My wife shared an interesting observation over dinner with friends last weekend. She said that one of the small, daily arguments with our eldest son just stopped this year. Why? Because he switched schools, and unlike the one he attended last year, his new school does not use Google Classroom.
I saw less frequently what my wife saw regularly with our son last year. He’s a dutiful student and quite responsible about doing his schoolwork. So he’d be sitting in our study, staring at a computer screen. Why? Because he had to and we had to let him. He had to be on the computer to retrieve his homework, submit assignments, and oftentimes complete work. It was sad for me to see that faint blue glow around his eyes as he stared into a flat screen, so I think I just trained myself not to look or not to notice, because there wasn’t really anything I could do. My wife did not have that luxury.
In the film The Descendants, George Clooney’s character describes himself as “the backup parent.” I can relate, at least in terms of the 3pm–6pm parenting shift. This is when school pickup occurs, custom-ordered snacks must be prepared, excess energy must be constructively channeled, and most homework is attempted. So my wife was always in the house when our son had to continue his education through Google Classroom. Those small, daily arguments weren’t about using Google Classroom itself; rather, the arguments were about him wanting to have more screen-time when he was done with his homework.
So what’s happening this year? As my wife shared with us over dinner, he just hasn’t been asking for screen-time, at all. No Google Classroom at his new school (which is an intentionally, self-consciously low-tech school) and so no apparent desire to stay plugged-in. It’s early in the year and of course it is hard to identify causal relationships, but when my wife said this it struck me as significant.
Moreover, now that I think about it, our son is indeed just happier this year, even more engaged with his siblings (though he has always been a good big brother), and just overall a bit lighter in mood. Again, identifying a causal relationship is hard to do, but what is unmistakable here, especially for my wife he flies solo on the critical 3pm–6pm parenting shift, is that there was always a connection between our son having to be on the computer to do his homework and his grumpy, angsty, frustrating pleas to spend more time on-screen afterwards.
In our home, we try to cultivate an environment that reduces screen use. We had a tablet for a while but then it broke and we were just content to let it go. Our kids don’t have cell phones, nor will they anytime soon. I wouldn’t presume to prescribe what we do to other parents—this is just part of the home environment we are choosing to create. But that is precisely the point here in regards to Google Classroom.
When our son had to be on the computer—when he had to interact pretty much daily with a screen for out-of-school work—that didn’t just affect him; it affected our home environment. While I wouldn’t presume to tell another parent how they should construct their household, the school made a choice for our family. It was imposed on us.
I vividly recall the back-to-school parent meetings at the beginning of last school year at my son’s previous school. I was sitting with a bunch of parents that I’ve gotten to know over these past several years as our kids have traveled through elementary school together. That night was the first time I (and I think most if not all of us) learned that our kids—now in “middle school” as sixth graders—would be working through Google Classroom for both in-class and out-of-class work. A friend of mine’s face kind of went blank. He and his wife had just moved to a new home and setup their home very intentionally for themselves and their five kids. They got rid of screens in their home, with the exception of one laptop that would be used at home as-needed. When we were leaving the classroom, he said something to the effect of “now we have to change what we wanted our home to be like.”
He put into words on that first night what my wife and I have come to feel over the course of the past year. So we are quite happy that our eldest child no longer has to use Google Classroom. The problem, though, is that it appears that this technological dependence is creeping downwards, to younger and younger kids. Just last week we received an email informing us that our fourth grader would be registered with Google Classroom and that we (as parents) would soon receive another email to sign on to the account with them. It is not yet clear whether homework will be facilitated through this medium, but I’m nervous that it will. I’m nervous because that won’t just be a change for our daughter, it will change our home. And it is not what we want.
I don’t teach elementary school or middle school or even high school. I would be very bad in those settings and I am very, very grateful for the educators my children have had who are all very, very good at what they do. But I do teach on the college level, and I can tell you that the one thing that absolutely none of my students are lacking are “digital skills”. Yet, sometimes the rationale given for bringing on more and more technology into younger and younger children’s education is to equip them for an increasingly digital world. Does anybody really think that our kids are having any difficulty on that front, on their own?
Let’s absolutely teach them how to type correctly and with good form, maybe how to code a little bit just so they know the basics, and eventually how to move past the basic functionality of something like Excel or to learn the basics of InDesign and the like. But if we’re concerned that they need all this time to learn how to use Google Classroom and figure out how to submit work online or keep a calendar online or complete quizzes online, I suggest you just leave any fourth grader or sixth grader or even second grader who has zero previous experience alone with a computer for 30 minutes and then come back to discover that they taught themselves how to use all that stuff way better than you.
If you want to know what my college students lack, it’s certainly not digital skills. What they often lack are all the human skills that prolonged digital engagement and habitual screen-time dulls and may eventually kill: basic human conversation, sustained reading of texts, a willingness to wonder, the creativity to develop their own systems of organization and styles of work.
So here’s my simple question regarding this general pressure school administrators feel to amp-up their schools with more and more technology: Why?
I mean it… Why? I have yet to hear a compelling rationale. I am happy to provide rationale for going the other direction, as I have already done with our kids’ school administrators. The best reason I have heard so far relates to the assessment abilities that some digital programming affords teachers. I could go along with that if we are really precise in what we are looking for and how we’re looking for it. Maybe there is a use for Google Classroom for these strategic purposes. But please keep it out of our home.
[For more on Google’s push into at least public schooling, check out this article from the New York Times. And if anyone is interested in more literature on related matters, please let me know. Or if you want to chat about these things, I’m totally game. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at work: 574-631-2915]