Those who do not read what other people have said about the future are doomed to repeat the same silly ideas. Last week, Ivanka Trump announced that “coding truly is the language of the future” and wrote an op-ed for the New York Post explaining why kids as young as kindergarten need to spend more time with technology.
But the idea that young people need to be more familiar with technology has been driving more schools and parents to give kids access to computers and tablets at younger and younger ages for at least twenty years. Unfortunately, there is little to no evidence that it is making much of a difference in their education. The one-to-one iPad program in Maine, for instance, seems to have had no impact on student achievement.
And that’s not surprising according to Larry Cuban, a Stanford University education professor, who has been looking at the question of technology in the classroom for three decades. He tells me, “I can say pretty categorically that there is no evidence that use of devices and software will improve academic achievement of students.”
In his book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice, Cuban attributes the hype for technology despite its poor results to two factors. As he explained to me, “First, there is the novelty effect to explain student engagement with high-tech. New devices—think clickers in an algebra class or iPads for kindergartners—motivate students initially, but as time passes, the effects wear off. Second, major studies have repeatedly shown weak to no linkage between these devices or software and substantial changes in teaching practices or improved test scores.” The decisions about classroom technology are generally made by school boards and superintendents—without much input from teachers, says Cuban. But teachers are the ones who are going to have to integrate the technology into their classrooms.
The problem is clearly not that young people aren’t comfortable with technology. They use it constantly. The vast majority of school-age children in America have access to computers, tablets and smartphones. And while parents are often impressed with how easily they learn new tricks on these devices, the truth is that our devices are actually designed so that anyone—from the age of three to ninety-three—can figure out how to use them.
Ivanka Trump, though, wants kids to learn coding at a young age because she believes that coding is the key to finding people jobs. “As part of my White House portfolio, I’ll be working closely with the Departments of Education and Labor to close the growing gap between the skills our children and workers need to succeed and the education they are getting.”
For adults, this may be true. If you could teach a twenty-five-year-old who is just sitting on his couch playing video games how to write code, there is no doubt he could find gainful employment almost immediately. But is that a reason to teach five-year-olds to do it?
First, obviously, we have no idea what coding will look like fifteen or twenty years from now. Second, and more importantly, all the evidence shows that young children need less time on screens not more. Young children are having more trouble concentrating. Their fine motor skills and gross motor skills are suffering because they spend too little time outside playing and too little time actually trying to do things with their hands.
More and more preschools and kindergartens are moving to a play-based model in order to combat some of these problems. Indeed, it is an interesting confluence of religious conservatives longing for a return to a more traditional, less media-oriented education and liberals who want a more natural, less consumerist focus in the classroom that is fueling some of these trends. But of course the Trumps are not really familiar with either of these worlds.
Instead, the first family is living in a world of bureaucrats and crony capitalists who believe that children are simply future workers and the earlier you can start them on the path to productive employment, the better off they will be. Unfortunately, the facts suggest that such a strategy is doomed to fail.
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