Disruptive Change in School: How Technology Ruined My Childhood

Technology is always disruptive.

Think of the introduction of the printing press, or the combine harvester, or the mechanical looms that destroyed a way of life for cottage industry weavers. Some of them took to frame breaking and gave us the unfairly derisive term of “Luddite” for those who resist technological change.

Technology as disruption came to me early in life and in a very personal way. When I was in the first form at school (equivalent to sixth grade) I was appointed to a most powerful and important classroom leadership role.

I was made Ink Monitor.

It was my morning responsibility to make sure that the small porcelain inkwell that sat in a recess on the top right of every student desk was replenished with ink from the large white bottle with the metal spout that was kept in the form teacher’s cupboard. Needless to say, this was a responsibility I took very seriously and performed to the best of my ability.

In my school there was a clear writing implements acceptable use policy. Work had to be written in ink, never pencil, and “biros” – ballpoint pens – were forbidden. The penalty for improper use was detention. We had to use either fountain pens or pens with nibs that were dipped into the aforementioned inkwells. The particular disruption of which I speak occurred when one student had the temerity to write using one of the illegal pens. Our history teacher – who to us seemed as ancient as the Ur of the Chaldees that seemed to comprise the entire curriculum – went ballistic. Her name was Miss Almond (we wittily called her “Nutty”) and she was famous for her classroom management expertise. In other words she was a holy terror to small children.

Nutty Almond’s outrage notwithstanding, ballpoints were soon everywhere. Students began using fountain pens with disposable cartridges of ink or brought their own bottles to school.

My reign as ink monitor was over.

I was thinking of this story as I read the New York Times* article last week about the Liverpool Central School District near Syracuse, New York that has stopped using laptops in its high school. As luck would have it, this article appeared on the very day that PDS wrote to parents of rising 7th and 8th graders about the new laptop requirement.

I say luck because what the newspaper article seemed to describe was a textbook example of how not to introduce technology into schools. The big disappointment it seems was that it did not raise test scores. If raising test scores was the intention then the money would have been better spent hiring a test prep company . Perhaps dispensing with expensive teachers too.

I was very struck by this particular account of “how not to introduce technology and laptops”. It seemed a perfect example of how to do everything wrong: The students had no sense of ownership, were not held accountable for acceptable use and did not take care of the machines; the tech support was inadequate and could not keep up with the maintenance; the faculty were not prepared to integrate the technology in constructive ways, felt threatened by it and undoubtedly sabotaged the process. It seems that they were not trained, supported and held accountable.

A real disaster.

It is all too easy to criticize people in quite different circumstances and we should always hold back on second guessing the decisions of others. But it does not have to be that way.

At PDS we are being very thoughtful about our introduction of owned laptops. Our students and faculty are already used to using laptop technology in the classroom. Teachers have been visiting other schools who have successfully introduced laptops and they will be spending time this summer preparing to use them in constructive, creative and mission-consistent ways to enhance learning. They already are.

Technology is always disruptive and it has always been that way. We (parents, educators, schools) need to be thoughtful and keep our eye on what truly matters. Adding technology by itself is no panacea. Students need access to the power of technology in school and the laptop is the primary educational tool of our time offering unparalleled opportunity for accessing and creating information and for communication. However, educational vision and purpose are essential and teaching and teachers are always a key to any success.

With the support of David, George, and Liz the Middle School and Upper School faculty are being very thoughtful in taking this important step forward.

*Letters in response to the article.

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