The rush to digital devices in American classrooms is making students dumber every day. I was
reminded of this while re-organizing my desk drawer to find a secure place for my slide rule.
Many readers would respond: “You still use a slide rule? We’ve had digital devices with ‘log’ keys
And that is the point. For two decades now, most students come to college without the least idea
what a logarithmic scale does. They just punch the ‘log’ key on a calculator and accept the answer.
Only if students hold in their hands a logarithmic scale, where the distance from 1-to-10 equals the
next distance from 10-to-100 and the next from 100-to-1000 can they begin to understand logarithms.
Only by manipulating a slide rule can they come to understand that you can multiply by adding and
divide by subtracting. That learning comes as much by “feeling” the manipulations you make with the
slide rule as it does by any abstract words or text.
For a time in the 1990s, it appeared that we would lose another important experience: the circular
clockface with hands. Many time pieces on our wrists and on our walls are now digital, flashing their
square-block numbers. But enough analog clocks remain in our children’s environment that they still get
to learn the big hand is minutes and the little hand is for hours. It can help understand base 12. But the
most important lesson is that the clock hands move “clockwise.”
Take away the analog clockface and we take away our students’ only definition of clockwise.
Tornadoes rotate counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in Australia. But that
statement becomes absolutely meaningless if all of the clocks in a student’s experience are digital.
Then there is the lever. We may pry up a lid on a paint can or use a screwdriver to pry up a nail. But
for a real thought-filled understanding of a lever, the best example is the teeter-totter. Older generations
of students learned to adjust the board across the pivot point (fulcrum) to balance a heavier playmate
with a lighter one. And we learned that when the fulcrum was off-center, the lighter playmate went
higher. That valuable educational experience is now gone from our playgrounds. Perhaps someday we
will enclose every student in a protective bubble—and they will learn nothing.
The counterargument is that the concepts of logarithms, clockwise, and leverage can all be learned on
those everpresent square-cornered devices in students’ hands. But those are abstractions and pictures of
abstractions. Every minute a student spends with neck bent at 60 degrees immersed in their digital
devices is a minute they are no longer experiencing the real world. And it was the real multi-sensory
experiences with the real world that built meaning. But today our students are desperately falling behind
in these very skills based on experiences—hands on, genuinely interactive, real consequence, test-truthful
experiences—that digital devices do not provide.
Schools in China do not make this mistake. For the most part, they do not allow calculators and other
digital devices into the classroom until middle school. And then, the use of these devices is strictly
limited. Students can take square roots and do log equations without ever hitting a key on the calculator.
The result is that today the majority of terminal degrees in engineering and physics at U.S. universities go
to foreign born and educated students who were kept away from digital devices when young.
Teckies agonize that there are still regions of rural America that do not have broadband access and
they fret over the “digital divide,” the haves and have-nots in digital technology. Ironically, it is those
rural students who grow up with a hunting knife or multipurpose tool on their belt, rather than a
smartphone, who are making up the backbone of our organismic biology students who will work for fish
and game divisions and in conservation fields. In these areas, the advantage to the “digital divide” lies
with those who are not constantly distracted by videogames, virtual unreality, and hyper-society.
It is past time to put slide rules and analog clocks back into our classrooms, and teeter-totters back on
the playground. —And shelve the expensive digital toys.