Why Laptops Should Be Banned… Along With Calculators and The Ballpoint Pen

There was an article about Sydney Grammar School banning laptops in the classroom, quoting the principal as saying. ‘I think when people come to write the history of this period in education … this investment in classroom technology is going to be seen as a huge fraud.’

And a few weeks ago we were told by a speaker from the OECD that technology in schools was “doing more harm than good”. This was on the basis of an OECD report which found that some countries have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in results for reading, mathematics or science, in spite of investing large amounts into technology.

Now when I was in primary school, after Year 3, we used pen and ink. I’ve noticed that they now use biros. I wonder  – when schools made the switch from using inkwells – if there were any studies that told us that there was no “noticeable improvement” in reading and writing, and therefore, biros were a huge waste of money and a huge fraud.

To me, there’s one good reason to use technology in schools and it has nothing to do with improving test scores. We should use technology in schools because we use technology everywhere else.

Yes, I can see an argument that sometimes it’s good to get kids to switch off and slow down and get back to nature. I can even see that there are times in some subjects it may be part of the learning to do things in a particular way. On a case by case basis, you can persuade me that students may not need computers for this particular exercise, and that it’s forcing them to think differently by taking them off-line. Just as some Maths classes may ask that students don’t use a calculator, then it may be good sometimes to take away the technology and rough it.

But if we’re going to say that we should stop using them completely, then you probably don’t work in an environment that makes best use of them.

And when I read things like the Principal of Sydney Grammar School telling us, I have to wonder what on earth he’s thinking:

‘We find that having laptops or iPads in the classroom inhibit conversation — it’s distracting.

‘If you’re lucky enough to have a good teacher and a motivating group of classmates, it would seem a waste to introduce anything that’s going to be a distraction from the benefits that kind of social context will give you.’

Now, when I want students to discuss things with each other without being distracted by laptops, I tell them to put their laptops down. If they can’t do that without opening them two minutes later, then I tell them to put their laptops away. I don’t suddenly go, “It’s the laptops that stops them listening to our fascinating discussion”…   Just as I never concluded it was the pen and paper that had kids making spitballs and using the shell of their pen to launch them. I saw it as a classroom management issue. But it is good to know that elite private schools like Sydney Grammar seem to have the same issues with disengaged students that we all have!

Yes, I know…

Sometimes you’ll catch kids watching films or playing games when they’re meant to be working. Of course that’s the fault of the laptop and nothing to do with the sheer meaninglessness of the tasks that you’re asking them to perform.

And yes, I know…

Sometimes in life we all need to do things that are boring and meaningless. However, that’s no excuse for spending so much of the day doing  them in schools… Particularly when so many of them won’t actually improve the learning of the students.

Now, I could write heaps about how some educators are using technology in really exciting and engaging ways but there’s plenty of articles out there about that and if you’re not aware of it, I suspect that’s because you don’t want to know. If that’s a surprise to you and you do want to know, try googling (it is a word, don’t be ridiculous) people and sites like George Couros,Will Richardson, Jackie Gerstein, Edudemic, Fluency 21 and scores of others. At the very least, read “Disrupting Class” and understand that education is going through the same sort of disruptive innovation that closed Kodak.

The reason that laptops end up being a distraction is that kids would rather learn than be bored. Anyone playing a video game is learning, being challenged and getting lots of immediate feedback. If that’s not happening in their classes, then no wonder they’re playing games.

However, my main point is a lot more basic than that. If you think that students shouldn’t have laptops in school because they’re a distraction, then how do you expect them to cope once they leave the safe cocoon where they’re protected from such things?

That’s as absurd as the old idea that if one didn’t talk about sex, then the kids wouldn’t find out about it.