‘Planting real seeds in real dirt’ is necessary

‘Planting real seeds in real dirt’ is necessary

As technology continues to go the way of the classroom and students are exposed to different outlets for learning such as Promethean boards, long-time educator and parent Kathryn McDonald does not sing praises of opportunity. She chooses instead to wave red flags of caution.

“I taught school in the 1980s with chalk on a chalkboard. My students had paper and pencils to develop writing slowly and thoughtfully. They had books to consult for information. Now the age of the computer is upon us and has invaded and taken over our schools. Are students learning more? The latest research says, no. In fact, computer use has been shown to interfere with the proper development of children’s brains,” McDonald remarked. 

McDonald began her teaching career in Michigan when she developed a pre-school and served as both director and teacher. While there, she researched studies that warned against early reading and “forcing children to learn before they are ready” and experienced her first “counter-cultural” awakening in education. 

From this, her second teaching assignment took place at a “small parochial” school with a combination grade 2-3 class. The format was traditional and McDonald “worked very hard to individualize the lessons for my students, something of a precursor to home schooling where each child is taught according to their own abilities.”

She left school to return to college and explore the possibility of going to medical school, but had an unexpected opportunity of going to teach at the Anglican School of Jerusalem in Israel. Having earned a master’s degree in Jerusalem a few years earlier, she jumped at the chance to teach fifth grade and later added the responsibilities of Head of Middle School (grades 3-6). 

With 15 different nationalities in the classroom, McDonald learned the value of conversation and discussion.

Coming back to the United States, McDonald took some non-teaching jobs and began home schooling her son when he started the third grade. Using a book, “Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum,” she used her teaching experience and collaborations with other home schoolers to create a curriculum. 

“By this time, the computer was commonplace and schools were putting students as young as kindergarten age in front of computers. I was never inclined to do so for my children. 

“When our second son was eight months old, I became concerned that he would seem mesmerized by the television set. I read the book ‘Endangered Minds,’ by Jane Healy, Ph.D. and, coincidentally, our T.V. broke. We left it ‘broke.’ This book was about the damage done to children’s brains by looking at electronic screens. She wrote a subsequent book called ‘Failure to Connect’ about the consequences of computer use, in particular, on children’s development,” McDonald explained. 

When the McDonalds’ oldest son, Gabe, was a junior in high school and still home schooled, his parents gave him a homemade course on the computer, allowed him an email account for application to college and taught him to type. In preparation for college during his senior year, he typed most of his papers on the computer. 

Eventually, he earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, was a National Merit Scholarship finalist based on SAT and ACT scores and is presently studying in France for his junior year abroad, majoring in philosophy. 

McDonald was prompted to respond to the increasing use of technology in the classroom when she read a story about Promethean boards in last Thursday’s edition of The Press.

“Books are being written on this topic and the evidence is clear that this ‘new technology’ has led to regress, not progress, in the area of education. Parents should be alarmed by the increasing use of technology in education because their children are not getting a better education, even by the minimalist standard of good test scores,” McDonald stressed. 

“We should also be alarmed by the cost of this technology. In terms of money, there is the initial expensive outlay. But machines need regular maintenance, and the more complex the machine, the more expensive the upkeep. Then, the ‘new technology’ becomes ‘old technology’ within a few years, needing to be replaced by newer more expensive technology.”

McDonald doesn’t completely denounce use of the computer. In fact, she readily admits that it’s a valuable tool, source of information and teaching aide in the absence of a large library in her home-school setting, but she admits that it can be dangerous in the hands of a child and that it replaces what the student should be learning in the real world. 

For example, instead of planting virtual seeds, McDonald stated, students should plant seeds in real dirt. She argues that by utilizing ‘new technology,” students miss out on social engagement, reading real books, slow, thoughtful composition with pencil on paper, hard work and chores, outdoor free play, board games with family and friends, face-to-face conversation and discussion and a multitude of 4-H activities that connect them to the land and animals and that teach skill development such as in public speaking.

“I hope more teachers and parents will consider the implications of using computers for their children’s education. Please do the research and consider whether they might inadvertently be harming the children you are charged to teach. 

“Hopefully, the Promethean and Smart boards, along with classroom computers, will go the way of the artificial turf that replaced stadium grass beginning in the 1960s. Mounting injuries to players eventually led to ripping out the artificial turf and returning to grass – good old grass that you have to water and mow,” McDonald concluded. 

“Perhaps, when we accept that some computers are harming our children, we will rip them out of our schools and return to good old pencils that have to be sharpened and applied to good old notebook paper to produce handwritten work that is a child’s unique creation, not the output of a machine. 

“Then, let’s put money saved back into programs like 4-H that really help us raise whole, happy children.”  

wcp 2/03/11

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