Smartphones Can Make You Smarter, Israeli Teachers Admit

Cellphones are already ubiquitous in the classroom. Now some schools have begun to incorporate them into the learning process.

They ring by mistake in the depths of the school bag or vibrate on the table in the middle of a lesson. Their owners receive an important text message just as they’re starting a new chapter in Bible or solving an equation on the board. In the break they are liable to summon Mom to school, to scold a teacher who raised her voice a little. It’s no wonder that one of the things that most annoy teachers nowadays is the students’ cellphones.

Smartphones are altogether a menace. A student sits in a classroom. From the looks of it, he’s a model child. But actually he is present only physically. His soul is surfing ‏(and chatting‏) somewhere else. Far from here. A world full of stimuli in his palm, which is holding the silenced device under the table.

“A distraction,” is what a teacher disdainfully called cellphones this week. They are, apparently, a major threat too. Because nothing can compete with the attraction and interest the device holds for the students.

It’s no wonder that in the school system the natural tendency − since the cellular revolution began and most of the children were given mobile phones − has been to adopt various prohibitions. At first there was a sweeping prohibition against bringing them to school, but it soon became clear that this is a decree that the public ‏(the parents more than the children‏) could not abide by. And so what remains is only the prohibition against using the phones in classrooms.

Despite the inherent recoil, in several Tel Aviv, Zichron Yaakov and Petah Tikva schools they have recently begun to become friendly with these devices and use them for unusual assignments. In Petah Tikva this innovative project will even be used in all the city’s elementary schools. In these three cities the municipalities have adopted the Nidudim ‏(“Wanderings”‏) program, which integrates cellphones into the schools.

David Lachmish, an adviser on developing learning processes who developed the program, explains that “this is learning that does not take place in the classroom, wherever it may be, but is done in the surroundings outside the classroom and relates to all aspects of the place − physical, historical and more.”

In effect, the program belongs to the old-fashioned category that teachers love, called a “research project” − but fortunately this is not a final project but an activity that requires roaming around the urban environment in small groups of students ‏(under the guidance of an accompanying teacher, of course‏). During the activity they use a cellphone app developed by Lachmish to write content about the subject under study, post pictures and film clips, and share the information. All these activities, to the students’ delight, are based on a Facebook interface.

For example, students in Zichron Yaakov received an assignment at the end of last year on the subject of environmental quality. They were asked to find sites in the city related to trash and garbage removal. In order to locate these sites, some of the teachers instructed them to use a GPS or similar device.

Lachmish says that one characteristic of this type of study is learning to be critical. “The students have to point out failures in the city’s garbage management,” he explains. “The quality of the assignment is measured, for example, by whether in the end they will be able to look at it and reach conclusions, that there will be a discourse centered around what they have learned.”

A project in Petah Tikva is mapping various sites in the city: the municipal stadium, the park for fallen soldiers, etc. Students visited the sites, wrote a brief explanation about the place and developed activities related to it. One group, for example, also took note of the graffiti. Lachmish says that when the assignment is completed and all the sites are entered into the system, the municipality will place a sign with a bar code at each of them, and anyone who scans it will reach the content and pictures posted by the students.

The disturbing aspect of this is that the program ignores the economic gaps, because not all children have smartphones. Lachmish says that in future there will be a steady increase in learning of this type, and therefore schools will have to acquire tablets, at least. He says that the students are enthusiastic, noting the huge gap between the time it takes adults to learn the app and its natural use by school students. “When a professor and an archaeologist were asked to carry out the assignment, it took an hour and a half, whereas it takes a third-grader 10 minutes,” he says.

An anachronistic Israeli invention

This distinction incorporates the naked truth about the digital gap today between children and teenagers on the one hand, and adults on the other. The more we examine the way they live and experience the digital world, the more the question arises as to whether it is really possible to separate a boy from his iPhone or a girl from her tablet during school hours.

This is not an unrealistic question, but rather a weighty issue that educators together with experts on futurism in education are examining today. Dr. Asher Idan, an adviser on social networks, says that there has been a study showing that the mental effort required of a child when he surfs the net is greater than the effort required of him when he reads books. In other words, cognitive development is not dependent only on books. He compares the gap between technological development in children and the school system that hasn’t changed since the 19th century “to F-16 pilots who are tested on horses and buggies.”

In several schools in the United States, for example, they have reached the conclusion that there’s no point in fighting the students. And if they take these devices to school in any case, and are literally tied to them emotionally, why not take advantage of them? At issue are schools that had nothing to lose. They were unable to get a budget from the Department of Education to purchase computers. By using the students’ devices they in effect bypassed the educational bureaucracy and began using Google, social networks and various apps on the tablets and cellphones.

In Israel, using technology in education is a cumbersome issue for the most part, which does not take advantage of the students’ ability and interest. “The mistake being made is that every time there’s progress, they try to reproduce what used to be,” says Lachmish.

The school system is developing teleprocessing systems, trying to join the computer age, switching textbooks to an interactive format − but without any change in content and thinking. “What’s an e-book? It’s transferring a book to the computer. Afterward we’ll transfer it to the telephone. But the switch from books to computers and laptops is radical. It’s a change in concept,” explains Lachmish.

“Who’s heard of the word ‘teleprocessing’?” says Idan disdainfully.

Teleprocessing is an anachronistic Israeli invention designed to block the Internet. It has no flexibility. It’s impossible to turn off [the devices] in the classroom and to disconnect young people who have become accustomed to the interfaces of Google, iPhone and Facebook. We’re forcing them to ride an old horse. Because the conservative technocrats don’t want them to learn history critically, because via Wikipedia they’ll see that there are three versions of history: Hebrew, English and Arabic. They’ll be able to choose among the various versions. Nakba ‏(“catastrophe”‏) or liberation. Settlers or occupiers. And the students will open up to the wide world.”

Idan believes that one day this digital gap will lead to the collapse of the entire archaic school system. He says it will be a revolution without evolution. A big bang, as in Tahrir Square.

A computer or a decorative object

Meanwhile, there is a great deal of criticism, from both educators and high-tech people, about the excessive fascination with technology in education, which is not accompanied by a real change in concept. The enthusiasm about the new smart boards recalls the frenetic excitement that seized the schools in the 1990s, when the Education Ministry invested a fortune in computers, but within a short time they turned into decorative items in the classrooms. The teachers don’t always know how to operate apps and various devices, and by the time they learn the technology has become irrelevant.

The Amir school in Petah Tikva is an example of a school dealing with the computerized era in the most advanced way existing today in the school system. Among other things the school purchased 20 laptops this year, which will be moved from one classroom to another as necessary. The use of the smart tablets requires only that the teacher prepares the material well at home, says teacher Anat Ezra, to be ready with a disk-on-key. And teachers in school are tutored well in order not to make embarrassing mistakes, she remarks.

The students receive assignments on the school Website, which also has weekly programs, messages from the teacher to the students, a report on homework, sharing experiences. The bulk of learning is still completely ordinary learning.

According to Ezra, “The entire communication between the teacher and the student has changed. Today it’s an integral part of our conduct. The children have to log on three times a week, as do the teachers, but in fact they all do so much more often. Unquestionably, there’s something refreshing about the fact that teachers answer students during after-school hours. But the site is far less advanced in relation to what the children know. Communication via the site is far less fluent.”

How does she relate to the generational digital gap between students and teachers? “I’m not in competition with the children,” she says, simply. “They’re familiar with a narrow area of digital communication and games, and I expose them to software in technological environments that I think they’re unfamiliar with, and share it with them. I opened a Facebook account, but I’m not a friend of theirs on Facebook. There are limits.”

Lachmish says, “In the school system, somehow they always tend to talk first of all about the dangers existing on the Internet. That leads to withdrawal from technology. There’s a tremendous fear of Facebook, and the Education Ministry issues lots of regulations in order to halt the development of this trend. But if everyone is there it’s impossible to ignore that. It’s impossible to halt progress. I see it as a tremendous learning opportunity. Children today learn on a high level via games. They’ve acquired wonderful strategic tools, and teachers have to take this ability and exploit its advantages. Today there’s a disconnect between the world of learning and the child. The less alienation there is and the more the learning is done organically in his life, the better the learning. I believe that the students will drag the teachers after them.”