Teach long enough and you’ll recognize the “pendulum effect” firsthand. The theories, strategies and “best practices” you included in your first-ever class assignment gradually disappear. Then, 15 or 20 years later and with great fanfare – as if the long-lost answer to education’s eternal question has been discovered – those original theories, strategies, and “best practices” return.
Retired English teacher and education writer Peter Greene illustrates this phenomenon with the reappearance of “content knowledge” – the focus on “rich content” that “provide[s] students with a wealth of background knowledge,” enabling them to learn more effectively. It’s a concept we called “harnessing prior knowledge” when I attended teacher school in the early 1990s. Since that time, high-stakes tests have hijacked public education and the focus on content knowledge all but disappeared.
“Nearly twenty years of test-driven top-down education reform has hollowed out too much of our education system,” writes Greene. “A rich content focus can reverse some of that damage, particularly by reversing the practice of pulling students out of history and science classes so that they can spend more of their day practicing reading skills. Students could read full works of literature instead of excerpts of bad articles. Students could experience the fun and excitement of becoming knowledgeable experts on particular topics.”
Apparently, content knowledge has re-emerged. The pendulum has swung back.
It makes me wonder if the same thing will happen to computers and tablets employed in the classroom, particularly for elementary reading instruction. Put another way, perhaps technology is not the educational elixir it was built up to be some two decades ago. That was a point raised by the Reboot Foundation, highlighted in my recent op-ed about the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress: “Fourth-grade students who reported using tablets in ‘all or almost all’ classes scored 14 points lower on the reading exam than students who reported ‘never’ using classroom tablets.”
How could this be?
“Schools have spent millions and millions of dollars installing and updating and maintaining technologies because they believe they are critical for students to do well and learn,” said the University of Maryland’s Patricia Alexander. “The problem is that what we’re finding now is all of this digital is actually changing the minds of students, the habits of students in a very broad way that is not necessarily facilitative of deep learning.”
Alexander added, “Here’s what we do know about reading: You read better when you read in print, meaning you remember more of what you read, you understand it deeper. We keep trying to understand why, because in study after study, this is happening.”
Even if researchers don’t know exactly why it happens, librarians in Connecticut have forged ahead with programs to counter technologies’ ill effects. The Oliver Wolcott Library in Litchfield, for instance, keeps computers out of its children’s section. As Caroline Wilcox Ugurlu, library assistant, explained, “Many libraries are cognizant of the addictive nature and attention-scattering nature of digital mediums.”
“At one time, we were all very nervous that e-books would take over. But not anymore,” added Sharon Lovett-Graff, manager of the New Haven Free Public Library’s Mitchell branch, noting her library in the past year checked out about 5,300 pre-reader board books. “I don’t hear parents asking about e-books for toddlers.”
Good thing, says University of North Dakota’s Virginia Clinton, who echoes her counterpart at the University of Maryland: “Students of all ages, from elementary school to college, tend to absorb more when they’re reading on paper than on screens, particularly when it comes to nonfiction material. Sometimes you should print it out, especially if it’s long.”
Ironically, it’s not just literacy – but digital literacy – that has suffered under the expanded use of computers in classrooms.
“A large majority of students are not well prepared to investigate sources of information for their accuracy, relevance, and quality,” according to study at Stanford University. “And despite more than a decade’s worth of policy chatter about media literacy, whatever schools have been doing doesn’t appear to have been enough to inoculate students against ‘fake’ news.”
So is it time for schools to ditch the computers and return fully to printed matter? Has the pendulum swung all the way back? In a word, no.
Computers are here in school to stay. And that’s a good thing. To remove them would place kids at a distinct disadvantage in a world that runs on smartphone apps, personal tablets, and the ubiquitous internet. The key is to use digital technology moderately and strategically for learning that wholly requires computers – concepts like word processing, research, computer-aided design (CAD) and more. But for reading instruction, especially at the elementary level? Leave that to words printed on paper in books.
In other words, schools should locate their “best practices” somewhere between 19th-century hornbooks and multi-sensory e-books because the less the pendulum swings between opposite educational extremes, the more instruction improves.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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