Tuesday 23 January 2018

Dear David Coleman: I don't know which school to choose for my son

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My son is due to start primary school next September. We have a choice between a new "tradigital" school - where he would learn to read and write, but he would be using an iPad throughout school. He would also be learning coding in Junior Infants. The other school option is a well-established Educate Together school. Do you think there would be too much screen time in the "tradigital" school, and therefore parts of the brain may not develop fully or is it different when it is for educational purposes? I'm afraid he'll become addicted.

David replies: What a lovely position to be in. To have a choice about primary schools is, in many ways, a luxury. The difficulty about choice, however, is that we may always worry that we made the wrong one.

Your first steps are to put the names of each of the two schools on a separate page and then to draw up as many "pros" and as many "cons" as you can think of regarding each school.

From your query, your biggest concern about the "tradigital" school seems to be about their use of screens and technology as the main learning interface and the impact this may have on your son's brain development and possible addiction to screens.

In truth, most national schools have moved into a new technological age, using interactive whiteboards connected to a computer or laptop, with full access, for the teacher, to the Internet and to digital resources for their teaching. Even at home, for project work and so on, students can rely heavily on information gleaned from Internet searches and so, are probably using screens, anyway, as part of their education.

I searched for, but couldn't find, any research about what impact the use of screens, as a primary learning interface has on a potential addiction to technology. Most of the research about the use of iPads or other tablets looks at how effective they are in enhancing student learning and the findings, in this regard, are broadly positive.

For example, a study in Northern Ireland last year, looked at teacher and pupil perceptions about the use of iPads in a Junior Infant classroom. The teacher felt that the iPads enhanced pupils' readiness to understand key concepts in literacy and numeracy. Classroom assistants felt that pupils showed improved communication and listening. The children felt that the iPads helped them with writing, counting and drawing.

But, I don't think the issue of whether the screens themselves are good or bad should be your primary decision-making focus. I think you need to take a much broader view about what might be good or bad about each school.

You mention that the "tradigital" school is new. This might be a very relevant factor in terms of how the school functions, or will function, into the future. There are some positives about new schools, but also some potential negatives as they try to "bed in" and become established.

For example, one key area might be the overall ethos of the school. Perhaps this is not yet clearly established in the new school, whereas the Educate Together ethos is well-established and warmly received by many parents.

Beyond the technology, what other facilities (like the buildings and the grounds of the schools) are present? Does one school have better sporting facilities for example, or a nicer physical environment within the classrooms or the yard?

Ease of access to either school might also be a consideration for you. Is one or the other on your route to work, or accessible on foot, or some other accessibility factor that gives it an edge?

Where are any of your son's friends from pre-school or your neighbourhood likely to be going? Having an in-built social network could either be a real positive or negative depending on those friends.

Have you visited both schools and talked to the teachers or the principals? You might also want to talk to other parents about their experience of either school.

There is no way to predict which school might be better for your son. Your choice will have to be made in good faith, on the basis of a thorough exploration of both options.

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