Smart Technology


Towards the end of a recent meeting a parent asked me “What’s your view on technology?” I replied, “I like technology where it helps teachers or children, but I don’t fetishize it for its own sake.”

Technology empowers teachers to use movies, music and pictures (easily) to illustrate lessons in history, art and other topics in ways that were unthinkable just 15 years ago. As kids get older the research they can do in the Internet is leaps and bounds easier than what we grew up, hauling down to the local library to flip though card catalogs. And for our operations I obviously want to see ICS use smart technology to communicate effectively with our staff and parents, and minimize the repetitive low value-added tasks so many school administrators face.

The Internet Doesn't Change Everything 

But technology doesn’t change the fact that children need background knowledge to think critically. Unlike TEDx Prize winner Sugata Mitra I don’t think that because kids can look up anything on the Internet, knowing “stuff’ doesn't matter.  My own view (and that of ICS Senior Advisor Dan Willingham) is closer to that another school founder, who wrote:

While the facts themselves are easy to get, the fluency you develop by working with them in deliberate practice is not. So knowing how to add quickly because you have done it for 80 hours in second grade means that your brain can do it automatically and you can think about more sophisticated applications of your skill. Deliberate practice gets you to fluency much faster than learning the skill in the context of larger problem solving. Kids need to develop both skill fluency and problem solving ability to have a chance in the 21st century.

Developing math fact fluency is one area where a number of experts, including ICS Board Member Jennifer Stillman, think technology is a promising aide. My own kids used a program called Timez Attack to help master their multiplication tables last year.


We’re looking closely at a program called ST Math that would complement (not replace) teacher-led math instruction at ICS.  (And what child won’t love working with a penguin named Gigi?)

But technology doesn't change my belief in the importance of free play, recess, gardening and Yoga, or exposure to art and music.  Discoveries our children will make on their own, when they start to apply what they’ve heard and read about to real life, learning to get along with their classmates in building a block structure, are just as central to their personal and academic growth.

Showing children how to draw and illustrate by hand, or to organize their thoughts coherently on paper is probably better than having them make PowerPoint slide shows.  Excel can certainly help older students to calculate quickly, but it doesn’t replace fact fluency. Typing an essay on a keyboard can help children – especially those with poor handwriting – to express themselves more clearly. But teachers still need to support kids as they develop those thoughts.

Talk to the Teachers

One way to ensure technology works well is to engage our teachers in deciding what we will use and where we will use it.  Last year at my youngest daughter’s school the administration got excited about a tablet computer program for social studies and foreign language class. While they worked with a group of high quality outside partners, no one bothered to ask the classroom teachers if they thought the technology would help.  Is it a surprise that six months in, reviews of its impact are mixed, at best?

The editor of the New York Times Children’s Book Review had an interesting take on technology and education last week. “In classrooms, apps may supplement traditional lessons in handwriting, letter recognition and math drills,” she writes. But, she continues, “I’d rather my children played games on my iPhone while waiting for the subway to school than do multiplication tables to a beep-driven soundtrack. Then, once they’re in the classroom, they can challenge themselves. Deliberate practice of less-than-exhilarating rote work isn’t necessarily fun but they need to get used to it — and learn to derive from it meaningful reward, a pleasure far greater than the record high score.”