Computers are no substitute for teaching

Ken Calvert

As students return to elementary and secondary school classrooms across Michigan and throughout the country, teachers and administrators are debating the expanded use — and, more tellingly, the educational value — of technology in those classrooms.

That debate comes amid reports, for example, that Montgomery County, Maryland, an upscale Washington, D.C., suburb, is continuing its multiyear rollout of Chromebook laptops in classrooms. The Washington Post recently reported that about 27,000 new Chromebooks are to arrive in the county’s middle and high schools in 2016-2017.

Not to be outdone, in neighboring Fairfax County, Virginia, the public school system is buying 7,800 laptops for students at six high schools and several elementary and middle schools. The aim, according to the Post, is “to connect every student with a device that can be used for classroom activities and homework.”

By contrast, Hillsdale Academy, an independent K-12 day school in Hillsdale, Michigan, expressly avoids the overuse of technology in its classrooms.

It might appear counterintuitive, but more tech in the classroom is counterproductive.

The educational philosophy Hillsdale Academy, which takes a classical approach, focuses not on the impersonal “interaction” between students and laptops, but rather on the relationship between human beings; namely, between the teacher and the student. Research is proving that the “old school” methods are now (or should I say, again) “cutting edge.”

On the surface, this approach might appear Luddite. However, we’re not suggesting that classroom tech is of no value. It has its place, but it should not be seen as the new sine qua non of education.

There is no compelling evidence that “laptops for all” is an educational cure-all, any more than the emphasis on a “TV in every classroom” proved successful in the 1980s. To the contrary, the academic track record at Hillsdale Academy, and similar schools across the nation that eschew such trendy nostrums, proves the opposite.

Hillsdale Academy, located in rural Michigan, does not require entrance exams, yet its graduates’ ACT scores are consistently in the top five among the 800 high schools, both public and private, in Michigan. Its graduates are accepted into prestigious colleges — Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, Notre Dame, the University of Michigan and others.

What produces those results? Instead of relying on calculators and computers, our students delve into the math and science that inform the machine, the math and physics that serve as the foundations for the technology.

We require a great deal of reading of books, as old-fashioned as that may sound. Reading books takes patience and focus, which is demanded of students — especially if they are accustomed to having words, stories and visuals flashed across a screen at greater and greater speeds. Reading makes students slow down and think about what they are reading. Nothing can replace the pages of a good, solid book.

By contrast, staring at a screen for hours at a time can mesmerize students. Reliance on tech seems to be inversely proportional to reliance on the gray matter God gave them. In a recent book, “Glow Kids,” Dr. Nicholas Kardaras writes that, “Tech in the classroom not only leads to worse educational outcomes for kids...it can also clinically hurt them.”

A September 2011 Canadian study found that students actually preferred “ordinary, real-life lessons” to the bright, shiny objects of technology. “(T)hey really seem to like access to human interaction, a smart person at the front of the room,” one of the consultants involved in the study told Canada’s National Post.

In the final analysis, a 2015 report on the subject by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded, “technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.”

At Hillsdale Academy, and the many schools like it, that time-tested philosophy has proved true, year in and year out.

Ken Calvert is the headmaster of Hillsdale Academy, an independent, classical K-12 school in Hillsdale, Mich., located on the campus of Hillsdale College.