Unplugged Elementary Kids and Online Tests Don’t Mix

Published by — Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

Recently I was at a luncheon where a Mom and Grandma minded their two-year-old by plugging him into a propped-up iPad and putting food at his right hand.  He remained inert unless the iPad fell flat or snacks ran out.  But twice in the roughly two-plus hours his animal self erupted out of the e-prison.  Unexpressed energy thrashed his body until he could get out of the high chair to run, screaming at the top of his lungs, with the two women giving chase.  Both times his restlessness was sated after tearing around uncontrollably for a while, when he willingly returned to his addictions.  Guests shrugged it off because, after all, this is the new normal.

Only 20 years ago, teachers, me and others bemoaned the posture of children watching TV — passive, glazed-eyed, slumped.  Now we’re maddened by the behavior and the nano-second attention span of plugged-in children.  Doctors, among others, beg parents to limit “screen time.”  Children should have 2 or 3 hours of rough-and-tumble play every day, but they don’t get that.  Electronic sitters and sedatives are too convenient for the adults.

Increasingly, teachers and doctors see physical, psychological and behavioral disorders.  Heavy technology use is associated with epidemic levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, as well as soaring rates of ADHD, autism, developmental, physical and speech delays, learning difficulties, sensory-processing and sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.

The terrific Susan Linn calls the commercial world of electronics “mitigated reality.”  But young children need to download the software of real reality by getting out in it, falling down and going boom, discovering insects, making friends, mud pies and forts, exploring the neighborhood.  Currently a minority of families, usually well-educated, keeps their kids unplugged and learning the way biology built their brains to learn.

Don’t get me wrong:  Skype with Grandma is fine.  Assisted technologies for special-needs children and anything that gets squirmy children through a coast-to-coast flight are just fine.  But.

Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

By grade 5 or 6, children have had an actual childhood and are starting to bump up against puberty.  The pre-adolescent brain gains significantly increased capacity for abstraction and needs complex challenges.  Computer skills, including internet research and coding, can draw students back into the world of learning, just as young adolescents are asserting themselves and detaching from childhood ways.  There’s no downside to putting off computers, except the inconvenience to adults.

But elementary public schools have no choice but to plug kids in.  Third-graders must be ready to be successful on online standardized tests.  So little ones, kindergartners, prepare for computer-based tests from the moment the schools can get them started.  If schools don’t, the kids’ poor results will feed the naming-and-shaming frenzy that characterizes the education-industry’s punitive use of otherwise interesting data.

Since the passage of NCLB in 2002, annual online testing has become the new norm.  Students in grades 3-8 — and one grade in high school — have been tested with computer-based assessments every year since.  Now the fast on-coming Common Core tests, PARCC and Smarter Balance, will not just be online, but administered more often, with interim and so-called “formative” assessments.  While education leaders give lip service to “alternative assessments,” they don’t mean portfolios, writing samples, paper-pencil tests, or any way of assessing kids that doesn’t collect data via computer and score it electronically.

High-tech data collection made online testing seem essential.

Scoring the old paper-pencil, bubble-in tests was expensive, even with scanners and other machinery helping the process.  Prior to the 1990s, the norm was to give one basic-skills test in elementary, middle and high school.  Buzz generated by the release of the scores died down quickly and indifference set in.  Ultimately, the data weren’t very useful.  And without the data, the public had no idea how underserved certain kids were.  So no one, including me, wants to return to the days of zero information about the quality of the schools.  We want data, but not necessarily via kids on computers.

Families committed to keeping their elementary-age kids unplugged are forced to home-school or pay for private schools.  Not even charters offer an out because they have the same public-reporting accountability requirements as every other public school.

So who’s thinking this through?  If we don’t like the unteachable behavior of plugged in kids, what are we doing plugging kindergartners into online testing?  We can’t wag our fingers at parents and homes for delivering distracted, impulsive kids, and then plug them in at school for “educational” purposes.  The situation is a mess.

Technology is convenient.  Kids are not.  If we don’t slow down to pay attention to their needs, we’re going to raise a whole lot of young adults whom we don’t like and who aren’t good for much.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Digital Badges Bust Out of School-Defined Learning

Published by — “A badge is a verified, data-rich product, better than a resume.”

Damian Ewens sits in his snazzy office at BetaSpring, a Providence business incubator.  He’s mother hen to Achievery, a business that provides a platform for building “digital badge” systems.

And they are?  Well, they’re basically a high-tech version of Boy Scout badges, certifying that the young man sporting one of the iconic patches on his sash actually knows something about knot-tying, canoeing or cooking over a campfire.  The Scout manual explains what skills that badge certifies and the criteria for getting one.

Okay, but a “digital” badge?

Ewens takes his diploma, a Masters from Stanford University, opens the leather-like cover and starts swiping and touch-screening it the way you would an iPad.  “Stanford gives you accreditation.  But what you’ve got is a static piece of paper.”  With his fingers failing to get more information out of the diploma’s image, he says, “My daughters wouldn’t understand a static diploma.”  They’d be looking for the “About” or “Who we are” buttons to find out what the thing is.

While few would question the value of an M.Ed. from Stanford, in math no less, really, what does it mean?  Exactly?  Can he manage a classroom?  Teach algebra through computer coding?  Map lessons to the Common Core Standards?  We don’t know.  A digital badge might tell us.  We take the famous credential on faith, but badges give detailed backup to credentials with less name brand.  Furthermore, how does anyone verify valuable skills and knowledge that have nothing to do with schools?

Mozilla Corporation re-booted proficiency-based credentialing.

Ewens says that in the 1970s, educators struggled with how to reward academic competency and mastery, instead of seat time.  Today most high schools still hand out diplomas based on sticking it out and completing so-many Carnegie Units.  A “D” is passing.  No big competency there.

So after teaching high school in both California and Rhode Island, Ewens took over The Hub, a cool hang-out and alternative-learning center for high-school-age kids.  Its motto is:  “Learning happens anywhere, anytime.”  The Hub conscripts community partners — businesses, arts organizations, individuals — to act as mentors and internship sites so Hub kids can have “Expanded Learning Opportunities” (ELO).  Ewens needed to figure out how to arrange real high-school credits for these skills acquired out of school.  And even if a high school does grant credit, where does it go on a transcript?  What would a college make of it?

As  Ewens pondered his challenge, the Mozilla Corporation developed OpenBadges, an infrastructure for organizing what they call a badge “ecosystem.”  To populate what they hoped would be a diverse and ever-growing world of badges, they offered 30 grants to developers to make badges for specific purposes and to collaborate on creating the online universe to support them.

Two years ago Ewens landed one of those prized grants, launching him into a cyber-world that allowed him to marry real-world skills to a credentialing system that validate kids’ mastery and competencies.  Now he’s an entrepreneur building Achievery with a partner, Kerri Lemoie, a self-taught developer.

Ewens says, “The way we’ve structured school, there’s no bridge from there (to the real world).  The idea is to create an open global certification system that enables us to capture, enable and verify skills that happen anywhere.  If there were a digital badge that replicates any academic achievement, we could get away from the Ivory Tower.  A badge is a verified, data-rich product, better than a resume and endorsements from LinkedIn.  The person on the street can click the badge and see exactly what it certifies and what evidence backs it up.”

The anatomy of a badge

To qualify for display on Mozilla’s site, a badge needs certain specifics, which Achievery explains here.  An icon is essential, of course, but when the college or employer clicks it, they need to know what the badge means — its name, issue date, the party issuing it, the criteria for earning it, and so on.  Achievery works with clients to develop badge systems to capture employees’ trainings, workshops and achievements.  But Achievery also has a nifty do-it-yourself online kit that includes a free logo-maker.

Mozilla users can store badges in their own online backpack, effectively a hip, high-tech Boy Scout sash.  A 10 FAQ will get you going both if you want to issue badges or earn them as supplements to your education credentials.

Mozilla’s site emphasizes that it’s not an either/or — go to school or make your own education with badges.  Education is evolving, but right now it badly needs to bust out of its rigid 4 walls and 6-hour day as the only source of learning.  Schools can’t teach everything, nor should they try.

So if you’re applying to college and you’re an expert sailor, rapper or elder-care worker, those skills deserve to be credentialed, with a whole lot more punch than a mere self-reported list on an application or resume.

Especially for people who are highly talented but no good at school, badges are a godsend.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

, , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

Most Kids Way Ahead of Us as Digital Learners, for Better and Worse

Published by  —  Adults need to encourage kids to use the promise of technology to tackle tough problems — just like an adult would.

An Associated Press piece about the 14 million Americans who’ve been searching vainly for jobs profiled Jon, a warehouse worker unemployed since 2008. Apparently employers even in that seemingly-low-tech field want people with computer skills. Now 55 and a non-techie, Jon laments that employers should offer people like him training in those skills. But in this buyer’s market, why would they?

A lot of plucky 20-year-olds would just say: sure, I can do inventory software. They would surf the net, learn what they could, and show up day one asking how this particular company’s system works. They are born-and-raised digital learners. They have confidence where Jon does not.

Herein lies the new “digital divide.”

The old divide was between the haves and the have-nots. Computer access was a luxury of well-heeled families and school systems. Now, most kids at least carry a cell phone with text capabilities. The new divide is between those at home in cyberspace and those who struggle with e-mail.

This divide separates adults from kids.

Education-tech expert Angela Maiers makes this distinction: “The 21st century will not be defined by the volume or speed at which you consume information. (That was the old way of being smart.) It will be defined by how well you curate that information, translate it and contribute information back in a way that your community can understand it. Teaching students to be competent curators is our main responsibility as educators.”

Huh! That’s different.

Traditional teaching trains kids to consume information so they can regurgitate it correctly, mainly on tests. This is the old banking theory of education: teachers deposit knowledge in kids’ heads.

But tech-savvy people are in the habit of acquiring content and skills in all sorts of ways. Even if they’re learning how to rip off movies and music, kids learn most of their digital skills independently. And that independence is giving them overweaning confidence in their own powers. This is like kids knowing how to rope cattle, ride horses and set up camp away from home, while the adults are just catching on. The adults aren’t WITH them out in the e-Wild West.

Maiers says, “Digital learning is changing what it means to be a reader, writer, publisher, editor. The essence of learning is still literacy. We still teach kids to read for understanding, to write with clarity, to pull the big ideas out and to rally others around important ideas. But e-books allow you to highlight, comment, take notes, research the content, and share all that with others. So literacy is changing from linear and solo to dynamic and immersive.” (Meaning “shared”)

So teachers need to cohabit the cyber world to guide this new literacy. The key will be harnessing kids’ innate passion for freedom and self-direction.

For example: Maiers is a Twitter buddy with Mrs. Krebs, a 7th-grade teacher. One of Maier’s tweets got Krebs so excited about Daniel Pink’s idea of “genius time,” she set asidetime for her students to work on a problem of their own choosing. Maiers and Krebs created lists of questions to stimulate the kids’ thinking. ( In short, what would they like to make better, and how? Long before they finish a Ph.D. or M.D., go solve a big problem. Just head into it, kids, and see if you can make a contribution.

Cyberspace allows kids to practice doing adult work – to save the environment, investigate corruption, contribute to their communities. Krebs will be on hand to guide them, to steer them from unreliable sites, from using rude language, from unbalanced sources and thinking. Inevitably she’ll point some students to the math, science or whatever they might need to get serious about pursuing their project.

Maiers notes, “The best teacher is always experience. You can see (a skill) modeled or explained. But if you’re not playing the game, you’re not learning. At school, we’re not building students’ competence or confidence for their jobs in the future. When you train for sports, you train for agility, flexibility and precision. Precision is kicking the ball through the goal posts. The way you learn precision is by practicing it over and over again. But the champion is the one who knows WHEN to make that kick, when to move, to pause to shut down, to go forward.”

Students need guidance applying their skills, digital and otherwise, in the realish cyber world.

“If you want the kids to pay attention, give their attention something worthy of it. We ask kids to do the stupidest things. We need to think about what they could be doing with their genius. Because if you don’t secure their hearts, you don’t have a shot at their brains.”

I’m totally with that on so many fronts.

Finally, Maiers cautions, “Everyone has to learn how to enter the ocean, because a wrong move can drown you. The second you stop honoring the force of the ocean, you’re in danger.”

The e-Wild West can be very dangerous. Kids get addicted to games, meet strangers online, and bully with lethal weapons.

Digital learning is a force to be dealt with. We’re only just starting. Adults need to get out there WITH them.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

, , ,

1 Comment