There's An App For That

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My mother died when I was little, so my father hired a local country woman, Mrs. Schoch, to care for us kids. Largely uneducated, that woman could solve any problem with sheer brainpower. Today, they'd hire Mrs. Schoch to design apps.

I didn't appreciate her genius. In the 1950s, Americans were in thrall to labor-saving inventions: TV dinners, polyester.

One day my homework was to make a clock face from a paper plate, to learn to tell time at school. I giddily anticipated Mrs. Schoch would take me to the dime store to buy paper fasteners to hold the clock hands in place. Nothing doing! Shopping was not in Mrs. Schoch's arsenal of remedies. Deftly, she showed me how to thread together two buttons from an old shirt to secure the clock hands. But I was ashamed of her ingenuity, and hid my clock from classmates. Only later did I secretly admit she was a genius.

Today, we need Mrs. Schoch's inspiration.

We have relinquished a lot of our learning potential to apps. I take students stargazing, but no one wants to figure out patterns in the blackness overhead. An app tells them what to see. I ask a kid to read the road signs and direct me on a field trip: he is busy talking to Seri and misses The Giant Artichoke as we whiz by. Lost opportunities to feel competent using their own brainpower.


Technology is touted as a great tool for teaching kids. I see the opposite. Given a shortcut, why would they plod towards discovery the long way? We take some programmer's word for it, and hamstring the mother of invention. Secondhand genius, conveniently downloaded.

An app lays out solutions to math problems. Google Translate relieves us from memorizing Spanish verb tenses. We dial up Wikipedia factoids but don't learn historical context. We rob ourselves of agency.

Mentally calculate gas mileage? Dare try out an unusual restaurant without Yelp? Sing your baby to sleep at night? Brainstorm a better solution to an old problem? Nah, just use an app.

Everyone with the nice, same app.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is an educator in the North Bay and founder of REAL School Marin.