At most elementary schools, iPads and laptops abound. Children create PowerPoint presentations to showcase their work, and they search for sources online for research papers. But at Canterbury Christian School in Los Altos, laptops, tablets and cellphones are not welcome in the classroom.
The small elementary school of 90 students is distinctly religious: Each school day starts with a service, and each student memorizes a Bible verse each week. But what draws some Silicon Valley families to the school is that computers are left out of the classroom.
“It’s our selling point,” Headmaster Steve Macias said.
Kids who attend Canterbury can’t be totally isolated from technology, and that’s not the goal.
Macias said every family has a computer at home, and the oldest kids – sixth-graders – learn how to type and how to conduct online research. But for most of the students, most of the time, the classroom is free from humming electronics.
“Who are our parents? Who can afford to send their kids to school in Los Altos, California?” Macias asked. “It’s the people who live and work here, which are the folks who work in our tech companies.”
Yearly tuition at Canterbury is $7,000-$8,500 per child.
“Every major digital electronic tech company is represented in our parents here,” Macias said. “The thing that they work every day promoting and selling, they don’t want their children to touch.”
Blueprint for learning
Canterbury follows a philosophy of learning that says students learn in three stages – the grammar stage, the logic stage and the rhetoric stage. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade are in the grammar stage, according to Macias. He wants to provide them with the “blueprint for learning,” which means they focus on reading, writing and arithmetic. Repetition is key at Canterbury: Students repeat their times tables, phonemes and graphemes over and over until they are committed to memory.
Research shows that teaching students to read through phonics-based teaching works: In 2000, the National Reading Panel conducted a meta analysis of more than 100,000 peer-reviewed studies of literacy education and found that systematic and explicit phonics instruction helps kids learn to read.
“We’ve always been this way and we think it works, and our test scores show that,” Macias said.
Research on the use of technology in classrooms is fuzzier; “technology” is a broad word. There’s research that shows that certain digital educational games are effective, and certain ones aren’t. Taking notes by hand rather than on a computer makes material easier to remember, but that’s just one possible use of a computer.
Offline but on track
Bill Belew, parent of a fifth-grader at Canterbury and a physical education teacher there, said he’s not worried about his daughter falling behind her peers who are introduced to technology earlier.
“She’s going to be far ahead of them because she’s going to be able to make decisions off the device,” Belew said.
Macias said he’s not interested in teaching students the latest programs because those may have changed 10 times over by the time they graduate from college. He’s more interested in ensuring they’re competent readers.
“What’s not going to change, what’s going to be needed no matter what, are the liberal-arts skills,” he said. “The more time they spend introducing tech is the less time they have for basic fundamentals.”
Jessica Ho, parent of a 6-year-old who attends Canterbury, said she feels like there’s a time and place for technology, and that time isn’t yet for her daughter. Her husband works at Google, but she wants her daughter to grow up with limited technology until she’s ready for more.
“These are years where we feel like the primary focus ought to be on character development,” she said. “iPhones can’t teach you interpersonal relationships and can actually distract from them.”
Another private school in Los Altos with a different educational philosophy has taken a similar tack with regard to tech. Waldorf School of the Peninsula, which costs approximately $26,000 annually per student, doesn’t allow tablet or computer use for kids below seventh grade.
Waldorf schools promote creativity and individuality in their students. Unlike at Canterbury, where memorization is key, Waldorf students often learn through dance, storytelling and visual arts.
“Small children learn from their senses,” said Pierre Laurent, board president. “Working on a screen does not develop that connection.”
Waldorf encourages students to form an emotional connection to the material they’re learning, their peers and their teachers, and Laurent said the use of computers doesn’t encourage emotional connections.
“How do you make children who are creative? How do you make children who are compassionate? All of that doesn’t go through a screen,” he said.