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How Parents Can Help School

"Someone has to plant the seed so sanity can be restored."
—Chögyam Trungpa

According to educational research, one of the biggest things parents want to know from their schools is: "What do we need to know about technology to support our students at school?" As it happens, much of what teachers want parents to know is not how to properly use technology, but how to separate children from it. It's a bit ironic, until you look into the real situation.

Lunchtime in the American school

It is widely documented that losses in empathy, concentration, and happiness are closely linked to technology use and overuse. Psychologists and educational researchers have been studying and measuring this with accelerating frequency—as an educator and researcher myself, I sometimes (terribly) feel like this generation of students are like guinea pigs we are conducting a gigantic, global research experiment on. Research question: What happens when you subject an entire young generation to chronic technology exposure?

The research is striking if not shocking, as I have introduced in quite a few columns, speeches, movie screenings, and private conversations—but the results keep thickening and the problem keeps developing, and so I am still studying and writing about this.

Students (and many others among us) are wasting time online, mainly on smartphones, withdrawing from the real world—and the withdrawal is real. The advantages of smartphones and digital screen time in general can appear so compelling and so convenient we often overlook this withdrawal. Oh, and so profitable—have you compared Apple, Facebook or Google stock to General Motors lately?

Vocabulary is changing: Parents and kids alike often refer their online behaviors as "needs," which only makes sense if you think about need in terms of addictive behavior—not real-world behavior. And people online often treat off-liners as though they are not in the real world. As it turns out, they need to: Technology stimulates brains much like cocaine does—it increases dopamine levels and overstimulates. It's "digital cocaine."

The technology and artificial intelligence we encounter every day is engaging and fascinating. We can see that technology enhances people's ability to find information, to do calculations, and to communicate with incredible efficiency. Unfortunately, efficiency is a completely different concept than effectiveness—but A.I. experts say they're working on that, so before long we might be able to observe computers being effective on our behalf and maybe then we won't need to be. Is that the goal?


Dr. Grauer with student surfers Ivy H. '21 and Noa H. '18 at a recent competition

As the aspects of technology that engage and addict us increasingly become ubiquitous, expected, and normative, intelligence is changing: the way we identify intelligent people is shifting. The things we think the intelligent brain ought to do are changing. The list of what is being lost as our kids shift from in-person to "virtual" interactions includes our formerly best human faculties: memory, meaning, relating, thinking, learning, caring, and imagination—those are the old intelligences, perhaps, or they could be. What is the difference between "virtual reality" and "actual reality"? Many among us don't know. We're even being told that it is more efficient to hold meetings and classes online, even though it is obvious that our experience is radically altered when we meet this way. We experience only a fraction of the same level of engagement when we meet online—but this is enough if it's all we expect.

Of course, intelligence has always evolved. I once spent a few days with the Hadza hunter/gatherers in Tanzania and it was clear that (1) people from that ancient lifestyle had sensitivities and intelligences that modern people have long lost (since the onset of the agrarian revolution/Neolithic age) and (2) our generation has sensitivities and intelligences that ancient people did not. This all saddens me since I'm an inherently nostalgic type, but that's not my concern at the moment, at all.

Human intelligence evolved again with the Enlightenment as scientific explanations replaced much of what had been explained by superstition, faith, or tradition. But that's not what concerns me at this moment of history, either.

My concern as an educator is this: as our understanding and definitions of intelligence change in concert with technologically-enhanced thinking, will we even be able to even recognize many of the intelligences we have valued through the ages? Increasingly, over the past decade or almost two, when I look at many people, I am seeing a lot more senseless, distracted, hardly-recognizable versions of humans. I'm not being alarmist about this, I'm only saying what is obviously in front of us all in schools, malls, businesses, restaurants, beaches, you name it. Many of these people will be leaders, or influencers as they are often now called, and they are coming from a new place, a place of virtual engagement, equipped with a new intelligence. Intelligence has always evolved, but digital augmentation seems a unique if not bizarre evolution, not to mention an opening for wholly unintended, uncontrolled consequences.

The new intelligent people will be relatively lacking in empathic/emotional intelligence and imagination, and the new schools supporting them will be lacking in love as we currently know it.

But we won't have the kind of intelligences that are particularly partial or sensitive to that—so we may not even miss that. Call me luddite.

Happily, I see substantial beginnings in the re-elevation of emotional intelligence as an educational value—it is popping up quite a bit in late-breaking educational, business, and psychological research. I will make sure The Grauer School provides both leadership and followership in this emergent movement for as long as I am able and allowed.

You've been patient. So now it is time to answer the question so important to parents. The best way to cope with digital technology at home, and to support the school's technological expectations is simple: get the kids outside, even if it's cold out! Out! In nature. Or just set up a great system at home so your children can be uninterrupted—so they can think. Play ocean waves music. Have plenty of plants around. Keep digital screens out of growing children's bedrooms.

If your child sleeps with his/her smartphone, you may not be supporting the school's values, programs, philosophy, tolerances, dreams, or aspirations for your child. And in our nation, quite a few children do sleep that way. And if you do not know if your child sleeps with his/her smartphone ...

Do you know if your child has read a good book lately? Can they even? Researchers are saying that middle schoolers today have an attention span that has dropped down to a scant few seconds. The only efficient way to not be shocked by this research is to ignore it. Social interactions, imaginative and un-augmented play, getting outside, and engaging with the natural world bring about the intelligences we want for our students, at least at The Grauer School, and that's what we want you to know about how to manage technology to best support the school. After surveying, we now can say that our teachers do not care if your child has a cellphone and that our teachers see very little advantage to it, educationally. Students we survey tell us clearly that they also don't think they need it nearly so much as they think their parents expect them to have one.

A good laptop helps, though, according to the Grauer faculty, for research and writing in and out of class. Obviously, technology well-managed and non-addictive is exciting, important, and fascinating. Based upon our surveying, here is the list of digital technology that we want you to know we are employing at school and which supports student learning: What types of technology should students have at home to support their learning?

Math & Science

World Language & ESL

English, History & Social Studies

Arts & Photography

Time away from technology to think critically and engage in creative activities

Graphing calculator for Algebra 2 & higher

Stylus

Scanner

PDF maker

Evernote

Device with internet search feature

Computer

Google docs

Slides

Headphones

Device to record themselves

Computer

Live links to further research

Email account

Microsoft Word

Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Photoshop

Illustrator

Affinity Photo Designer

Computer

Musical instruments

As an educator over the past four decades, I am used to seeing trends come, go, and recycle. Some come on like gangbusters and provide us with new paradigms, new ways of seeing, much as the scientific revolution did, and much as digital technology-enhanced education has in our new digital technological and artificial intelligence revolution. And I surely cannot claim perfect wisdom or the whole truth here. But I have never seen anything like the proliferation of research on the risks, dangers, and damage we appear to be facing as we create the new, technology-augmented, generation of humans: our own children.


Appendix: Here are some articles for parents about smartphones and social media which provide breaking research:

1) The Guardian: Apple investors call for action over iPhone 'addiction' among children

2) CNN - Smartphones aren't a smart choice in middle school

3) BBC News: Is social media bad for you? The evidence and the unknowns

4) Pediatric Journal: National Trends in the Prevalence and Treatment of Depression in Adolescents and Young Adults

5) Center for Economic Performance: Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance

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