The sixth-graders are lighting up the room with their MacBook Airs, flipped open to Google, Wikipedia and YouTube for a physics assignment. Their classroom is decked out with touch-screen whiteboards, tablets and powerful WiFi connections able to handle a school full of children online at once.
“Cool!” Nina Jenkins says, opening links to Web sites that take her deeper into the study of acoustics. She’s making a small drum by hand and will record herself playing it on iMovie. At the end, she’ll write her reflections in 140 characters or less — in a tweet.
In the same week, about a dozen miles away, another set of sixth-graders is on a similar lesson. Only they are in a spare, birch-hued classroom that looks like a throwback to the Norman Rockwell era. There are no computers here. The only tools being used are spoons and forks tied together with purple yarn. The students listen to the clang of utensils change pitch as the yarn is shortened and lengthened. Nina Auslander-Padgham’s eyes widen with the discovery, and she rushes back to her wooden desk to write her reflections on the blank pages of a red hardcover journal.
At these two Washington area private schools, separated only by a 20-minute drive, the two Ninas may as well exist on different planets. They are growing up on opposite sides of a gaping educational divide formed not by the usual school fissures of economics and race. Theirs is a division wrought by technology.
The Flint Hill School in Oakton is ultra-wired. Apple hails it as a model for its embrace of devices. Teachers here believe technology immersion will make their students more excited about learning and better prepared for college and careers. So they’ve given each child a device — starting with an iPad for every preschooler and MacBook Airs starting in the fifth grade.
“Tech is like oxygen,” said Shannan Schuster, Flint Hill’s dean of faculty. “It’s all around us, so why wouldn’t we try to get our children started early?”
The Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda is trying its best to stay unplugged. Its teachers think technology is a distraction and overhyped. They believe children are better taught through real-world experiences in the school’s vegetable garden and woodwork shop. Educators here fear that the immediate gratification of texts and Wikipedia threatens face-to-face communication and original thinking, so they ban cellphones, laptops and tablets and require students to hand-write papers until high school.
“What is the rush?” said Natalie Adams, Washington Waldorf’s faculty chair. “There is a time and a place for technology, but children need to first relate to the physical world around them.”
The independent pre-K-to-12 schools are able to make such stark choices because of the flexibility their private boards and budgets allow them. And though they may represent the extremes, their experiences offer touchstones for parents and educators unsure about the promises of learning through technology for this ultra-connected generation.
Amid a sweeping fancy for mobile devices, Americans are wrestling to understand how technology is shaping their lives. And nowhere is that more evident than in the debate over how much we should expose our children to technology.
For parents, there are no definitive answers. Academic research seems to provide contradictory findings. And the federal government has barely begun to grapple with the effects of technology on children, even as it spends billions of dollars to bring broadband Internet to schools and libraries, and offers big tax breaks for educational software and gadgets by Apple and Microsoft.
“We have to stop and think if we are embracing technology just because it is there and new or if it is the best tool for what we want to accomplish,” said Michael Rich, director of the Center on Child Media and Health at Harvard University. “Sometimes the answer is that an iPad is great, but does it really do a better job than a hunk of clay or paper?”