Monday, February 20, 2012

To Touch or To Hold: What We Gain and Lose by Using iPads in Day Schools

(Cross-posted on The AVI CHAI Foundation blog)

By: Michael Berger

We all knew it was coming.  Technology is making its way into day schools – like all disruptive innovation, it appears initially in a small number of schools, and within a relatively short time, it’s mainstream.

Julie Weiner’s balanced article on iPad use in Jewish day schools highlighted that we may be observing the emergence of a revolution.  Was this what the move from hand-copied scrolls to printed books was like in the late 15th century? Did educators then sense that, to use Lisa Colton’s phrasing, a technological invention was becoming a societal innovation?

As someone who grew up in the day school of the 1970s, I recall the experience of “looking things up,” whether in encyclopedias, large Judaic volumes (Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud) or dictionaries and concordances.  Learning to use these texts required skills of _navigation_, honed by repeated use.  Of course, which navigation skills were needed depended on the sort of text.  Some were basically alphabetic, but required knowledge of grammar and identifying a word’s root – and also spotting other uses of that word.  Other texts, like encyclopedias, involved an additional element of thematic classification before pulling out the volume – “under what heading or topic would you likely find X?”  That was an intellectual exercise in organizing information and knowledge, realizing that this or that fact actually fit into a larger framework, which may or may not have been in my current “database.”  And finally, some texts required a sequential or chronological navigation – where would one likely find the story of Ishmael, or of the manna falling?  Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom or the story of Esther?  These searches meant developing and committing to memory a larger storyline or order of books in which to place Biblical references, legal rulings (such as in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah or Karo’s Shulchan Arukh), or Talmudic discussions.  etc.

All this searching was accompanied by a tactile and visual experience – holding large volumes, opening them up to early, middle, or later sections, leafing through them to spot key words or chapter numbers, and on occasion going back to the shelf to pull out another reference source that could help in my frustrated search to locate a passage or word.

According to several brain scientists, recent studies show how these activities help deepen the channels in the brain that make for lasting organization of the material, the creation of associations, and easier retrieval at some future date.  In other words, learning is not merely access to information, but a process closer to internalization than acquisition.

Looking back, these frameworks for remembering many things also became a source of potential creativity: with the associations established in the brain, one item or data point could lead to a host of others.  (Joshua Foer, author of “Moonwalking with Einstein” about memory, notes that both “inventory” and “invention” have the same Latin root – those with a large inventory of facts and ideas were the ones capable of inventing.)  None of us really knows what will happen as generations of students hit a few keys and up pops a source on a flat screen.  What sort of “mental scaffolding” are such students developing to organize the material they study? How do they process it, or make connections and associations when all they have to do is touch a screen and the device finishes their word for them and locates the original source?

I don’t see myself as a Luddite, nor am I advocating for keeping these advances out of schools.  But we must also acknowledge that most technological leaps forward alter our experience in profound ways, both positively and in some unexpected ways.  Technology no doubt helps many students get to the original sources, but it also robs the experience from its tactile dimensions and seems to sever those sources from their natural – and critically important – contexts.  If you’re an educator who’s used iPads in your classroom, especially for Judaics, please share what you did and how that affected students’ learning one way or the other.

Michael Berger
Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation

Click to see comments: The AVI CHAI Foundation blog

No comments: