If technology amplifies behaviors, writes Jessicah Lahitou, what about boys who are already struggling in school?
During my last year as a teacher before moving abroad, I worked at a suburban Texas high school teaching 10th Grade Pre-AP and 11th Grade English. My Pre-AP classes were predictably alert, astute, polite, responsible, timely with their homework, and dutifully involved in class discussion.
The Juniors were so different, they might as well have landed in my classroom from a separate planet. I had not heretofore realized just how ambivalent most seventeen-year-olds are towards Flannery O’Connor short stories. Especially seventeen-year-olds who have long since decided they are not “smart,” they are not going to college, and they are in your classroom only because the government and their parents say it must be so.
I found out right away that any delusions I fostered of regular Carpe Diem literary moments a la “Dead Poets Society” would be as forthcoming as completed homework and consistent eye contact of the non-rolled variety.
We got off to a very rocky start, wherein this writer wrongfully assumed that people our government deems capable of manning an automotive would not need those silly, childish things called rules. But after three weeks of being utterly overran as the sole adult in the room, I felt I had to lay down the law.
One of the first rules entailed the use of personal electronic devices—cell phones. Namely, there would be none.
This shouldn’t have been my own lonely battle. Though I had worked the previous five years at a middle school, both belonged to the same district, and that district’s policy had long been that cell phones were not to be visible—ever—during school hours.
But then, overnight—poof! The administrative powers changed their minds. Students could now have their cell phones out and visible, anywhere, provided the teacher did not explicitly state otherwise. I was given a laminated rectangle in my stack of back-to-school paperwork, and told to tape it up on the green side when phones were allowed, and flip it to the red side for those times when they were not.
Despite the taped red side being the only color ever displayed, my juniors were not at all dissuaded from texting, surfing the internet, clicking through pictures, and really who knows what else, throughout my entire class. Keep in mind that teenagers are no better than adults when it comes to tech envy. Once one student pulled out his cell phone, everyone within a five-foot radius suddenly had to check theirs too.
The situation was downright hostile to any real learning. I had to make it stop.
Once I made clear that cell phones were not welcome in my class, the students revolted. The injustice! The inhumanity!
They made such an incredible stink, I felt they would benefit from hearing other learned voiced on the subject. And so I made them read the article that had helped convince me to eliminate the distraction of technology: “Is the Internet Making Us Crazy?” by Tony Dokoupil.
I wouldn’t say they thanked me after reading it (because they most certainly did not). But I will say many students seemed grudgingly resigned to keeping their brains preoccupied in ways not involving a touch screen for the 90 minutes of class time I had with them.
Dokoupil’s arguments are all but impossible to refute. He cites extensive research showing that internet addiction is as potent as cocaine. He references examples of people dying at their computer screens, from blood clots for lack of movement. He shows us how working online is fundamentally rewiring our prefrontal cortexes.
He quoted a student named Stan who said, “What I learned in high school was profiles, profiles, profiles; how to make a me.”
All this, and yet the bright-eyed hope that technology will erase our educational deficits beams on. One regularly hears—especially in school settings—of the latest computer programs and Apps, how engaging they are, how students cannot help but learn with them.
In his article “Why Technology Alone Won’t Fix Our Schools,” Kentaro Toyama writes that technology is “an amplifier.” Essentially, technology takes whatever educational situation is already in motion, and amplifies it.
So if you have Pre-AP students, who are putting in hours of outside-class time reading Mark Twain and Toni Morrison, who are invested in their academic performance, and who have a natural affinity for the Language Arts, then the latest technology might just amplify their learning.
But if you have a classroom of disengaged students, who are not interested in the subject matter, or who are working just to catch up from a variety of academic deficits, the latest technology will just amplify that struggle.
And even then, you run into the problem of self-control. As Toyama points out, “if you provide an all-purpose technology that can be used for learning and entertainment, children choose entertainment.” And what is a cell phone if not an “all-purpose technology?” To imagine that teenagers will limit their typing to “Notes” without tapping over to WhatsApp is to be either fundamentally in denial, or a bit of a moron.
Which is to say, if technology poses so many problems—hurdles, really—to learning, why do so many consistently hail it as the panacea for our public school woes?
And I think part of the answer is that we have come to see technology as fundamentally good. In so many ways, it has made our lives easier, made information freer, made the world a more equal place.
But it cannot change the hard work of real learning into something effortless and easy. In fact, technology seems to be offering only one more detour on the road to improving education.
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Photo: komunews / flickr