March 8, 2021

John Thompson: Reviewing The Art of Screen Time (Part 2)

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NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz has released The Art of Screen Time, a parental guide to the use of screens both at home and at school.  John Thompson, a retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, has written a two-part review of the book that he calls “a balanced guide for parents struggling with the effects of digital technology on children.

As explained in Part I of this post, Anya Kamenetz’ The Art of Screen Time strikes a profound balance between warnings about the threats that come with digital technology and its promise. Had I read her book when it was published in 2018, I would probably be saying it nailed the balance between fearfulness and hopes we should embrace. But I read and reread The Art of Screen Time during the recent Arctic blast, with temperatures reaching -14 degrees and snow shutting down Oklahoma City for over a week; the Impeachment trial following the insurrection at the Capitol; and a continuing Covid shutdown.

So, Part I stressed the more optimistic side of Kamenetz’ analysis while this concluding post will be more pessimistic, even as expressing admiration for her powerful argument for hope.

Kamenetz’ solutions, rightly or wrongly, tend to rest on her faith in parents eventually learning how to best help prepare their children for 21st century challenges. On the other hand, so many of society’s problems that she describes are linked to schools’ failures to prepare students for 21st century technology, as well as to parents’ attitudes and abusive corporate power.

Kamenetz, the NPR Education reporter, wrote that the purpose of her chapter on screens in schools was to “add nuance,” and bridge the disconnect between “two conversations: one about screens in school and the second about screens everywhere else.” Although I did not see a reference to “corporate school reform,” many of the threats she documents were imposed on public education by data-driven, market loving technocrats who saw them as solutions, as opposed to the dangers that parents, educators, and students should be resisting.

The Art of Screen Time explicitly endorses the wisdom I was taught as a child, and implicitly criticizes the legacy of competition-driven reform. As a child in the 1950s and 60s, I was challenged to become an inner-directed, not an outer-directed person, who practiced delayed gratification; and I was told the purpose of schooling was to “learn how to learn.” Whenever a child in my neighborhood was allowed to have a television or telephone in their room, the resulting gossip was similar to the recrimination directed at today’s mothers for focusing too much on their cell phones.

School reformers can’t be blamed for previous generations’ failures, and schools have always had their flaws. Had we all committed ourselves fully to such holistic and humane principles, however, perhaps today’s schools could have resisted the competition-driven culture that was imposed on them. To take one example of an ethos that now seems quaint in a culture that prizes external appearances so much, Kamenetz quotes Teddy Roosevelt who supposedly said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Kamenetz has visited plenty of schools during this data-driven era, so it is noteworthy that she describes its danger, “any type of quantification – grades in school, a sticker chart at home – interrupts this process by imposing an external meter.” She notes that quantification has its purpose, but it is more important to foster autonomy and connections. The better tool is “parental work of joint engagement – using screens as a basis to connect, not just check out – and authoritative mediation.”

Today’s digital technologies create “Distraction Derbies.” That helps to explain 2015 international PISA test results which show an inverse relationship between computer access at school, and math and reading scores. When “digital literacy takes its rightful place alongside reading, writing, and math,” Kamenetz explains, technology can live up to its constructive potential. But now, that claim by reformers is “a lot of hype.” As developmental psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek explains, to date, ”There’s been false advertising,” and so far, these apps mostly “are simply digital worksheets, games, and puzzles.”

Entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have essentially promised schools a “magical robot in the sky.” Online programs have sometimes assisted awesome teaching and learning experiences, but it is noteworthy that there is less excitement about educational technology than ten years ago. Agreeing with Hirsh-Pasek, Warren Buckleitner says it is, “Bad pedagogy that’s been digitized.”

Then Kamenetz describes the “hidden curriculum,” the education version of the advertising that directed children’s preferences towards Cheetos and Big Macs. Even worse, this branding is driven by data and surveillance of children. This loss of privacy is a legacy of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) that drives what screens reveal.

The Art of Screen Time contrasts the marketing and the capitalist surveillance of so much educational technology with the wisdom of theoretical neuroscientist Vivienne Ming, who says that “using AI for evaluation or prediction” is a “’cursed crystal ball.” Instead, we should use AI to “‘optimize life outcomes’” by “targeting small interventions,” especially with young children. One example is Bedtime Math, an app designed to spark conversations between parents and children.

Sadly, Kamenetz predicts the more likely result is that digital tools could be used in education as a crutch, and technology will “continue to be dominated by corporate interests.”

My reading of The Art of Screen Time is that the closing chapters wrestle with emerging threats, and thus are grounds for more pessimism. Even so, Kamenetz concludes with a call for:

The protective, loving awe that children bring out in us as we struggle to evolve and respond. Together, – we will – we must – figure out how to build and navigate this world with our humanity intact.

These are precisely the superpowers we need to fight the robot army and construct a more humane digital world. Personally, I’m looking forward to what comes next.

When The Art of Screen Time was published in 2018, I usually agreed with such affirmations. By then, the corporate reform claim that teachers could be deputized to single-handedly transform public schools had been discredited; to improve our schools, we have to act together. Around that time, I frequently attended workshops at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center on Virtual Reality. Their diverse audiences were committed to the holistic team effort required to educate our kids for the 21th century.

I often recalled the team effort which funded an early 1990s field trip for teens in poverty to the NASA museum in Houston. We saw state of the art 3-D films that provided a deep understanding of the Universe, not the spectacular commercialism that technology would soon drive. A volunteer coached students on landing a space shuttle. He said that this type of maneuver was much easier when not dodging antiaircraft missiles like his B-52 did in Vietnam. (I was the only one who never learned how to not crash the shuttle.)

Back then, we even used federal funds and partnerships with higher ed for students to actually fly an airplane in the course of the hands-on learning for students preparing for a virtual space shuttle flight. Before long, however, schools had no choice but to replace lab science with worksheet-driven, teach-to-the-test.

I retired from the lowest-performing secondary school in Oklahoma in 2010, but whenever I returned to visit, I saw the way that millions of dollars of federal School Improvement Grant money, and laptops made things worse. Even the best teachers were coerced into abandoning holistic instruction and focusing solely on remediation. Students responded to this soulless pedagogy by doing each others’ hair and watching the Thunder basketball games.

The effect of cell phones was just as bad. My first confirmed sighting of a cell phone was tipped off by the class staring at a student secretly manipulating something in her pocket. A gang-related murder of a student had occurred the day before and she was summoning her crew. I was stunned when administrators refused to get involved with the management of cell phones. I never understood why schools used metal detectors to keep guns out of the building but looked the other way when devices were repeatedly used to organize gang fights. Even though I was strict in controlling cell phones in class, it got to the point where I would see numerous students in my class glancing at their screen, and then they would join hundreds of students rushing out into a riot in the halls.

Worse, schools were so focused on testable material that they made no effort to teach digital literacy and ethics. There was no collective effort to engage students in the “brokering or translation” conversations that were mentioned in Part I of this post. No effort was made to either set limits or priorities, or listen to students and work out practices for promoting self-regulation or learning how to learn.

During my last years in the classroom, I concluded that the extreme obsession with cell phones was evidence of a painful degree of loneliness. Given the refusal to include digital literacy into instructional standards, I could see no path for more than a few exceptional teachers to push back and teach the critical thinking and the self-discipline necessary for screens to make more positive than negative contributions. But, consistent with Kamenetz’s approach, I still assumed that the younger generations would eventually blend artistic creativity with digital technology.

By the time I belatedly read The Art of Screen Time, I was shut in by a polar vortex which closed down much of the nation.  The disrespect towards science, and the failure to effectively teach climate change contributed greatly to the unpreparedness for disasters. Similarly, we were in the eleventh month of the Covid pandemic – which was made worse by the anti-science mentality which schools (and parents) had failed to address.

Perhaps most disconcertingly, I’d take a break from Kamenetz’ descriptions of emerging digital technologies and social media and turn on the television and watch the impeachment trial’s videos of rioters who believed the alt facts they had been fed by algorithm-driven networks.

Even today, I agree with Kamenetz that “we must figure out how to build and navigate this world with our humanity intact.”

I hope the “protective, loving awe” of parents will prompt a thoughtful, evidence-based discussion of “the art of the screen.” Perhaps school systems will summon the courage to ignore pressure from the Billionaires Boys Club, as well was the Rightwing, and science, civics, digital literacy, and holistic, hands-on, collaborative teaching and learning will help meet 21st century challenges. And, yes, maybe we’ll focus on early education. But, we would have to do this together, relying heavily on cross-generational conversations.

But the longer the list of these prerequisite hopes becomes, the harder it comes to remain optimistic.

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