Writings on the people, programs and philosophies behind BSS.

Leading the Way

Time to Power Down?


No matter how in touch with kids and culture adults are, there are still things that go on so unlike our own upbringings that they somehow feel wrong. I witnessed an argument between a 50-year-old man and his 17-year-old daughter recently – pretty typical of the heated discussions on this topic that many of us have had with our children at one time or another. He insisted that the only way to really work on a difficult problem was to use pencil and paper. She demurred, explaining that problems could be equally well solved on a screen. The disagreement was never resolved – just heads shaken in disbelief at the other’s complete lack of understanding.

As reliant as many of us adults are on our smart phones and computers, it’s still hard not to be a bit alarmed at how connected our children are to technology. Not only is technology pervasive, but we are bombarded with the negatives about it – cyber bullying, online predators, children posting inappropriate pictures and videos, addiction – not to mention the concern that kids are spending less time playing outdoors, exercising and reading books.

As if that weren’t enough, in the autumn issue of The American Scholar, Paul Roberts writes of the perils of instant gratification – the ability, thanks to technology – to live in a world where you can get almost anything you want in a heartbeat. “In everything from relationships to politics to business, the emerging norms and expectations of our self-centred culture are making it steadily harder to behave in thoughtful, civic, social ways,” he writes. “We’re uncomfortable with people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us.”

As Mary Anne Van Acker, Assistant Head, Technology and Innovation at BSS, points out, it is an issue that people around the world are grappling with: the appropriate use of what are very useful tools. “Our goal is always to use technology in a way that meets the learning goals of the students,” she explains. Teachers work with Technology Integration Specialists at the planning stages of an activity or project to determine how technology can best be used throughout. But Ms. Van Acker adds, teachers also use technology simply because it works well, it’s effective and it extends the engagementof the students.

In Grades 5 through 8, parents have the choice of whether or not to let their daughters bring in Apple devices for use in the class. The school introduced this to the younger students as a way of addressing teachers’ concerns about laptops that moved around between classes on carts and which took 10 to 15 minutes of class time to set up. “We’ve given parents a choice and it’s not mandatory,” says Ms. Van Acker, “but we do find there’s a huge benefit in girls having their own devices and bringing them between home and school. It’s much more effective and efficient for students – they know where things are, they’re more organized, connected to their work and to other students, and engaged.” By Grade 9, every student uses an Apple device in class.

All students receive a variety of educational strategies about appropriate, acceptable and balanced use of technology. In special sessions teachers and integrators discuss safety, privacy settings and what is expected in terms of technology use of both students and teachers. Then there are touchpoints through the year – a speaker on bullying or a discussion about sleep and not having technology with you at night. In addition, older girls work with younger students about these kinds of issues in formal presentations in the Junior School.

At BSS, teachers come up with norms for technology use for each of their classes. But they all prohibit the use of cellphones, which, as Ms. Van Acker notes, “are definitely distracting and problematic.” Teachers also recognize that when laptops are open in class, girls may be flipping between work pages and non-school-related sites so another norm is “lids down,” adds Ms. Van Acker. “That’s one of the goals of the integrators in IT, to help teachers create technology-based activities or projects that are engaging, that minimize the opportunities to be distracted.”

Ms. Van Acker and Jan Sullivan, Vice Principal of Student Life, attended a conference in Boston recently during which experts discussed “using brain science to engage attention in a distracted world.” The dilemma, of course, is that the distraction of technology can be detrimental to students’ learning and yet we’re dependent on technology. One speaker, clinical psychologist and school consultant Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, raised an interesting point
about how important it is for parents to model appropriate use of technology at home. Some of the steps she believed families could take: getting up earlier than the children to check email so parents can be focussed on the children when they get up; driving time is no-screen/phone time for everyone in the car; no technology at the dinner table, among other suggestions.

In the meantime, Ms. Van Acker and Ms. Sullivan have regular conversations with each other and with the girls, reinforcing both the effects and best uses of technology. And there are so many benefits to using technology and developing skills that not using it at school is simply not the answer. “We’re too reliant on it for students to extend their thinking,” says Ms. Sullivan. “Textbooks are online now; students are connecting with classrooms in Africa, in the Far North. They’re accessing resources from all the universities, not just what’s in the library. They’re using it to extend their thinking. This is the world they live in. Our job is to continually monitor the research, trends and solutions and to be working with teacher and student to ensure successful and balanced use of technology in learning.”


By Nora Underwood

Nora Underwood is a freelance writer, editor and a past BSS parent