One of Kurt Vonnegut’s best known short stories is a little dystopian number entitled “Harrison Bergeron.” The lead characters are a married couple who live in a world of forced equality. For example, those who have above-average good looks must wear face masks, to prevent preferential treatment based on their beauty. You can imagine on from there.
The husband in this story was born with the misfortune of a high I.Q. Ergo, he wears government-issued ear buds (to use the parlance of our time). Every few minutes, some kind of deafening noise will go off, with the explicit purpose of interrupting his train of thought. A related side effect is headaches. The endless interruption does its work efficiently, rendering the man utterly incapable of reaching anything close to his “unfair” intellectual potential.
I taught this story to my high school students, as a quick and accessible example of the dystopian genre of fiction.
But for today, I think it’s time to revisit a tangential idea from “Harrison Bergeron:” that of regular distraction as a reliable impediment to pursuits of the mind.
More and more high schools (and, presumably, middle schools) are allowing smart phones in the classroom. In fact, the Texas district I worked at for nearly seven years lifted its own ban on phones at school during my final year teaching there.
From my own experience, this policy change marked one of the more idiotic decisions made by a usually well-run administration. The idea was that teachers could make their own rules about cell phone visibility, but students would be free to text away during passing period, lunch, and before and after school. My sense was this policy came as a kind of surrender, a white flag raised in the battle against technology that seemed lost long ago, with the advent of having access to the internet on a mobile phone.
We teachers were given little laminated cards, red on one side, green on the other. We were meant to tape these tiny signs on our white boards, with green meaning phones are a go, and red meaning students should leave their devices out of sight.
Wanna guess how many 11th graders paid any attention to my eternally red-sided, school-issued tech card?
If you answered anything about zero, you’re drifting a bit too optimistic.
At any rate, I saw students texting while I gave a lecture. I saw them texting while they were supposed to be working in small groups. I saw them texting when they were supposed to be preparing for a presentation.
I saw them texting all the time.
And I thought of “Harrison Bergeron,” actually, because you don’t need research to know that all manner of texting at all times can’t be good for learning.
Here you are, in class, studying Shakespeare. You’re in the midst of the 16th century, we’re in London, we’re feeling the grime and the threat of the plague, but we’re also loving the hustle and bustle, a busy city full of personalities. Like New York, but cloudier, and with accents. And no electricity.
There’s Shakespeare at The Globe, performing Hamlet. Here comes that crazy-confusing “Old English,” except it’s not really “Old English,” it’s actually an early version of Modern English, and that’s why we can understand most of it, with the help of a dictionary for some of those dead words we don’t use anymore.
And you’re in it, but then your phone lights up, and it’s an Instagram notification that your favorite band just posted a video of themselves surprising a valet driver with an impromptu concert, and just like that – click! – you’re somewhere else, in a stranger’s car, loving the shocked fear on that poor guy’s face when The Noodles pop up in the back seat and start strumming away to an acoustic version of their biggest hit.
I’ve got no problem with a student loving The Noodles (they don’t exist, as far as I know, they’re strictly hypothetical for the purpose of this analogy). But even if they’re the greatest band of all time, where’s that student’s brain in terms of learning Shakespeare’s era, his play, his poetry?
Gone. That child mind’s is gone from all that, and it’s a rough bit of work, actually, to get one’s brain back acclimated to the task at hand. We know, because we deal with it all the time. Email pings, text buzzes, new post alerts, Slack popups. We know exactly what it’s like.
And even though I said you don’t need research to get this, I’m going to give you some research anyway. In 2015, the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics published their research showing that schools that banned cell phones saw an uptick of 6.4 percent in their students’ test scores.
And then there’s this: the jump in learning was even more pronounced for economically disadvantaged and academically struggling kids.
In light of that illuminating piece of data, the two authors of the paper, Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy, commented on a policy by New York City Mayor, Bill DeBlasio, who did away with the city’s 10-year ban on phones, purportedly in the name of reducing inequality.
“Therefore, de Blasio’s lifting of the ban on mobile phones with a stated intention of reducing inequalities may in fact lead to the opposite. Allowing phones into schools will harm the lowest-achieving and low-income students the most.”
That alone seems like reason enough to do away with the nonsense notion that student cell phones somehow contributing to better learning.
Free the campus from distraction. Just say no to phones during school hours.
Image: Getty Images