For about a month in the spring of 2013, I spent my mornings at Lakeside School, a private school in Seattle whose students are the scions of the Pacific Northwest elite. The beautiful red-brick campus looks like an Ivy League college and costs almost as much to attend. The school boasts Bill Gates among its alumni, and its students come from the families of Amazon and Microsoft executives. Unsurprisingly, there is no dearth of technology: Teachers post assignments on the school’s intranet; classes communicate by email; and every student carries a laptop (required) and a smartphone (not).
In this context, what do parents do when they think their children need an extra boost? I was there as a substitute tutor for students spanning the academic spectrum. A few of them were taking honors calculus. They were diligent but wanted a sounding board as they worked on tough problems. Others, weighed down by intensive extracurricular activities, struggled in geometry and algebra. I would review material with them and offer pointers as they did assignments. Yet another group required no substantive help at all. They just needed some prodding to finish their homework on time. Despite their differences, the students had one thing in common: What their parents were paying for was extra adult supervision.
All of the content I tutored is available on math websites and in free Khan Academy videos, and every student had round-the-clock Internet access. But even with all that technology, and even at a school with a luxurious 9:1 student-teacher ratio, what their parents wanted for their kids was more adult guidance.
Lakeside parents are not unusual in their valuing of quality time with adults over technology. Other well-educated professionals agree. Silicon Valley executives send their children to Waldorf schools, where electronics are banned until the eighth grade. Steve Jobs once admitted that he didn’t give his children iPads: “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
These parents aren’t anti-technology—at work, they tend to be exuberant digital evangelists—but they apparently don’t believe that more machines in and of themselves contribute to education. What is it that they know?