I know I'm supposed to be taking myself less seriously, but lately, I've identified with some serious characters, people like Carrie Mathison in the first season of Homeland (and Detective Rust Cohle in the first season of True Detective and any other rather serious person who thinks they see reason and patterns where the rest of the world sees none). I've had this weird anxiety, like I was screaming at the top of my lungs and no one was paying attention. And this made me feel isolated and a little crazy. But then I some writing on the wall (or more precisely, the writing on the screens in my high school cafeteria) and this made me feel a lot better.
To explain: the high school where I work has adopted a BYOD policy . . . Bring Your Own Device. What this means is that kids are allowed to bring their iPhones to school, use them in the hallways (one earbud policy if they are listening to music, and they are NOT allowed snap pictures or take video) and utilize them in class if the teacher allows it. I believe this policy is complete lunacy. Forbidding a kid to take pictures with a cell-phone is like forbidding a dog to wag its tail. And once you've taken that thing out in the hallway, and started texting and swiping and snapchatting and instagramming, it's hard to stop cold turkey, especially when the alternative is a lecture on the Krebs Cycle.
I don't have a smartphone, but this is mainly because I am cheap. And I hate looking at tiny screens, and I don't want to be distracted by the internet more than I already am. And, as a teacher, I think I'm inherently biased and have a predisposition to be annoyed by them, because I have monitor student's behavior with them. So my reasons for hating cell-phones are more visceral than anything. But I wanted to know if there was any actual research on the detrimental nature of smartphones, so I did some reading. Apparently, I'm not the only person who thinks kids shouldn't be in possession of a miniature game-device, social networking conduit, picture slideshow, camera, audio recorder, and a general boredom panacea when they are attending school.
The research is out there, which makes it even more impressive how many kids possess one of these objects. I'm not sure if parents are clueless, or if they just eventually cave to the pressure.
Anyway, for all you parents on the fence, there is some solid research that schools that enact a hard ban on cell-phones see an increase in test scores. Scores rose over 6 percent for all students, but the biggest increase was in underachieving students. This makes sense, because these kids are often the most distracted, and so sending them to class with a smartphone is a recipe for attention deficit disaster.
Plus, like I said, the writing was on the wall. Or it least it was at our last faculty meeting. We were in groups, and each group leader had a Chromebook. We were supposed to be commenting on the new technology pilot, and these comments were being transferred to a scrolling message board which was projected to all the flat screen TV sets on the walls of the cafeteria. The thrust of the comments were NOT about the technology pilot, and instead the board became a scrolling rant about how hard it is to police cell-phone activity and how annoyed teachers are with students and cell-phones. The principal had to blow his whistle and remind us what the purpose of the activity was The irony of him blowing a primitive analog device in order to reign in out-of-control technology was not lost on me. I really started to think about the issue, and the result of that is that half-baked post. I'm certainly not done ruminating, but this is a start.
Most schools are doing the opposite of ruminating about this issue. They insist that "the genie is out of the bottle" and we have to move forward. They are plunging straight into the future, research be damned. My wife's district is trying to go completely digital. I think this is lunacy as well, and there's research to back this opinion. Listen to the recent Freakonomics podcast on the cognitive value of taking handwritten notes if you need some proof. My school is excited about embracing smartphone apps such as Kahoot and Socrative. My philosophy is the same as Neil Postman's. You'd better evaluate every piece of technology before you adopt it, because technology is not neutral. If it's not markedly better than a simpler, more elegant way, then why use it? If paper works, if raising your hand works, if showing a video clip and asking some questions works, then why replace it with something that makes kids stare at tiny screens, something more difficult to monitor that leaves the possibility of a million distractions?
Anyway, I think people twenty years from now are going to look back at this period of obsessive and ubiquitous smartphone use with horror and nostalgia, the same way we look back at people smoking cigarettes on airplanes. It will seem surreal and utterly fantastic that we thought kids could and should stare at these little screens 24/7 and this would be a healthy and fruitful way to live.
In some ways, a smartphone is very much like a cigarette . . . it's habit forming and addictive, it delivers a little boost of dopamine, it's portable, using it costs quite a bit of money in the long run, and it enjoys varying degrees of social acceptability. I have enacted a hard cell-phone ban in my class, and I told the kids that if I see one, I'm treating it the same way I would a treat pack of cigarettes: I'm confiscating it. And if you're using one while I'm teaching, then I'm treating you like you just lit up in class: it's a big rude FU.
I think folks in the future are going to just laugh and laugh when they fondly remember how we sent our kids to school (in cars that required human drivers!) in possession of these incredibly distracting devices. I might be wrong, and we'll have to wait and see, but until then, I'm not allowing my children to have smartphones, and I'm not allowing my students use them. I can only do this on my watch, and it might only be one finger in the dike, and perhaps I'll cave when my kids become teenagers, but who knows, I might be right . . . and I'm absolutely certain Gheorghe: The Blog will still be around twenty years from now and I'll be able to link back to this post and say: "I told you so."