I have a bit more than a semester remaining in my teaching career. I anticipate its end, but such anticipation is bittersweet. I’ve given of myself for many years, and received more in return. I’ve learned much, so perhaps it’s time to share some of that, to be of some use a bit longer.
One inescapable lesson must be taken to heart if America is to thrive in the future: any school that does not ban cell phones and earbuds is not serious about education.
I am of a generation that had to amuse itself. It was a generation wherein encyclopedias were sold door to door, where parents that did not buy books for their children were thought negligent, where television was new and did not clog the airwaves 24/7/365. I lived in a word where touchtone phones were a new invention, where the greatest wish of young girls was a Princess phone–a pink plastic touchtone phone in their own rooms. It was a world of pay phones and phone booths where Superman could change into his superman suit.
It was a world where movies cost a quarter, popcorn a dime, and absent movies and TV, which not everyone had, kids had to rely on books and their own imaginations for entertainment, where epic battles were fought, and nations and kings rose and fell in backyards. Bicycles were wings, fighter planes, rocket ships and freedom. Kids built things, often clumsily, in garages, and loved to be outside, running, laughing and playing until their parents forced them to come in late at night.
I saw the invention of the 8-track tape, the cassette tape, the CD, the DVD, the VHS tape, and owned a Beta player until that format quickly went the way of the Dodo. I owned one of the first Apple computers, and for the first several years of my computing life, used a dot matrix printer. It took awhile before I found the Internet, but even today, I don’t allow it to fill every waking minute.
Unfortunately my students were born into a world of video games, smart phones, earbuds, social media and computers. They’ve never known a world without it. They can’t imagine a world without it.
It’s a truism that during my younger days, we imagined most of the world’s problems were due to a lack of access to information, to knowledge. That was one of the primary selling points for encyclopedia salesmen, and families that could afford complete sets of encyclopedias beamed with pride, secure in the knowledge they had given their children a real advantage in their educations. My parents were among them, and I actually read every volume, some more than once.
Now we have, in smart phones, instantaneous access to a depth of knowledge unimaginable in my youth, and we’ve discovered whatever problems we have weren’t the fault of a lack of immediate access to information. We carry around supercomputers that give us access to the sum of man’s knowledge, and we use it to text, for selfies, for porn, and to waste time in epic amounts.
The problem, then and now, is human nature. Culture is involved as well, but the root cause of pretty much all of humanity’s problems is human nature. As Pogo once said:
We have met the enemy, and he is us.
This is where the education establishment conspires to make things, as usual, even worse.
I’ve often written that educrats—the education world version of bureaucrats—are social engineers. They don’t exist to serve the people as much as to change the people. They believe themselves, by virtue of their educations and titles, uniquely qualified to tell everyone else what to think, do and how to behave. They create their own version of reality and expect everyone else to live in it, and for a time, and to a degree, they succeed.
They succeed because they hold teacher’s jobs hostage. Fail to toe the line, and in most places without unions, teachers can be easily fired, or mercilessly harassed into quitting. Teacher’s unions cause their own problems, but that’s another article for another time. They succeed because circa 2019, most parents aren’t paying close attention, and the self-imagined experts encourage that, in part by throwing up such a dense cloud of jargon and data and statistics it’s daunting indeed. They’re the experts, so whatever new, wondrous program they’re pushing will change the face of education and produce heretofore unheard of academic achievement. Andy parent daring to question their brilliance is quickly told they’re not qualified to question their intellectual betters.
Did you know, gentle readers, many school districts now have PR administrators and staffs? If you’re not going to actually be involved in educating kids, you certainly need all the internally generated, positive PR you can afford.
So what does this have to do with cell phones? Patience, gentle readers; I’m getting to that. Among the more recent brilliant programs is TECHNOLOGY! Technology, you see, is transformative, brilliant, and transformative. Have I mentioned transformative? This fad has manifested by spending hundreds of millions on hardware and software, primarily cheap laptops typified by Chromebooks. Oh yes, gentle readers, Google has it’s claws into public education in big, intrusive, and damaging ways. When districts buy Chromebooks such that every classroom has 30 or so of them, they train their teachers in their use, which usually consists of showing them how to use various Google online software resources. There are other companies desperate to break into the very lucrative education market, of course, but Chromebooks and their like are universally called “transformative internet devices,” or some similarly ridiculous bit of jargon, rather than cheap little laptops.
But aren’t kids all brilliant computer programmers? Don’t they take to them like fish to water, bears to the woods, Catholics to the Pope? That’s another contemporary scheme, the pretense that education now consists of pandering to the desires of children. Since they’re all computer geniuses, we must teach them through computers, through which they have instant access to all human knowledge. Problems solved, right? Not so much.
Certainly, some small number of kids are computer whizzes, but most are not. They know only what they need to know to do what they want to do. They can manipulate various video games, surf the Internet, post on social media, take selfies, etc., but that’s about it. I discover the truth every day when I have to introduce kids to such arcane knowledge as changing margins, fonts, using italics, bold, using the “tab” key, etc. in Microsoft Word.
In creating their own reality, educrats have encouraged kids to “BYOD”—bring your own device—to schools. They’ve actually encouraged kids to bring their own cell phones, computers, earbuds, etc. to school, because all of this is technology, which as we now know, is transformative.
That’s their reality. Let’s visit real reality, shall we?
Cellphones and earbuds, particularly wireless earbuds, are weapons of mass distraction. Human nature dictates that kids are easily distracted, and smartphones are virtual attention black holes. There are some kids, interested in learning, curious and internally motivated, that can resist the smartphone siren song, but they are few. Most kids find them irresistible, and every teacher in America spends a great deal of their time carefully watching kids to ensure they haven’t slipped an earbud in, and aren’t facedown in their phones. I commonly see kids who are so addicted, they actually show physical symptoms if they can’t constantly manipulate their phones. Even my best kids find themselves unconsciously reaching for their phones.
It’s quite simple, really. If kids aren’t focusing their scant attention spans on what they’re doing in class, they’re learning little or nothing. Oh, they’re pros at thumb typing, making snarky comments on social media, and using their phone to cheat and gossip, but when it comes to actually learning, they’re far less proficient. It’s an old point, but I commonly see kids, in the same classroom, texting each other rather than walking two steps and speaking face to face.
I often deal with parents texting children during class, and vice versa. All seem to believe there is a fundamental, unalienable right, not only to the possession of a smartphone, but to use it when and wherever they please. They become upset, even hostile, when anyone suggests they put their phones away and actually pay attention in school.
Is it really that bad? No. It’s worse. Educrats, school principals, even school boards are loath to deprive kids of their phones. It’s part of the reality they’ve created, the reality in which the mere existence of ‘technology” in school buildings magically makes them enormously more effective. And of course, so many of them lack anything resembling a backbone. School these days is far more about producing data and PR than in providing the best possible learning opportunity.
Therein lies the problem, and the opportunity. The most precious resource any teacher has is time. Anything that detracts from instructional time directly, irreversibly limits educational opportunity. Kids are easily distracted, and if that distraction is in their pocket, calling to them, vibrating, chiming, whispering to them, their attention is only occasionally on whatever any teacher might be trying to impart. Willfully delaying gratification is an essential adult skill. School, or the joys of the Internet? For kids it’s a no brainer, and it’s human nature. Reality. Real reality.
Want to return education to its rational, productive roots? Want to ensure kids have the best opportunity to educate themselves, to develop the ability to pay attention, the skills to work and play well with others, to make the neural connections, to build the bigger, better brains that will eventually allow them to function as independent, competent adults, to be producers rather than parasites? Ban cell phones and ear buds from schools. Entirely, completely, don’t even allow them on school property, and make violations painful, very painful.
Unless and until this happens, no school can pretend to be concerned about learning.