A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both ‘confusing and harmful’ to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an ‘always on’ digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565.
This quote, taken from the article “Fear of New Technology” written by Richard N. Landers says it all. Its sentiments are right up there with, “If man were meant to fly, he’d have wings.” I don’t know if anyone actually said that about the airplane, but the fear of new technology is unmistakable and, as history shows us, all too typical.
In all my travels in recent years through many different high schools—public and private—I have not found a subject that evokes more passionate discussion than the debate over cell phone use in schools. I would suggest the debate is moot. Don’t look now, but our students are thumbing messages at lightening speed under their desks and thumbing their noses at our wishful, naïve cell phone policies.
Yet, it is not uncommon to hear intelligent and well-meaning educators and administrators (of all ages—not just the older folks!) argue that any sanctioned cell phone use will mean the end of civilization as we know it. It will start with students arriving late to class (as if that’s never happened), then they will trip all over themselves and fall down the stairs, and ultimately they will text themselves down the path of destruction, taking civilized society with them.
These notions are absurd and just plain silly and do not make for sound reasons on which to base policy. I am again reminded of my own history lessons as a child in which I learned about the unfounded phobias of other generations regarding the telephone, television, and yes, even the portable calculator. After all, children will never learn to add on their own again!
As any high school teacher knows, students text constantly if surreptitiously—or so they think. Use is often detected, but it is impossible to eradicate, leaving teachers to tacitly and not so tacitly approve it, undermining the authority of the administration. And what message does that send to our young people? As a result, I have found that teachers are entirely inconsistent in the way they handle phone use and exhibit great anxiety as they either ignore, intermittently enforce, or strictly adhere to the “no texting” policies at many schools. It is a tortured existence, especially as they themselves increasingly find their own thumbs tapping away between classes. We are deluding ourselves to think that students aren’t already texting in school all the time, and it is a myth to think that a viable no-texting policy exists. Our kids know it; we know it.
Let there be no mistake, I do not advocate allowing texting or crafting a texting policy from the weak and cynical position of a fait accompli. But pretending the absolutist policy is working only serves to push the behavior “underground.” Texting happens all the time only in “sneaky” ways: behind their books, under their desks or by asking to go to the bathroom and thereby allowing students to miss far more instructional time.
What amounts to a policy of denial also sends students the message that adults are afraid of the technology and ill versed in it and that somehow technology is a bad, dark or evil thing. School leadership should instead get out in front of this. The technology is in fact a great thing. It can be extraordinarily useful, not only in our private lives, but in class. This should be seen as an opportunity. We have a chance to teach children the proper etiquette of technology use—when it may and may not be used (something it wouldn’t hurt adults to learn as well), both in the school context and in other situations in life. Where better than school to embrace technology and to teach its proper use? This technology is here to stay, and we would do well to face it and get out in front of it rather than bury our heads in the sand, clinging to ineffectual rules that no one follows and everyone mocks and undermines in private. To remain in denial on this is to shirk our responsibility and to let the rules of use be decided without adult input. These rules of use will be forged organically by the users, and we may like those results far less. It is time to rethink cell phone policy rationally, realistically, and intelligently.
Today we use our phones to access exceedingly useful and educational information on the Internet, as calendars, as notebooks, as watches. Students should be allowed to use this electronic device in class for those class related purposes. If used otherwise, just as when caught talking when someone else is taking or passing a note in the old days or doing last night’s algebra homework in English class, the teacher applies the appropriate sanction to enforce the rules of proper etiquette and respect in a civilized society. Further, texting should be allowed during passing time (when it already occurs). If a student is late—for whatever reason—s/he is late, and the proper sanction is administered. And texting should certainly be allowed during the lunch periods and study halls. Perhaps if students know they will have those opportunities to text legitimately, they will not feel the need to sneak the behavior in class or to seek to leave the room.
Texting at inappropriate times, much like talking at inappropriate times, does not make all texting at all times inappropriate and something to be feared. I have faith in our teachers and school leaders to be able to teach proper use of this new (not so new) technology. And I have faith in our students to learn. In the mean time, who will teach this etiquette to the current generation of adults in boardrooms and at dinner tables everywhere?