Why Schools’ Efforts to Block the Internet Are So Laughably Lame

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July 1 2014 11:49 PM

Why Schools’ Efforts to Block the Internet Are So Laughably Lame

And why it’s seriously important to keep students off Facebook.

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Is it possible to use Facebook and Twitter in educationally appropriate ways? Sure—but as technology and education specialist Michael Trucano points out, tech enthusiasts often focus on what’s possible to the exclusion of what’s predictable and what’s practical. What is predictable is that young people, given the chance, will use the Web for social and entertainment purposes; what’s practical is to remove that temptation during the school day. Even successful professional adults often need to tie themselves to the mast to get hard work done in the face of the Internet’s endless enticements: Novelists like Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith have said publicly that they use software that restricts their access to the Web while they’re writing.

Proponents of loosening school Internet filters often insist that educators have to “meet students where they arethat is, in a world utterly saturated by technology. Actually, that saturation is an argument in favor of tightening students’ access to tech, of supplying in their formal education what they are not getting in their digitally dominated “informal education.”

As UCLA professor Patricia Greenfield has written, “The informal learning environments of television, video games, and the Internet are producing learners with a new profile of cognitive skills. This profile features widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills, such as iconic representation and spatial visualization.” (By “iconic representation,” she means the ability to understand the symbolic meaning of pictorial images like the icons that dot our computer screens.)

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Greenfield continues: “Formal education must adapt to these changes, taking advantage of new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence and compensating for new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes: abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We need, says Greenfield, to help students “develop a complete profile of cognitive skills”—and doing so requires time away from screens.

Critics of school firewalls also claim that they create a contrived and artificial environment, ill-suited to preparing students for the “real world” beyond such barriers. But, of course, the purpose of school is to be just such a protected place, set off from the rest of society. We create special physical spaces and staff them with special people—teachers—in order to train young people to handle the untrammeled “real world” in a thoughtful way.

We also employ teachers to guide students’ attention to what is important, which is why the school librarians’ likening of blocked websites to banned books is in most cases absurd. A blocked social networking site is less like a censored text and more like a teacher who tells students to stop passing notes and focus on their work. When Internet-connected computers are passed out, educators must continue—indeed, redouble—such efforts to direct students’ attention in fruitful, productive ways. This crucial responsibility should not be handed over to IT staff or school district lawyers—or worse, to software manufacturers who’ve never met a school’s faculty or students.

Internet filters are one conduit, albeit an imperfect one, through which educators convey their sense of what is meaningful and valuable to know. They represent a series of judgments and decisions, which ought to be made (though often are not) in a communal fashion. Teachers and administrators together should give careful thought to what is let inside the school walls and what is kept out, to what they view as enlightening and what they deem ephemeral. These choices should be integrated into a curriculum that instructs students on how to engage safely and effectively with the Internet, on how “to use the filters sitting on their shoulders,” as Web expert Nancy Willard puts it. And, finally, schools’ Web controls must be at least as smart as the most mischievous members of the student body—so that educators’ considered choices aren’t undone in a moment by ingenious but still undeveloped kids.

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Annie Murphy Paul is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.

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