We recently chatted with a high school teacher, and eventually the discussion turned to distractions in his classroom.
We asked him to identify his No. 1 problem, in terms of holding the attention of teens more than a nano-second. Without hesitation, he replied, “Cellphones.”
He went on to explain that a couple of years ago, before the proliferation of hand-held communication devices, disruption from a cellphone was rare. Within the past couple of years, however, he said it is the rare teen who enters his classroom without one — a situation that compelled him to post the following notice on his classroom door at the beginning of the fall term:
“Turn off your cell, or go straight to the dean’s office.”
There were, as one might expect, howls of protest. One young man informed the teacher — whose class focuses on political science — that banning cellphones was un-American and probably unconstitutional.
It is neither. High school students tend to forget that while public education institutions may teach the principles of democracy, they are under no obligation, moral or otherwise, to give students any kind of unlimited freedoms.
For teens, that remains one of life’s great inequities. But, as kids like to point out in other situations, it is what it is.
We agree with that teacher’s approach to holding students’ attention long enough to impart wisdom, or at least to have the chance to impart wisdom. There is no place in a classroom for jangling, nerve-wrenching interference from cell calls and incoming texts.
One must assume that the cellphone and its attendant distractions are here to stay, so perhaps educators will find effective ways to incorporate this cellphone culture into their teaching methods.
That will be a major challenge. Two studies released last week indicate teens’ constant and growing use of digital technology shortens their attention spans, while reducing their ability to stay with challenging tasks — both key elements in the learning process for young people.
The studies were mostly predicated on interviews with teachers. There is little objective data available to support the theory that, overall, digital technology is hurting kids.
However, all things considered, we are inclined to side with teachers. Like our friend we spoke with the other day, teachers are in the trenches. They must balance the need to impart knowledge quickly and entertainingly to keep students focused. Most are adept enough to realize when the train has come off the tracks.
Perhaps the solution to this problem — assuming the studies’ conclusions are correct — is not telling kids they can’t use digital devices, but instead having the education establishment redirect its focus, create curricula that include the kinds of technology that supposedly distracts kids.
We aren’t suggesting a capitulation by educators, only an acknowledgment that the situation in the classroom has been significantly altered by the increased use of high-tech communications devices by teens and pre-teens. Take a survey of a normal high school, and we guarantee there will be far more cellphones in kids pockets than keys to a car.
That kind of shift in educators’ strategies might actually help teachers, by allowing them to make better use of the Internet and other forms of digital connectivity to reduce their time trying to grab and hold students’ attention.
In the end, it would be unrealistic to think adults can keep kids away from TVs, video games, Wi-Fi-capable music players and cellphones. The better plan might be to find a way to go with the technological flow, in which the sum of the world’s knowledge is available with the click of a mouse.