Putting Dialogue over Devices Shapes Mind and Character

At GreatHearts, high school students have at the center of their day a two-hour Socratic conversation on works of great literature, philosophy, and history.

How does the current array of technology in schools fit with the ages-old aspiration of forming thoughtful and reflective young men and women who will strive for a greater good beyond themselves? If the first principle of education is to produce such individuals, how does educational technology support or deter from this purpose? How should today’s teachers and education leaders approach the issue of “screen time” in the classroom?

Of course, learning has always been entwined with technology, and it always will be. From the papyrus scroll, to Gutenberg’s breakthrough printing press with movable type, to the newspaper, radio, television, and now the Internet, there have been subsequent  dawns of a new information age. In this spirit, we don’t need a jeremiad on the teacher versus the computer or on how screens in schools mark the end of Western civilization. If deployed properly, ed-tech can be an effective support to good teaching and content: taking over many mundane tasks from the teacher, serving as a coach-tutor that assesses and responds to a student’s individual needs, and allowing teachers to share best practices and weave world-class expertise into lessons. As the learning scholars Frederick Hess and Bror Saxberg have clarified, schools and teachers that wisely use learning science to deploy tech in their classroom, as a craftsperson uses the right tool at the right time, have a real shot at enhancing student engagement and results.

What we need to question is not the technology but rather the assumptions behind its use. Some educators, viewing ed-tech as a “silver bullet,” indiscriminately toss it in front of today’s so-called digital natives, assuming that more gadgets equal more learning. The opposite may be true. According to a recent Education Week analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the shares of 4th- and 8th-grade students using computers for math instruction grew rapidly from 2009 to 2015. But the increased access has not led to “better” use, which the authors define as “activities that require critical thinking, such as making charts and graphs.” Instead, rote activities such as math drills and practice now occur more frequently, and “the gap between active and passive use has grown over time.”

As we sober up from the tech-infused party of the past 20 years, we should think about what should come first in our schools: shaping not just our students’ ability to persevere and solve difficult problems but also their character—their empathic connection with others, their capacity to see our shared humanity, and their ability to problem solve with others for a common good. I believe this is the ultimate project of schooling in our democracy, and the misapplication of ed-tech will put it at risk. In a time of increasing political and economic polarization, we need conversation, empathy, and character woven into our public life. Schools are uniquely suited to fostering such abilities and qualities.

Conversation and Community 

Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix and a savvy education reformer, has talked about how software is best at teaching “subjects with correct answers,” and not so good, at least not yet, at clarifying subjects that require interpretation—helping us understand an Emily Dickinson poem, grasp the multifaceted complexity of the Civil War, or appreciate the nuances of a mathematical proof. Googling can tell you billions of facts, and adaptive software can coach you to shore up your gaps in algebraic skills, but it is in conversation and community that we wrestle with the real questions of humanity. What does it mean to be a human being? What is justice? Add to that the perennial moral questions we should ponder in our early years, such as what is my duty to myself, my family, my friends?

We have created the conditions in which our students have limitless access to information but limited capacity to organize, analyze, and understand it. The scarce quality among our children today is not intelligence but rather the ability to deliberate carefully, to see the multiple sides of an issue, and then to exercise sound judgment according to grounded values and proper ends. We sometimes call this capacity critical thinking, but when it’s aligned to first principles (read: basic philosophical truths), the ancients called it wisdom.

Socrates put it another way: “Wisdom begins in wonder.” In the context of schooling, we must develop in our students the ability to step outside their own perspectives. They must be able to “de-self” in order to mature. As Aristotle observed, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” This goes beyond critical thinking to heroic listening and rigorous empathy. In the study of literature, history, ethics, science, and the arts, we can convert our classrooms into mini-republics that reveal the best of human nature as we study it.

Can’t this conversation and community be “virtual”? Don’t social media serve as the new public square?

My response is to answer how Socrates would, with another question: can one parent virtually? Most of us would agree that good parenting requires direct human interaction. So, too, does education.

Building on the work of the sociologist James Davison Hunter, the New York Times columnist David Brooks talks about morally “thick” versus “thin” institutions.    “A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul. So thick institutions have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet face to face on a regular basis, like a dinner table or a packed gym or assembly hall. . . . Thin organizations are more anonymous, ephemeral, transient, and transactional, while thick organizations think in terms of virtue and vice.”

The best schools have qualities in common with an extended family, a traveling sports team, or a military platoon. They are thick communities, where students and teachers celebrate and suffer together; where you know when someone is having a bad day and ask what you can do to help; where in the classroom adventure and risk, cheers, and even embarrassment are experienced directly; where the wrinkle of a brow and what is not said mean just as much as what is spoken; and where disagreement can squat in the room like the elephant it usually is and not be mouse-clicked away.

Screens in Context

At GreatHearts, the classical charter-school network I cofounded, we are certainly not against technology. We just believe in putting reflection and conversation first. Our high school students have at the center of their day a two-hour Socratic conversation on works of great literature, philosophy, and history. What’s more, teachers deploy Socratic pedagogy in all subjects, from music to physics. Students have periods of time away from their smartphones and tablets during the day, and first engage with one another and the subject matter, to think, to laugh, and even, sometimes, to be bored and figure out what they are going to do about it. They are asked to leave behind the neurochemical high of skimming, surfing, texting, and Snapchatting, and engage the frontal lobes of their brains, the executive functions of deep reading, intuiting first principles, problem solving, and recognizing the inherent value of the human beings in front of them.

And technology, when it is working well in the classroom, has a similar end. It draws us closer to the mystery and beauty of reality, as when an electron-microscope feed reveals the structure of a plant cell to a whole class at once (an aha moment on steroids), or when we watch the world’s foremost geologist explain how volcanoes work, using high-def eruption footage to illustrate the talk. These tools and content, when used at the right moment for the right end, enable breakthrough epiphanies for students that stoke further conversation and questions.

Too often, however, the Internet and other digital technologies mainly serve to distract and numb us. Nicholas Carr, citing the science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow, calls them “an ecosystem of interruption technologies.” In this light, an essential skill we can impart to our students is to recognize the difference between their digital experiences and other forms of knowing. The point is not to cordon students off from technology—that would be foolish—but to teach students how to go back and forth thoughtfully between various media and understand the costs and benefits of each. The student’s job here is to cultivate the prudence to know when a digital experience can enhance, continue, or make possible interactions that would otherwise be forestalled, and, conversely, to know when a medium is being asked to do more than it should. For instance, students might use digital resources to conduct research and prepare for in-person conversations, then follow up on these dialogues with a class blog where they offer clarifications, share their writing, and develop seminar questions for the next convening. And coherent programs can be well supported by online learning and even some stand-alone online courses. “The development of a well-rounded mind,” Carr posits, “requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection.”

The MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle writes in Reclaiming Conversation that the new mediated life of unreflective turning to screens has gotten us into trouble. “Research shows that those who use social media the most have difficulty reading human emotions, including their own.” Screens offer the “illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy.” However, Turkle goes on to say, “the same research gives cause for optimism. We are resilient. Face-to-face conversation leads to greater self-esteem and an improved ability to deal with others.”

Accordingly, we need to create in-person, digital-free circles for conversation, at least until the digital realm shows us it can offer an authentic space for such exchanges. In these conversations, students can seek first to understand the perceptions and premises of classmates; to ask clarifying questions before making assertions; and to then assert from first principles, acknowledge ambiguity, respect others in disagreement, live at times in doubt, and allow multiple interpretations to exist even when convictions are confirmed. This unsettling process forms gentlemen and gentlewomen who have a capacity to govern themselves and others.

Great schools are the crossroads of the human condition. They are messy and vulnerable places where you are known by and know the other and which cannot be relegated to the ash heap of efficiency. And we who seek to bring classical education back to public life argue that at the table of these conversations should be what G. K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead,” the great ideas and authors of the past. At GreatHearts, our students’ fresh thoughts and voices are brought into dialogue with forefathers and foremothers who wrestled with the same enduring human questions that face us today. It is a joy to see students escape the tyranny of the present and their own very real and pressing concerns to ponder the permanent aspects of the human condition, both good and bad, and to grapple with what has been, what is, and what might be possible.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said in his commencement address at MIT this spring: “I’m more concerned about people thinking like computers, without values or compassion or concern for the consequences. . . . That is what we need you to help us guard against. Because if science is a search in the darkness, then the humanities are a candle that shows us where we have been and the danger that lies ahead.”

I hope that we can soon find a new path forward, a synthesis between the digital and the conversational. It will be this next generation of students, philosopher kings and queens, to borrow a conceit from Plato, who will solve for what is authentically human amid the conditions they did not create.

This is part of a forum on screen time in school. For an alternate take, see “The Problem Is Wasted Time, not Screen Time,” by Tom Vander Ark.

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Scoggin, D., and Vander Ark, T. (2018). Should We Limit “Screen Time” in School? Education Next, 18(1), 54-63.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College