Tackling the digital dilemma in schools
or, re-thinking the role of technology in the classroom with Amy Tyson from Everyschool
A Cup of Ambition is a weekly, reader-supported newsletter filled with thought-provoking essays, interviews, links, and reflections on all things related to working motherhood. If you’re new here, I hope you’ll subscribe by clicking on the button below. If you are a regular reader, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription to support my work.
I’m excited to share another great interview with you this week. Today, I spoke with Amy Tyson, the co-founder and Deputy Director of Everyschool, a nonprofit organization focused on promoting digital wellness and research-based classroom tech use. Previously, Amy worked in the mental health field as a school social worker and a child/adolescent psychotherapist. She also happens to be one of my dearest friends for the past 17+ years.
Amy founded Everyschool in 2019, along with Blythe Winslow, a college writing instructor and small business owner. The organization has quickly become a leading resource in the realm of digital wellness. She currently lives in Cincinnati, OH with her husband and four children, ages 8, 6, 4, and 1.
JW: Tell us about Everyschool and what inspired you to start it.
AT: My oldest child was in his last year of preschool in 2018 as I started hearing rumblings about too much tech in our District, especially for young children. Things like iPad games at recess and iPads out on every desk to be used after “regular work” was complete. After a decade in the mental health field, primarily as a therapist for children and adolescents, alarm bells were going off in my head. Even still, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t resisting something just because it was unfamiliar.
I did what I do about everything in my life—threw myself into the research. Over that next year, I read hundreds of scholarly articles, many books, spoke with several experts, and came to the conclusion that we had fallen far off course from what the data actually supports with technology in education, and what, in fact, harms. But, the research was heavy and hard to convey. I wanted to help.
Using the research we had poured over, my business partner, Blythe Winslow, and I created The EdTech Triangle, the first research-based model of healthy classroom tech use. It’s a picture model of what EdTech research shows helps and harms student learning and well-being. It’s open source, and we welcome any educator or administrator to download a free copy on our website.
We then created Everyschool.org as the nonprofit engine to spread digital wellness and healthy tech use to every school, with the EdTech Triangle as our first educator’s resource.
JW: The use of screens in schools is a relatively new phenomenon. Can you walk us through what research is telling us about their impact on kids and learning outcomes?
AT: I think it’s first important to say that educators have been so excited about screens in schools because technology feels innovative, exciting, and engaging. No administrator or teacher wants to feel left behind or out-of-date. However, the data thus far truly does show that screens are not necessary for academic success. Moreover, technology in education can actually be detrimental to learning in some situations, while transformative in others.
Screens are often billed as a “neutral learning tool” but the data is clear that they are not. The research is really specific on certain types of tech use and how they just aren’t as powerful as their traditional counterparts. For example, taken as a whole, the data show that reading printed texts allow for better comprehension, retention, higher test scores, and even more enjoyment than electronic texts for all readers. When you look at our Nation’s Report Card and how American students fare with their reading scores currently, that’s something that every educator should consider when creating a lesson plan. And, when you look at studies that compare screen use in Language Arts classrooms, the macro data bear the same conclusions. That’s just one example of a research pattern that teachers should know about.
Moreover, according to the data patterns, when you replace a traditional teaching method, that form of technology is usually not as powerful as it is when you’re learning the technology as a unique skill upon itself. Technology as a filler, a substitution, or as a proxy for engagement, will result in less positive outcomes than when used in truly transformative ways.
That said, technology is truly transformative when using it allows the learner to produce a completely unique outcome or develop a high-level skill. Think coding, robotics, website design, music editing, or special apps or platforms that assist students with special needs. Those are the types of tech that schools should embrace!
JW: Tell us about The EdTech Triangle and how you intend schools and teachers to use it.
The EdTech Triangle (see the complete version here) was created to be a simple filter for teachers to quickly determine how they can best use technology in the classroom to fuel learning and well-being, according to research. We know teachers are in the driver’s seat. We just want to provide them with a research-based foundation to work from. And so, we synthesized research in the fields of child development, EdTech, and teaching and learning to inform the creation of The EdTech Triangle.
Educators have enough on their plates, and the world of EdTech is so vast and has deep pockets. Teachers and administrators are often getting one-sided information from biased sources (such as the device manufacturers or app developers) which is problematic for many reasons. We wanted to be the go-to source for unbiased information on how to better fuel learning while navigating all the EdTech options available.
The EdTech Triangle can be used as a classroom model for one teacher or as a model for an entire District, which we think is pretty amazing.
JWL Are there other concrete policies or best practices that you recommend schools adopt? And how can parents best advocate for these?
AT: We sum up best practices with the acronym REACH:
Remove weak tech: Work to eliminate or limit tech use that disrupts or restricts learning as shown by research. How do you know what’s weak? Consult the bottom two categories in our EdTech Triangle.
Embrace powerful tech: Lean in to technology that supports learning in helpful ways or produces unique outcomes (that’s the top two categories in our Triangle).
Accept the digital dilemma: Students truly struggle today with habitual tech use that is all linked to negative mental and physical health outcomes such as lack of focus, obesity, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, poor academic outcomes, and more. Educators need to meet kids where they’re at on this issue, which means accepting that there really are great ways to use tech, but many can be harmful (whether in or outside of the classroom). Digital citizenship, digital wellness resources, thoughtful implementation of technology in schools, a policy that eliminates or restricts cell phone use during class times, and screen-free or minimal screen homework are all important pieces to reducing the potential negative effects of an abundance of technology in daily life.
Create a tech plan: Every school should have a clear and comprehensive written technology plan taught to staff and available to parents. It should include many things, but most importantly an overarching philosophy on technology, policies on cell phones, and it should provide transparency for parents so they know how technology is being implemented in the classroom.
Honor human connection: No matter what topic you read about—academic success, student engagement, behavior, loneliness, depression, empathy, belonging—the common denominator in all of these is human connection. Face-to-face connection with teachers and peers is absolutely vital to academic engagement and social and emotional health, and if technology is displacing that human connection, it needs to be reevaluated.
As for what parents can do, keep talking about healthy tech use if it's important to you! You might also consider starting a Parents of Everyschool (POE) support group if you’d like solutions and community surrounding tech use in your family and home life (this is a new initiative that is taking off!).
JW: Tell us about the concept of digital wellness and how parents can foster it.
AT: We define digital wellness as an intentional state of engagement with the digital world that does not interfere—but instead supports—mental, physical, and social health. Parents can foster this by making sure technology doesn’t displace the most important aspects of raising children: social time with caregivers or peers, play and imaginative play, outdoor activities, independent work (chores, homework), and literacy-based activities (coined S.P.O.I.L. by Dr. Meghan Owenz). Having technology be a part of your child’s life isn’t inherently “bad.” Our job is to make sure technology isn’t displacing the pieces that make up a healthy childhood and adolescence, both at home and at school.
Favorite screen-free activity to do with your kids? Anything movement related outdoors—going on a bike ride, hike, pool, walk, puddle hunt, skiing, etc. I like to move with my kids!
Something you read recently and enjoyed? I recently re-read Collapse of Parenting by Dr. Leonard Sax and was reminded why it is the parenting book I recommend the most. So good! Its hard to put down. Fiction-wise, my “beach read” recently was Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid and it was a delightful, easy read!
Most influential educator in your own life? My piano teacher growing up. She cared about me deeply as a person, always showed me unconditional positive regard, and I wanted to be a better pianist and person because of her. I played in college and beyond, and was a piano teacher myself for years, mostly due to her influence!
I want to cover what’s important to YOU. I welcome reader input in deciding what and who to write about. Email me at drjessicawilen [at] gmail [dot] com and put “newsletter idea” in the subject.