To Text or Not to Text: No Longer a Question

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?


About libby108

Candidate CAES, School Leadership, Boston College MAT, English, Boston College BA Latin American Studies, Brown University
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9 Responses to To Text or Not to Text: No Longer a Question

  1. Kim Mazzarella says:

    I agree that as educators we need to try to be ahead of the technology game. My school changed the technology use policy regarding cell phones, allowing their use in designated areas of the school during the school day. It seems to be working rather well. Also, the teachers and administrators are experimenting with ipads now and considering implementing ipads into the curriculum next year. It is a huge undertaking with many different considerations, even after everyone is “on board” with the philosophical decision, there are many practical and logistical considerations. It is taking up much time and energy, but the understandig is that the investment in resources now will be worth it in the end. We are hoping so.

  2. rgerman2012 says:

    You make a number of valid points. Things have changed and though we may not like it, we have to accept the fact that these changes are greatly influencing the way our students learn. We need to be creative and innovative in regards to teaching & learning. Texting can be a great asset, and I’m sure kids enjoy that much more than reading a textbook or listening to a lecture.

    I teach Spanish and I am working on helping my students learn how to text others in Spanish. It’s not something we will be doing all the time but even 5 to 10 minutes at the end of class texting in the target language can produce student engagement and as a result learning.

    • libby108 says:

      What a smart and innovative use of this technology! Hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to pass this along to other foreign language teacher colleagues. Thanks for the comment!

  3. MB says:

    I think there is a different lens we need to apply regarding technology as an educational tool. If the learning process is supposedly a dialogue, and I’m thinking of Starratt’s triangle of authentic learning here, then what is the role of technology in that dialogue. Technology can certainly be a powerful tool to compliment learning, and it is definitely important to teach our students how to effectively use all of the tools at their disposal. However, like any dialogue, people need to know when to be attentive and what they ought to be attentive to. It would be an ignorant approach to the powerful technological tools at our students’ disposal if we presumed that they need the technology at all times. There are times when the technology needs to go away and introspective thought and hard work need to take place. Technology can be a medium for this, but it can also be an obstacle to it – how they use tech is as important as when they use it. Unplugging is an important element of self discovery. Sometimes too many toys can be an obstacle to the self discovery that could take place without them.

    • libby108 says:

      I agree, and I think thoughtful school leader and caring, skilled teachers can and should help our young people navigate these waters, not ignore the inevitable waves and pretend. Let’s help our kids make good choices, but to do that we must first acknowledges that the choices themselves exist for our kids whether we like it or not.

  4. Tripleeagle says:

    Throughout my years of schooling there have been monumental changes in the ways we use/view technology. It makes life and work easier – more efficient. These gadgets are user friendly; we are doing much more with less frustration.

    My concern of technology in the classroom is that it challenges the integrity of the student. If a $500.00 smart phone is left behind, students struggle and often times make the wrong decision and steals the device. Also, what do we do about bathroom breaks and monitoring the use of cell phones and ipads/itouch/etc when students are tempted to cheat? It’s easy to google while the teacher is not looking.

    I’m a believer that we must stay on the cutting edge and that students should be allowed to use electronic devises in class only for class related purposes. However, teachers must be attentive and vigilant in monitoring this; schools need to review practices regarding new technologies that is becoming more sophisticated by the day.

    • libby108 says:

      Absolutely, we adults must all be vigilant–as we have always been called to be–with our young charges. There has always been that temptation for students to make the wrong choice, whether to steal someone’s nice jacket or ipod left behind or to cheat with crib notes or by looking at a neighbor’s paper or by giving a heads up to the next class as to the questions and answers on the test. Though we cannot catch it all, we try to be vigilant, but more importantly I hope we try to instill in our students the integrity to respect the rights and property of others and to do their own work, thereby respecting themselves as well. Students sneak the use now, and who is to say they aren’t already cheating with these devices. There will always be low tech and high tech challenges, and I have faith that we will not shrink from these challenges, but rather face them intelligently so that we may all benefit from what the new changes have to offer and view them as opportunities to keep teaching our children, not just academics, but to become responsible adults.

  5. Amanda Sands says:

    Mom, you’re gonna be the best 21st century teacher ever. I especially liked the line: “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.” (Points for parallel construction, points for play on words.)

  6. Kristofer says:

    Cool article! I’m glad I read it. I will book mark for showing my friends =)

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