Turned Off and Out of Sight

I just (electronically) recieved our local high school’s newsletter – the welcome back to fall issue, where the administrators and the PTO lay out the calendar for the upcoming year, share the news and highlights, and inspire enthusiasm for the enriching academic year ahead.  I scrolled through the pdf and felt a lurch of disappointment when I, once again, saw this familiar notification:

“Cell phones must be turned off and out of sight during the school day.” To me, this posture taken by our school district – and many other districts – is the perfect poster child for what’s wrong with education in U.S.  Rather than embrace the technology that our students use every day of their lives, our schools opt to ban it. With all of their angst over dwindling technology budgets and insufficient computer access for students, they choose to ignore the computer appliance that just about every kid has in his or her pocket.

Today’s cell phones are more powerful than the first desktop computer that I owned.  They are communication devices, cameras, and calculators all rolled into one handy package. But rather than embrace this readily available device, most public schools ban them – and set up elaborate enforcement rituals to support the policy.  Cell phones are seen as a distraction, a disturbance, an evil that has no place in a learning environment.

And that’s just it – if our educational leadership persists in thinking of new media technology as a “distraction” it will be very difficult for us to move our educational system forward.  Rather, educators should be leading the way –  they should get inside this technology, figure out its unique affordances, and show our students how it can be used to extend their reach, connect to the world, and become life-long learners. I would like to see my kids’ teachers be a living demonstration of the appropriate use of technology.

Teachers and administrators in the Alamo Heights school district (in Austin, Texas) are taking just that approach. They invite students to bring their laptops, iPads, and cell phones to school.  And they backed their decision with content-filtered, district-wide WIFI access.  You can bet those those Alamo Heights teachers and administrators have quite a few really good ideas about how to put the technology tidal wave to work for them.

If you transplanted a classroom teacher from the 19th century into today’s classroom at our local high school, he or she would know exactly what to do.  That 200 year-old teacher would feel right at home – desks in a row, chalkboard up at the front – get out your pencil and paper, time for the next lesson.  Try that with a 19th century shop owner or business person – they would be lost, dazed and confused were they to be plopped down in a 2010 shop or a business.

Do we really want our children to figure out the best ways to leverage technology from their friends?  Do we really want our children to conclude that all of that intriguing new media, all that connectivity, all of that learning power has no place at their school?

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11 Comments

Filed under Reflections on Teaching, Teaching with Technology

11 responses to “Turned Off and Out of Sight

  1. kgulliver

    I volunteer at my son’s high school, and one day I was walking up the stairs to the Writing Center while checking my cell phone for a text message. A teacher was walking down the stairs, and reached for my phone–to take it away from me! He said “Oh, I thought you were a student!” Teachers are free to confiscate cell phones at the school, even outside the classroom.

    I agree that schools need to figure out how to incorporate technology, not demonize it.

  2. Thanks for that story, kgulliver. Pretty amazing – and revealing. The ABSOLUTE quality of the edict just leaves no room for opening their minds to a different approach.

  3. “Do we really want our children to conclude that all of that intriguing new media, all that connectivity, all of that learning power has no place at their school?”

    That last sentence in your post is simply brilliant. Love it.

    The kids are learning a chilling lesson. One that will affect how they feel about schools for the rest of their life, I suspect.

  4. Forgot to ask…what is the high school’s policy on laptops and things like netbooks/iPads?

  5. Matt

    Fact is what the kids use their phone for most of the time in school is to text each other in the same way we used to secretly pass notes back and forth, surf the web for shopping and other less savory purposes, and play video games. Teachers find it difficult to compete with the distraction. I think we have some work ahead of us as a culture to learn to integrate these new technologies into our daily lives in a positive way that enhances our lives without always taking us away from the present moment, just not sure how far we have come on that.

    • rheyden

      Absolutely, Matt. And thanks for making this important point about WHY schools ban cell phones – inappropriate use. To which I would say – who better to teach our children appropriate use than teachers? I think that our teens (in particular) think of themselves as masters of technology – and they are good with it. But they are good at just some things – Facebook, buying music, and finding YouTube videos. Most teens don’t know how to create or edit a wikipedia page, evaluate the source of a web site, make (and post) a video, write a good blog entry, undertsand meta tagging, or understand the implicit rules of participating in an online community. Most teens don’t really fully understand privacy settings or how a search engine works. It’s these skills that should be a part of our children’s education (and of course instructors must master them first, in order to incorporate them in their teaching). But by banning the tools, our schools are opting out of the chance to do so.

  6. Exactly so, Pathfinder. And who better to teach wisdom than a committed, inspired, and resourceful teacher? I’ll bet you that there are many K-12 educators out there who are really uncomfortable being “cell phone police”.

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