On the other hand, child development experts say children are developing shorter attention spans and multi-tasking too much online — habits that will become more ingrained over time. Technology is changing the way kids learn, too; ideas aren’t as original when cobbled together through Google searches and recycled from opinion blogs, teachers at Waldorf say. And students are increasingly skipping over basic disciplines such as spelling and handwriting — practices that have diminished in importance in the workplace but are still key to wiring the young brain, some child-development experts say.
In February, the Education Department , along with the Federal Communications Commission, called for all American classrooms to adopt digital textbooks by 2017. The goal was inspired by South Korea — which is now rethinking the merits of the online books over paper textbooks.
“I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game,” President Obama said last year while touring a tech-focused Boston school.
At the same time, the department has found that past investments in educational technology have not paid off. In a 2009 report, it found that students who used math and reading software over a one-year period scored the same on tests as peers who did not use the programs.
The two Ninas
The contrasting approaches on technology show a sharp dividing line between the two suburban Washington schools — and the two Ninas’ families.
Otherwise, the girls would find much in common. They are fans of Adele’s moody ballads and the book “The Hunger Games.” They are svelte and athletic but haven’t outgrown pinks and pastels. They are thoughtful and observant students; they won’t be the first to speak up in class but aren’t afraid to express their views.
But by 8 a.m., when they enter the front doors of their schools, one has had access to a dizzying array of devices while the other’s exposure is limited to the car radio. Flint Hill’s Nina Jenkins, 11, has a cellphone and laptop. In her Alexandria home on an acre of forested land, Nina also shares a family computer, Wii and XBox game consoles, and a Kindle Fire tablet. It’s a lot, her parents admit. Nina once stayed up until 2 a.m. playing the social gaming app Words with Friends. At Nina’s 11th-birthday party, her mom confiscated cellphones because Nina and her friends were spending too much time texting.
“We are laid-back and trust our children,” Rebecca Jenkins said. “But there are definitely times when I have to stay on top of them.”
Monitoring screen time didn’t work for the Auslander-Padghams. Two years ago, on an unusually warm winter afternoon, Nina Auslander-Padgham and her younger brother were battling over the family laptop. They were irritable and moody. The sun was shining, and neither had stepped foot outside into their expansive Bethesda back yard, despite the trampoline and large wooden play set. It was an epiphany for her parents, Bonnie and Jon. All technology had to go.
Their decision has put them in the minority. Six in 10 children older than 9 own a cellphone, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Teens text 60 times a day and four in 10 use video chats, according to Pew. Kids 8 to 18 years old spend about 10.5 hours a day in front of a computer, television or mobile device, up from 7.5 hours a decade ago, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The Auslander-Padghams sometimes struggle to keep technology out of their kids’ lives. When Nina turned 12 in March, she begged for an iPhone, something many of her friends had already. Her parents compromised with a purple digital music player that doesn’t connect to the Internet.
“There is definitely leakage,” her father said. “We know we can’t resist forever.”
Both Ninas are on a track to succeed, if the academic performance of their schools is any measure.
Seniors at Washington Waldorf and Flint Hill score in the mid- to high 600s on each part of the SAT. They are going to elite colleges such as Stanford, Yale and the University of Virginia — which is not uncommon in the highly educated Washington region.
Flint Hill charges up to $31,000 for a year of high school, which is at the higher end of local private school tuitions. According to the school’s Web site, those fees come with the Apple laptop.
The school, which serves 1,100 students on two campuses totaling 50 acres, launched its emphasis on technology nearly a decade ago. Children are given a lot of independence, able to use their laptops to send e-mails or instant messages even when a teacher is lecturing.
Students in Schuster’s sixth-grade math class can re-watch lectures on their teacher’s YouTube channel. Test grades are immediately posted online for parents to see. Dictionaries are online. Card catalogs are long gone.