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North Beach Elementary team member Raven Taylor argues for tablets. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

In the ongoing discussion about whether tablets or textbooks are better for students, the kids have a lot to contribute.

That was clear in a citywide debate involving elementary school students from across the Seattle School District. Roughly 200 debaters from 15 different schools descended upon Catharine Blaine K-8 in the city’s Magnolia neighborhood last weekend, all to argue the pros and cons of a timely proposition: “Tablets should replace textbooks in elementary schools.”

There’s no question that tablets — and mobile computing devices of all kinds — remain on the rise in public schools. This, despite a mixed track record. Five years ago, for example, Los Angeles Unified School District had a disastrous iPad rollout that became a cautionary tale for others. Amazon has also worked, in the U.S. and elsewhere, to make its Kindle hardware and e-reader software a K-12 contender.

Futuresource Consulting recently released a market research report showing that in the first quarter of 2018, shipments of tablets and laptop computers to U.S. K-12 schools were up 10 percent year-over-year. It’s also been a 2018 of new tablet introductions, from an Apple iPad with special school pricing to the first Chromebook tablet.

U.S. K-12 shipments are forecast to increase throughout 2018. (Futuresource Consulting Image)

Tablets deliver digital instructional materials to nearly every grade level. But, as these Seattle fourth and fifth grade students debated, are they really an improvement over paper textbooks?

“We look around for things that the kids are going to be interested in arguing,” said Elizabeth Kruse, director of DebateAble, the organization that hosts the annual tournament and offers schools a debate curriculum. “This is really topical for them. This is maybe the most excited I’ve ever been about a topic.”

Before the debate, Kruse said, the kids were surveyed. Some 57 percent said tablets should replace elementary school textbooks, and 43 percent said they shouldn’t.

Debate teams prepare at school tables before the first session. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Yet despite the pro-tablet majority, both sides were fully argued passionately, politely and simultaneously in 14 different classrooms. In part, that’s because each school team of three-to-four students had to flip between presenting pro and con as they pushed their cases in two debate rounds. And, in part, it’s because these kids had personal experience with the topic being argued — and weren’t afraid to use that experience as example.

“I weighed my own backpack, and found that on a typical day I walk to school, my backpack weighs more than 15 pounds,” said North Beach Elementary team member Raven Taylor in one of the day’s first debates. The fifth grader, standing at a table in what was normally a fourth grade classroom, was facing off against a Blaine team. She argued in favor of tablets on the basis on health because of backpack weight, and for environmental reasons. “Killing trees is not the solution,” she said. “Tablets are the future.”

A North Beach teammate was more direct. “Just so you know, you’re a tree murderer … just so you know,” Madeline Person said, before going on to favor tablets because they allow easy translation of text for English language learners. And she argued that, over time, money saved on printed textbooks could be spent on, “more fantasy books — believe me, more of those are always needed.”

Content on tablets also isn’t as outdated as printed textbook content, argued Henry Kelly, the third North Beach debater. He cited a study that showed California students using tablets got grades that were 20 percent higher. “People are getting opportunities because of tablets, and they can be more successful,” he said.

North Beach’s Henry Kelly presents his case for tablets as Blaine looks on. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

The Blaine pro-textbook team was undeterred. It quickly became obvious that certain positions — health, or environment — are nuanced, and could be argued more than one way.

“Paper can be recycled, used again, rather than just be thrown away,” said Ella McLaughlin, claiming that tablets are worse for the environment because they contribute to global e-waste. Ella also referenced research that showed it was easier for students to remember what they’d read from printed text, and that there were fewer distractions when using paper than from a tablet’s text hyperlinks.

Negative health effects of tablets were raised by the Blaine team. Eyestrain. A screen’s blue light affecting quality of student sleep. And, in perhaps the first time I’ve ever heard a fifth grader utter the word, the potential for “fibromyalgia.” (Kudos to Blaine team member Tate Livingston).

Other pro-textbook, anti-tablet arguments included Blaine’s Henry Jacqmotte taking issue with tablets’ batteries not lasting a entire school day, and sometimes spotty school internet connectivity. “We all know how frustrating it is when we can’t get online,” he said. Some parents in the room quietly nodded.

Even the cost issue was argued both ways. While tablets may be a one-time purchase, Blaine’s Tate pointed out tablets break and can require costly repair or replacement, and digital content put on tablets isn’t free.

North Beach’s Gabe Pizzutelli argues for tablets in a second debate. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Many of these points were repeated in the second debate session I attended between another North Beach team and one from Queen Anne Elementary. But there were unique twists.

“Great minds from the past did not have tablets — Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Harriet Stowe,” said Queen Anne’s Juliette Hale in her pro-textbook argument. “Students who learn technology early are better prepared for everyday life,” countered pro-tablet North Beach student Lukas Snevoll, adding this familiarity may lead to a well-paying career in technology.

It’s here I need to point out the overarching purpose of DebateAble’s event was not to definitively settle the tablets vs. textbooks matter. It was so students arguing and refuting learned more about the structure and purpose of debate, and understood the importance of considering all sides of an issue.

DebateAble did provide students with research sources to consider. But from my perspective as someone who has been inside the education technology industry for more than two decades, the kids nailed it. Many arguments I heard were presented in new ways that went beyond the useful-yet-bloodless recitation of sites like

It also became very clear that what may seem like a simple digital content issue, even in tech-friendly Seattle, is far more complex once you scratch beneath the bright shiny coating.

Parents gather in the Blaine auditorium, post-morning debates. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Several parents and grandparents I spoke with before the debates started, even the self-described avid paper book readers, expected tablets would eventually win the day. Did the students sway their opinions?

“I’m still kind of in the middle,” said Alissa Cattabriga, whose son Gabe Pizzutelli was on a North Beach Elementary team. “The backpack thing is an issue. I’m constantly carrying my children’s backpacks because they’re too heavy,” she said. “Something I didn’t hear as much about was the longevity of tablets, because we know as cell phone owners and tablet owners it seems every one or two years you’ve got to upgrade because things aren’t working as well.” That, she said, is expensive and “a lot of waste.”

Mary Kelly, parent of North Beach team member Henry Kelly, said she learned more about both sides. “It’s actually made me more confused,” she said. “I thought I was more pro just-books, but now it’s made me think twice about considering the tablets more in classrooms.”

Judge Cliff Monlux gives debaters feedback on eye contact and arguments. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Third-time debate judge Cliff Monlux, who runs Ramp Equity Partners when he’s not volunteering, praised the students for doing the work and presenting both sides well. “I don’t think any of the kids love carrying 20, 30 pounds worth of books around, and I lift those damn things up and that’s going to hurt my back,” he said. Still, based on the debate points alone, he’d give his nod to the books, but the students had, “tons of good data about why things would be evolving with tablets.”

And the students themselves were moved by arguments. In the final, post-debate poll, those in favor of tablets dropped to 52 percent. Kids preferring elementary school textbooks ticked up to 48 percent.

Yes, tablets still ruled. But the gap had closed, not widened. That’s the result of healthy debate considering all sides of an issue, something that may seem rare in our polarized political climate, and unusual in our modern rush to adopt digital content.

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