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Why some educators and scientists believe technology is bad for brains — especially young ones

If you close your eyes and listen, you'll hear the chatter of children, the crash of wooden blocks, the clap of the pages of cardboard books.

What you will not hear at Giving Tree Montessori School is the sound of TVs babbling through Sesame Street, or little fingers exploring keyboards, or the beeps and blares of gadgets that have come to define our modern lives.

This is a low-tech classroom, and Gisela Tilch, who opened this private school on Moreno Avenue in 1995, aims to keep it that way. Her students, ages 3 to 6, may see a computer or a TV at home, but they won't see it here.

"At this age level," she says, "they need a low-tech, high-touch environment."

For proof, Tilch motions to her classroom. At first, it appears that the children are simply engaged in self-initiated play. They sit on mats or at tables, playing with basic toys. But closer examination reveals a richness to the activities.

One girl reads a book, while her two playmates act out the story with tiny stuffed animals. Two 5-year-old boys learn basic addition using laminated numbers, worksheets and counting tools, while a 3-year-old girl watches intently. Another little girl plays a matching game.

Young children, Tilch explains, learn through "observation and experience," and trial and error. That's why she doesn't want computers here. If you give children a computer, she says, they don't have to use their own problem-solving skills; they don't have to imagine pictures in their head. The imagining is done for them.

Tilch points to a little boy who is trying to sort two kinds of plastic toys based on shape.

"The computer puts it in order for you," she says. "He has to do it himself."

Giving Tree is hardly an anomaly. Progressive schools and research scientists across the country are rethinking the use of technology in the classroom, and not just for preschoolers. Leading the trend are Waldorf schools, which, since being founded as a reaction to the atrocities of World War I, have been spreading across the world. Today, more than 900 Waldorf schools and 1,600 Waldorf early childhood programs operate on five continents. Based on lofty principles like cultural renewal, lifelong learning, and rooting a child in nature, Waldorf's private institutions attract an elite group.

Increasingly, though, charter schools that mimic Waldorf practices have gained popularity. In fact, a K-through-6 charter based on Waldorf practices is in the works for Colorado Springs.

One of many things setting Waldorf apart is the view that children should be shielded from technology — including TVs, smartphones and computers — until middle school. Neah Douglas, who's working to establish the Waldorf-concept school locally, says the idea is to encourage children to explore their own minds and imagination, rather than having their thoughts dictated by a machine or an advertiser's preference.

"In my home," she says, "my children are playing — and not even with toys. They're just playing."

Douglas, whose children attended Waldorf schools in other states before the family's recent move here, says the schools have gifted her children with self-confidence and natural curiosity, as well as a love of learning. Other parents have found the same. In fact, a recent mind-bending article by the New York Times profiled a pricey Waldorf School in California where 75 percent of students had parents with a strong high-tech connection. The chief technology officer of eBay sends his kids there.

There's mounting scientific evidence to support their skepticism of technology. Yet, as you'd expect, there's another school of thought.

Waldorf, especially, is chastised by some for its focus on a child's "spirit," and its tendency to come off as artsy or lax. And holding back the computers? Well, many educators think that's insane.

As Bev Tarpley, assistant superintendent of top-performing Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, puts it: "[Technology] is very much a tool for us.

"I don't want to comment on why other schools might not think that, but we have computers in every classroom in our district, and we have library media specialists in every building that work with our students to learn to use the tools."

Ideal or idealistic?

If he had lived in modern times, Rudolf Steiner would have landed somewhere along the brainier edge of the Bohemian subculture.

He lived from 1861 to 1925, and was known for creating the spiritual movement of anthroposophy (rooted in European transcendentalism), as well as for founding biodynamic agriculture in an effort to farm sustainably, taking note of the Earth's rhythms and cycles.

Steiner founded Waldorf in 1919 as a single school for children of factory workers in Germany. He insisted that the school be open to all children regardless of social class, a radical notion at the time, and he based the educational components on his personal philosophy that children develop in stages. Until age 7, he believed, a child learns through imitation; from ages 7 to 14, through imagination; and, in the teen years, through truth, discrimination and judgment.

Waldorf schools adjust teaching to fit into these parameters. School tends to be play-based and hands-on. Children create their own textbooks as they learn new things, translating everything from math to poetry into beautifully illustrated pages. In their early years, children are taught to grow food, harvest it, and then use it in recipes that become lunchtime meals.

In this style of learning, a single teacher instructs the same class of kids in the core subjects from first through eighth grades. Children aren't taught to read until age 7. Nor do they sit through long lectures, take tests, or receive grades. And, of course, technology isn't introduced until middle school.

Waldorf's U.S. website, whywaldorfworks.org, explains it this way: "Children who use word processing are missing the lessons of will and purpose involved in writing out a lesson with their own hand, as well as the spatial sense and aesthetic judgment which are part of the practice of handwriting. We believe children learn better from experience in the real world than from reading information on a computer."

To some, Waldorf can appear too cocoonish, insulating children from media, advertisers and the technological world; withholding the deep criticism inherent in the grading system; and even banning most toys from preschools in favor of rocks, shells and silk cloths. But the end results are striking. According to its site, 94 percent of Waldorf graduates attend colleges or universities.

Since Waldorf schools are private, and often quite costly, it might be easy to dismiss those numbers as more of a reflection of class than of education. But there's other impressive evidence as well.

In Germany, researchers in the early 1990s compared 50 children in play-based kindergartens to 50 in more traditional academic kindergartens. By age 10, the play-based kids exceeded their peers in everything from reading to math to oral expression to social and emotional adjustment. And a September article in the New York Times pointed out that in Arizona's Kyrene School District, where voters have spent $33 million creating high-tech classrooms since 2005, reading and math scores have stagnated, even as statewide scores have risen.

For Douglas, the proof of play-based wisdom is in her two sons, 7 and 10. After a Waldorf education in Chicago and Portland, Ore., the children were thrown into a traditional setting when the family moved to Colorado Springs this summer. The kids first started at Buena Vista Elementary School's Montessori program, before transferring to Steele Elementary, which is closer to their Old North End home. Steele is a high-performing school, but Douglas says it can't compare to a Waldorf education.

At Waldorf, away from the pressures of mandated tests similar to the Colorado Student Assessment Program, she says her children learned at their own pace, and in their own ways, which helped them build strong self-confidence. But her belief is that in traditional classrooms, all children are expected to learn the same things, at the same time, in the same ways.

"[My children] both conveyed to me that this style of learning was threatening," Douglas says.

Forcing children to conform, she says, isn't just bad for kids; it's bad for society. After all, she points out, in a changing world, professionals have to find a way to stand out, use different approaches, and be creative.

"The essence of success," she says, "is differentiation."

Douglas says she harbors no fear that her children, if Waldorf-educated, will be at a disadvantage because they came to technology later than other kids. She says technology is easy to learn. It's also constantly changing, meaning today's cutting-edge gadgets will be fossils by the time her kids grow up.

Waldorf's site notes that after spending their young lives away from technology, kids in Waldorf high schools often go on to build their own computers as school projects, surpassing their traditionally schooled peers.

"Our children," Douglas says, "aren't going to be behind because they can't use a smartphone at age 3."

After spending long volunteer hours establishing a Waldorf methods-based charter in Oregon, Douglas is taking the plunge here. She hopes her Waldorf-based charter elementary, as yet unnamed, will open in fall 2013 in Colorado Springs School District 11, and will eventually grow to include seventh and eighth grades. Douglas has amassed a team of a dozen eager volunteers — while looking for more — and is moving steadily through the establishment process laid out by the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

A sprinkling of Waldorf or Waldorf methods-based schools already exist across the state, with another soon to open in Fort Collins. And according to Waldorf's site, Waldorf is the world's fastest-growing educational movement. In North America, it includes 160-plus schools, 250 early-childhood centers, 17 teacher training institutes, one school focused on special-needs children and eight with programs that partner with farms.

Classroom of the future

It's 8:15 a.m., and Lisette Casey is already swamped.

The Manitou Springs District 14 tech teacher, who serves the middle and elementary schools, is huddled around a laptop with three adolescent girls in Manitou Springs Middle School's library, troubleshooting a log-in problem.

Casey has been a driving force behind the digitization of schools here. She started in D-14 almost two decades ago, as a science teacher, and began focusing more on technology after earning her master's in technology and education. This year, she's helping to smooth wrinkles with the district's innovative new program.

All fifth- through eighth-graders were assigned iPads at the start of this school year, and high schoolers will get them next year. Casey spent the summer training teachers how to use the gadgets in the classroom, and those lessons continue weekly. Parents, too, have been encouraged to learn about how their kids can and should use the iPads, with Casey offering monthly meetings to assist them.

Manitou has long been known for high achievement and admirable test scores, and it's too soon to tell if the iPads will help or hinder that reputation. But when classes let out on a Monday morning, you notice that children scatter and cluster at hallway "work stations" to discuss projects. A few girls admire a clay model made to mimic a Native American dwelling. But other children discuss a "news report" on the same subject, recorded on the iPad. A few minutes later, in the library, a third group projects an iPad video of a simulated Jeopardy game; wearing a pipe cleaner "mic" strapped around his ear, the child "host" questions "contestants" on the history of American Indians.

The projects are for a single assignment in a single class. But, helped by iPads or using more traditional approaches, the kids chose different ways of demonstrating their knowledge.

So when Casey and other teachers talk about benefits from the iPad, the first one sounds oddly, ironically, familiar: Kids can learn in their own way, at their own pace. As seventh-grade life sciences teacher Viola Gaunce puts it, "In the past, you'd say, 'Here's an assignment,' and everybody would make a poster."

No more. On this Monday, Gaunce's class compares reptiles to amphibians. But with no chalkboard. The kids start by building individual PowerPoint presentations explaining the differences. Then they "bounce" their work to fellow students, creating a group database of information. From there, the kids use the information to create a diagram online. Then they write individual essays on the subject, e-mailing them to Gaunce to grade.

Around the school, other classrooms are similarly unconventional. An eighth-grade science teacher gives a pop quiz via iPad. After choosing an answer, students see a graph, telling them what percentage of the class has answered correctly.

Down the hall, other kids learn language arts through blogging or a "figurative language rap" video.

The children, in general, seem focused. Most quickly shift their attention from teacher to machine and back. A few kids wear headphones during lectures, but there are no obvious signs of Facebook or YouTube on iPad screens, and classrooms bubble with the chatter, questions and discussions that characterize an engaged group.

To Casey, the main advantage of technology is obvious: Children no longer are limited in their ability to access information, and that excites them.

"Giving them the iPad, kids just come skipping to school," she says.

Kids who wouldn't read books last year now read classic novels on the iPad. Children who didn't reach out to teachers for help, have no problem shooting their instructor an e-mail. Casey points to one student who a teacher suspected was illiterate last year; given an inventive iPad assignment, he suddenly wrote out five thoughtful sentences.

"It just allows for the release of expression that they may not ordinarily have," Casey says.

The Independent contacted six local school districts and the state-run Charter School Institute for this story to inquire if any had schools that de-emphasized technology. Replies generally went from a puzzled pause to a definitive "no."

In 1997, a science and technology committee under President Bill Clinton called for billions more to be spent on bringing technology into America's classrooms. Even now, most districts follow those marching orders, stretching stressed budgets to add more computers.

District 11 spokesperson Devra Ashby makes a special point to brag that her district's new tech-focused Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy gives students laptops to take home.

"In fact, one of our goals is to embrace a culture of constant innovation," she says.

In some cases, those resources also go to specialized programs. This year, D-11 launched Spatial Temporal Math, which its website describes as "born out of decades of breakthrough neuroscience and education research." (For more, see p. 25.)

The district believes the web-based program is helping children, including those with special needs. According to some educators, kids with developmental disabilities can especially be assisted by technology, which can help them overcome communication and learning issues.

A lot of science

Nicholas Carr proceeds carefully. Though it will soon become clear that he needn't have bothered.

"My own belief is that, obviously, computers have a role to play in schools, maybe not in those early elementary grades, but in schools in general," he says. "And, of course, students are going to be using computers, and they have to learn how to use them, as well. But I think schools also should be a refuge from the digital life and the online life."

Giddy applause explodes from the packed Colorado College auditorium.

Carr continues, "The argument that kids use these all the time outside of school, so we have to bring them in, seems self-defeating in a way. The best thing a school can do is encourage a student to use the full potential of their mind. And some of that is skimming and scanning, and doing things very, very quickly, but some of that is being able to be attentive, and being able to be alone with their thoughts sometimes. So I think we need to have a more balanced view of technology in the schools than we have up to now."

The applause returns, louder than ever.

Carr, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is lecturing on his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, selected by the Pikes Peak Library District as an All Pikes Peak Reads 2011 selection.

The push by some to remove technology from classrooms, especially in early grades, hasn't been based on purely anecdotal evidence or trend appeal. Carr's book, plus articles in the New York Times, Newsweek, Time and science-focused magazines, have drawn attention to a growing body of studies that paint the Internet in a less-than-flattering light. Studies show that the way we use the web — constantly shifting attention and performing multiple tasks simultaneously — is changing our brains.

As Time magazine's Claudia Wallis put it in a 2006 article, "Although many aspects of the networked life remain scientifically uncharted, there's substantial literature on how the brain handles multitasking. And basically, it doesn't."

Scientists long ago discovered that the brain changes based on how we use it, a trait known as "neuroplasticity." According to Carr, before books, our brains were more primitive, easily distracted by, say, a tiger. But when books became widely available and literacy spread, people learned to focus.

"They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them," writes Carr, "to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another."

Now, a growing number of scientists, from Los Angeles psychiatry professor Gary Small to brain scientist and National Institute on Drug Abuse director Nora Volkow, say people are losing their ability to focus as the brain rewires itself again. Even when multitaskers want to focus, they no longer can. Carr says the web doesn't just have a tendency to distract or lead to multitasking; that's its purpose.

Think about it: videos playing next to text, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook constantly buzzing, ads blinking and popping. Even in a simple text-only format, users are bombarded with hypertext links. It's all meant to keep the user moving quickly along, without any deep consideration of content. Depending on the study, researchers estimate that surfers on average spend as little as 10 seconds or fewer viewing a web page, generally scanning text in an F-shaped pattern.

The problem with this — particularly for kids — is that multi-tasking isn't a very effective way of learning, according to studies, including those at UCLA. The reasons are biological. When learning, the brain undergoes a complex process of transferring information from the tight quarters of the working memory into vast expanse of long-term memory. To make the transfer, information must flow slowly through a bottleneck in the brain. When we multi-task, we overload the bottleneck, and very little if any information is downloaded to our permanent stores.

Storing information while multitasking — learning from the Internet — is especially difficult for children, because information-juggling takes place in the prefrontal cortex, one of the last regions of the brain to develop.

There are signs that not only is the brain ill-equipped to multi-task, it also is at risk of becoming addicted to distraction. As Matt Richtel wrote in June 2010 in the New York Times, "The stimulation [of task-switching] provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored."

The major apology for multitasking is that it increases productivity, and in a competitive world, the next generation will have to be ever more efficient. But even that appears to be a fallacy. Studies at the University of Michigan and elsewhere have shown that multitasking increases the time it takes to complete a task, decreases the ability to sort the relevant from the irrelevant, and actually hinders the ability to quickly switch between tasks. Multitasking makes brains bad at multitasking.

One study by University of California at Irvine researchers found that office workers took an average of 25 minutes to recover from interruptions like phone calls or answering e-mails, and actually return to their work. And in 2005, two psychologists at the Centre for Applied Cognitive Research at Canada's Carleton University did a comprehensive review of 38 studies that examined the effects of hypertext — one of the simplest and least obtrusive parts of the web experience. They found very little support for the idea that hypertext would enhance the experience of reading; in fact, most studies showed that hypertext impaired reading performance.

Not all scientists paint such a gloomy picture. University of Michigan psychologist David Meyer believes the bottleneck from our working memory to our long-term memory is actually a process of "adaptive executive control," in which our brain is organizing a to-do list based on priorities. Meyer believes the brain can get better at task-switching.

Another relative optimist, Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, notes that social media can help kids learn "virtual empathy" and assist withdrawn kids with socializing. And there is scientific evidence that while the Internet and technology rob our brain of certain skills, they gift it with others. Video gamers, for instance, can track more visual cues at once than the rest of us.

But even scientists who go easier on the web still point to its drawbacks. Meyer's studies show that multitasking creates anxiety and stress hormones that, of all things, lead to short-term memory loss. Rosen may have found some upbeat social consequences of the web, but he also found that teens with a strong Facebook presence show more narcissistic tendencies and signs of psychological disorders. And Carr claims that the skills the Internet builds "tend to involve lower-level, or more primitive, mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response and the processing of visual cues."

Manitou's Casey, and other technology fans, say technology isn't the enemy. Just as blocks and stuffed animals promote creativity in Gilch's preschoolers, Casey sees iPads as helping children express themselves freely in otherwise mundane course work.

"The technology isn't good teaching," Casey says. "The technology is just a tool." And watching the way Manitou teachers hold their students' attention, directing classes like careful conductors, it would be easy to agree with the notion.

But Carr, an avid technology user himself, doesn't think it can be that simple. When a tool changes the landscape of the brain, he argues, people need to carefully consider whether that tool is really helping their child.

"We shouldn't allow the glories of technology," he writes, "to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we've numbed an essential part of our self."

stanley@csindy.com

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