In our Educators on EdTech series, we have conversations with education professionals about the way their school uses technology.
Arbor School is a nonprofit, independent K-8 school located on 21 acres of wooded farm land in Tualatin, Oregon. It educates nearly 200 children ages five to thirteen. Up until 2012, Arbor School intentionally allotted no money for technology. Now, there are a total of three computers on campus.
One cold February morning, I stopped by to talk with Kit Abel Hawkins, Arbor’s Founder and Director, and Will Hawkins, Director of Operations (who attended Arbor as a kid) about why Arbor School chooses to forgo technology in the classroom.
Kit Abel Hawkins:
The mission of the school is cultivating intellect, character, and creativity in a small school setting. We've made some decisions about how we think individuals can flourish and still be inside community, learn to function individually, as well as learn how to tend to other people by having small classes, mixed age groupings, and two teachers per classroom.
Constrained tuition, two teachers in every classroom, small classes, small school… so how do you marshal your resources to optimize what children need? We think its people, not machines. Because we think human beings tend to learn through relatively unmediated experiences, direct experiences. So, if you want to learn to bake bread, you can watch it on Khan Academy if you want, but if you go over to your Grandmother’s and she shows you how it feels and yes, it bounces back when you do this. You feel it, no, no, no, not quite yet, you’re an inexperienced kneader… you’ve gotta knead for 15 minutes, 10 isn’t enough…
Human beings learn best through unmediated experiences, direct experiences, direct observations. We think it’s particularly true for children who have just, by the time they get to school, really begun to marshal all the tools of language. So, we really try to offer relatively unmediated experiences, so that means that the children are outside, they are doing, they are doing real jobs, they’re encountering the real world, the real world comes into their classroom, on their knees, on their hands, and so on.
The tools that they’re offered are simple tools; they’re hand tools. It may be a shovel, it may be a saw, but the whole machine world, that’s not a lot of what we do. This doesn’t come from any Steiner-esque, Waldorfian, theosophical belief in anti-machine. We’re not Luddites. Not that at all. Just the way children mature into the culture requires them first to have control of the perspective of their hands.
The handmade is valued here, and relatively unmediated, so it’s a pretty direct observation, which is not to say we don’t have microscopes because of course we do, which is not to say we don’t have lenses. We take advantage of those things that are the tools that extend human perception. They’ll use a telescope, and those kinds of things, but it doesn’t predominate. It’s not the dominant form.
The attempt to understand how technology is grown through our culture is woven into every element of the curriculum, so they’re not just trying to have these unmediated experiences with 2x4s and saws, but it’s also the content of what they’re learning. How did we come to be the culture we are? Well, the wheel and the plow, and so on and so forth. That sort of historical thread is woven throughout the curriculum. That sort of an intellectual history is part of what is deep inside the planning for the curriculum.
: So how does that translate to their after school use? Do the students go home and have all their gadgets?
They have their gadgets, and they use their gadgets. And by the time they’re in the senior class… 6th, 7th, 8th graders… they use word processors to complete their papers... Not necessarily always…
One of the things we’ve done is try to centralize all the computing resources. We’ve tried to centralize all of those resources so people couldn’t just take their screens and you know, be autonomous. We tried to put it all in one place, so people still have to come together and sit next to one another while they’re working away.
They’re using this equipment well-supervised, also. Kids aren’t hacking around; we just don’t tolerate it. They’re in a situation where they’re observed constantly. They’ve got a job and off they go. The resources are limited because our finances are limited. We’ve chosen to invest in people. You can look all around, and you’ll see used everything. So we were very, very careful with our resources, so that’s another part of the decision.
So, then, they head out of here, and we keep track of our alums. We ask them: “How are you doing? Come back and talk to us. Tell us what transition points were difficult.” We just heard back from an alum who’s on the East Coast, now in his third tech startup, saying “Well, you know, it was all the problem solving, all the hands on, all the open-ended kinds of thinking that was constant in this school.”
So, I’d say we really work from an engineering/design-based recursive process... what I’m now naming Wonder. Act. Assess.
It doesn’t matter what discipline you do it in; you ask a question, you do something, you assess how you did, and you keep going. That process is built into every paper, every math problem, every science experiment, every woodworking project, everything. So it’s just deep inside the culture. It’s really deep in the DNA of the school.
And yes, we have children who have been fortunate in their households and they have some resources at home. So it’s not as though we’re depriving them of all access by not having it at school, so for other populations the calculus might have to be different.
Actually, that was going to be my very next question… If the students didn’t have access to technology at home, it might be detrimental for them to not have it at school.
The children mostly have access and it isn’t all fancy, but it’s not the kind of dire depravation that some children in America experience, and we understand that. But what is it that children in dire poverty need? Love, attention and talk. Not wi-fi. Books in the home.
The computer is not a magic bullet. It doesn’t fix the fact that you don’t have food on the table. It doesn’t fix the fact that no one’s talking to you. It doesn’t fix the fact that delayed gratification is not any part of what you’re learning. It’s quick stimulus response, and what needs to happen is to learn a little something about grit, to learn a little something about delayed gratification. The computer doesn’t offer that; it offers just the opposite. As a matter of fact, it’s counter-productive.
And how do people read? Going link to link to link, incredibly superficially, often not to the finish of an article. I mean, what do we know about people’s habits? We can track those. They’re not good. We’re trying to teach children to read in depth, so we have put a lot of resources into the library.
We still believe in the book. We believe in the authority of an author, the authority of an editor, the authority of a publisher, the authority of reviews. We’re presenting children with material that has gone through…
…the authority of a librarian, who knows children and can take their nascent interests and guide them to materials that really structure those interests in a thoughtful way.
So the Wild West of Wikipedia and find-anything-you-want-online doesn’t help children build a sense of authority. How can I value this, on what basis can I value this
… is harder [to discern]. Do they have to learn that? Yes. Are we offering [students] ways to do that? Yes, but not necessarily straight through the resources of the web.
Read more of our series Educators on EdTech: Brad Baugher from Oregon Episcopal School; Joe Morelock from Canby School District. And if you’re in the market for a charging solution, don’t miss our award-winning line of charging carts and cabinets.
Maggie Summers writes about educational technology, healthcare IT, and healthy living for Anthro Corporation, a leading designer and manufacturer of furniture for technology in Portland, OR.