The sixth-graders are lighting up the room with their MacBook Airs, flipped open to Google, Wikipedia and YouTube for a physics assignment. Their classroom is decked out with touch-screen whiteboards, tablets and powerful Wi-Fi connections able to handle a school full of children online at once.
“Cool!” Nina Jenkins says, opening links to websites that take her deeper into the study of acoustics. She's making a small drum by hand and will record herself playing it on iMovie. At the end, she'll write her reflections in 140 characters or less — in a tweet.
In the same week, about a dozen miles away, another set of sixth-graders is on a similar lesson. Only they are in a spare, birch-hued classroom that looks like a throwback to the Norman Rockwell era. There are no computers here. The only tools being used are spoons and forks tied together with purple yarn. The students listen to the clang of utensils change pitch as the yarn is shortened and lengthened. Nina Auslander-Padgham's eyes widen with the discovery, and she rushes back to her wooden desk to write her reflections on the blank pages of a red hardcover journal.
At these two Washington-area private schools, separated only by a 20-minute drive, the two Ninas may as well exist on different planets. They are growing up on opposite sides of a gaping educational divide formed not by the usual school fissures of economics and race. Theirs is a division wrought by technology.
The Flint Hill School in Oakton, Va., is ultra-wired. Teachers here believe technology immersion will make their students more excited about learning and better prepared for college and careers. So they've given each child a device — starting with an iPad for every preschooler and MacBook Airs starting in the fifth grade.
“Tech is like oxygen,” said Shannan Schuster, Flint Hill's dean of faculty. “It's all around us, so why wouldn't we try to get our children started early?”
The Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda, Md., is trying to stay unplugged. Its teachers think technology is a distraction and overhyped. They believe children are better taught through experiences in the school's vegetable garden and woodwork shop. Educators here fear that the immediate gratification of texts and Wikipedia threatens face-to-face communication and original thinking, so they ban cellphones, laptops and tablets and require students to hand-write papers until high school.
“What is the rush?” said Natalie Adams, Washington Waldorf's faculty chair. “There is a time and a place for technology, but children need to first relate to the physical world around them.”
The independent pre-K-to-12 schools are able to make such stark choices because of the flexibility their private boards and budgets allow them. And though they may represent the extremes, their experiences offer touchstones for parents and educators unsure about the promises of learning through technology for this ultra-connected generation.
How much does tech help?
Amid a sweeping fancy for mobile devices, Americans are wrestling to understand how technology is shaping their lives. And nowhere is that more evident than in the debate over how much we should expose our children to technology.
For parents, there are no definitive answers. Academic research seems to provide contradictory findings. And the federal government has barely begun to grapple with the effects of technology on children, even as it spends billions of dollars to bring broadband Internet to schools and libraries, and offers big tax breaks for educational software and gadgets by Apple and Microsoft.
“We have to stop and think if we are embracing technology just because it is there and new or if it is the best tool for what we want to accomplish,” said Michael Rich, director of the Center on Child Media and Health at Harvard University. “Sometimes the answer is that an iPad is great, but does it really do a better job than a hunk of clay or paper?”
Recent studies show children are being exposed to far more media than any previous generation, largely because of the explosion of smartphones and tablets in the home.
But is this healthy for their development?
Some research shows that software programs such as smartphone applications help improve kids' vocabulary and math. Children ages 3 to 7 who used an app called Martha Speaks increased their vocabulary by as much as 31 percent in two weeks, according to a 2010 study commissioned by PBS. Some educators say technology allows them to personalize teaching plans and offer free online tutoring, a way to break free from cookie-cutter lessons that don't resonate with every student.
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 Barack 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.
Opposite approaches, similar results
The contrasting approaches on technology show a sharp dividing line between the two suburban Washington schools — and the two Ninas' families.
Flint Hill's Nina Jenkins, 11, has a cellphone and laptop. At home, she shares a family computer, Wii and Xbox game consoles, and a Kindle Fire tablet. She says she can't remember the last time she wrote more than two paragraphs by hand.
Nina Auslander-Padgham, meanwhile, said she was annoyed at first with her family's aversion to technology.
“Now I'm used to it and find other things to do,” she said.
Those other things include lots of reading and more time on the violin, her parents say.
Both Ninas are on a track to succeed.