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How to Teach Achievement in a Digital World

Can our kids’ screen obsessions prepare them for the future?

Astrid Vinje

Published on: April 25, 2019

girl robotics tech

It’s a typical Friday afternoon, and my husband, Clint Bush, is preparing our kids for their homeschooling lesson.

“Today we’re going to do a Minecraft challenge,” he instructs. “I want you to create a realistic pyramid, based on what we’ve learned about pyramids.”

He outlines the specifications for the pyramid: a base of four sides, wider at the bottom, tapering to a point at the top, and with an entrance. Right away, our two kids, Mira and Julian, ages 8 and 5 respectively, jump to work on their iPads. Their fingers work nimbly as they navigate easily through the Minecraft world. In 30 minutes, they both have pyramids to show their dad.

In another era, our kids would have used physical building blocks to model such a structure. But these days, games like Minecraft offer them a similar experience, but on a virtual level. And, in some ways, they have more conceptual flexibility and freedom with Minecraft. Both our son and our daughter love building unique and individual worlds in Minecraft, and they take pride in showing off their creations.

Since starting homeschooling in July 2018, our family has taken a possibly unorthodox approach to technology use: Rather than shying away from screen time, we embrace technology as a tool to support our kids’ education. Relying on apps, online games and even YouTube, we find ways to help our kids learn by incorporating the tools they already love using.

Being interactive with screen time can actually allow certain brains to learn better than trying to process information in traditional ways.

“For years,” claims my husband, “video games have been shown to produce a certain level of brain stimulation. I think being interactive with screen time can actually allow certain brains to learn better than trying to process information in traditional ways.”

A 2014 study published in the American Journal of Play about the perception and cognitive benefits of playing commercial video games corroborates his statement. These effects are significant enough that educators employ such games for practical, real-world purposes, such as training surgeons and rehabilitating individuals with perceptual or cognitive deficits. Among the elderly, action-based video game playing has been shown to improve information processing and promote sustained attention. And in terms of job training, video-game-based simulations can actually help expand job skills.

“One of the things I love to use is anything that has to do with programming,” my husband continues. “The apps we use teach some of the basics of problem-solving, but in a fun way.” And Khan Academy, an educational website, has been instrumental in helping our kids learn basic math concepts in a fun and engaging way.

Experts are quick to point to the dangers of technology use by kids and teens, citing studies that link excessive screen time to poor sleep habits, lack of attention, increased rates of depression, and low physical activity among kids and teens. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) recommends that kids ages 2–5 limit their screen time to only one hour per day. For kids ages 6 and older, the APA recommends that parents set consistent daily limits on technology and screen use.

Yet a recent article in Scientific American by science writer Lydia Denworth suggests that panicking parents should relax their anxieties about screen time and the troubling, often conflicting messages they receive about the effects of technology on children’s well-being. The article cites a University of Oxford paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour showing that among 350,000 adolescents studied, the effect of technology use on teens’ psychological well-being is almost negligible. Essentially, technology use had neither a positive nor a negative effect on teens. These findings suggest that screen time may not be as bad for kids as parents think.

Ours is not the only homeschooling family that is seeing the benefits of mediated, monitored screen time as an educational tool. One homeschooling family in Seattle enjoys the creativity and flexibility that come with using online tools.

My son can be more independent in thinking with online learning. He can do a lot of things on his own, and he can do his own research.

“I think it’s really helpful for logical and creative thinking,” remarks a homeschooling mom of my acquaintance. “My son can be more independent in thinking with online learning. He can do a lot of things on his own, and he can do his own research.”

Educators in both public and private schools are embracing technology use more and more as an efficient and effective means to enhance kids’ education. Within Seattle Public Schools, teachers regularly encourage kids to use IXL Learning, a subscription-based adaptive learning site for K–12 students, as a supplement to what they are learning in the classroom. 

Eliza Furmansky, an independent learning specialist who works with Seattle public school students, believes that technology, when used appropriately, can be helpful for kids. However, she encourages parents to be mindful of how they’re using technology.

“It’s a tool, like anything else,” explains Furmansky. “People need to make sure the technology is doing what we want it to be doing. It’s important to think about what you’re actually learning when you’re using it and what parts of your brain you’re actually using.”

A Seattle father who enjoys using Lego robotics kits with his son echoes this point by explaining how programming a robot on the computer is only one aspect of the experience. “With the Lego robots, it’s only part of the task to just program it. You still have to be able to build the robot. You have to understand hydraulics, and you have to understand how things work,” he explains.

My husband acknowledges some of the limitations that come with relying on technology to boost education. “When you’re in front of a screen, you’re not getting physical activity,” he admits, “and it can be hard to put away. Even if you’ve gone past the point of frustration, that stimulation can sometimes be hard to turn off.”

Finding a balance between an appropriate use of technology as an educational tool and an overreliance on screen time is something we’re constantly navigating. But considering the direction that the world is heading, we’ve determined that preparing our kids to be adept at utilizing screens and tech seems ultimately more helpful than harmful.

“The majority of our jobs are online now, and the majority of our work takes place in front of a screen,” reflects my husband. “So [espousing] this idea that we must always teach without a screen feels a bit antiquated. There’s a ton of useful information online. There’s no reason why you should not take advantage of that.”

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