things through their own interests, working in teams, acting as mentors, sharing their learning through a variety of media, I am struck less by their lack of skills and attention and more by their sophistication and concentration, by their inventiveness and creativity, by their thoughtfulness and by their curiosity!
I worry now much less about whether these “pretty toys” will distract the students from serious things and more about how they can return to the black and white two-dimensional world of their classroom when we take away the technology.