The arrival of late August means Back-to-School has come, a time of emotional overload for parents. Someone else will now devise ways to take the restless kiddos through nine months of long daytime hours. Brilliant! Yet, the advent of each new grade reminds the suddenly wistful (five minutes of quiet can evoke startling change) mom or dad that their precious baby is one year older, taller, closer to a driver’s license, college, Christmas away with stranger-adjacent, vaguely suspicious in-laws.
Parental feelings are like dice in the annual Back-to-School Yahtzee cup. Reveling in the bliss of reclaimed adult activities while simultaneously pondering a few suddenly urgent existential questions about the tragic nature of time’s passage — this is a lot. That’s on top of all the supply lists, course syllabi, dress codes, pick-up lane rules, and, please sweet Registrar, schedule it so Jr.’s friends are in the same class…
So now is perhaps not an ideal time to ask bewitched and emotionally beleaguered parents to investigate their school’s tech policy and raise the appropriate level of stink, depending on what it entails. That kind of proactive advocacy is arguably best left to the months of October, November, or maybe even the spring, once a full recovery from the holidays has run its course.
And yet, I have to ask: Have you looked at your local school’s tech policy?
I say this first and foremost from experience. For five glorious years, I worked in a district that strictly enforced a No Phones school policy. Students could bring their devices on campus and use them before the first bell and after the final one. But if a teacher or administrator saw even an inch of iPhone poking out a backpack pocket during official hours, the phone became the temporary property of the school.
Ah, those were the days.
Because once that district switched to a “Devices Friendly” policy, my students’ attentiveness nose-dived straight into the blinky-winky fun of fantasy screen world. The pleasures of poetry and Shakespeare and Toni Morrison are no doubt more fulfilling than Angry Birds and Snap Chat, but the lit stuff has a tough time keeping up right out the starting gate, you know?
The idea behind an open doors approach to student phone use is understandable. These are powerful computers shuffling around from class to class — why not use them? These are obviously of great import to the often apathetic kiddos sitting in desks the nation over — why not use that? These devices are the future, Silicon Valley is our society’s prophet — why deprive our youth from partaking in the inevitable march of STEM, STEM, STEM?
Such a pro-phone policy is sometimes born simply from sheer exhaustion with trying to police the constant teenage urge to text, scroll, surf.
But here’s a sneaky truth each parent needs to know. The Palo Alto parents? Their kids go to low-tech schools.
In a recent article at Financial Times, Cliff Jones explored Brightworks, a San Francisco Bay Area school that focuses its students’ attention on self-directed projects of the decidedly material world variety. Jones quotes founder Gever Tulley saying, “We don’t have many rules, but one of them is that if you want to play a video game you have to make it yourself.” Rather than indulge in the deluge of “edutainment” offerings from Silicon Valley (which have likely made their way to a public school near you), the 60 percent of kids at Brightworks whose parents work in the tech industry put together metal works and other large-scale structures as part of their self-directed learning.
Jones also referenced the now-well known Steve Jobs reveal that he did not allow his own children to use screens in the home. And Jones highlights the rise of Waldorf schools in the Silicon Valley area, based on an educational philosophy that values playtime, plenty of outdoor sunshine, and an almost wholesale rejection of any technology for kids younger than 13 or 14 years old.
New York Times writer Zeynep Tufekci responded to Jones’ article on Twitter, writing that, “Pretty much every elite school I encounter is low-tech or no-tech (especially no edutainment) except limited, very high-end stuff. Instead they’re low staff-pupil ratio and pay teachers well, which public schools don’t—especially with such low rates of taxes paid by corporations.” She went on to say that “having recently witnessed pretty compulsive behavior” from kids in relation to screens, the term “addiction” is perhaps not too strong a descriptor.
And yet… the education sphere is a cash cow for Silicon Valley. The coders and programmers may send their own kids to Brightworks, but they want you and your kiddos to buy the lie that technology will improve and enhance learning and future job potential. Billions of dollars depends on it.
So if you’re the parent of a child in public school, what should you do?
First, figure out your district’s tech policy in general. If they’re laissez-faire about students using phones in class, push back. You can email the appropriate contact in the head office, and that’s a good start. If you’re in an especially pushy mood, go ahead and send your concerns straight to the superintendent.
Next, get other parents informed. Join the PTA, attend board meetings, get on some email lists. If you’re good in person, throw your concerns out there in person. If you’re better with the written word, write it out in email. Link to the Jones’ article referenced, take a look at what Audrey Watters has to say on her site Hack Education, include some of her pertinent research and opinions (or just enjoy her biting wit). There’s plenty of research out there on the potential problems of screens for young people. (The latest evidence: France just banned cell phones at school for everyone under the age of 15.)
The great news is that the decentralized system of America’s public schools means that each district gets to decide for itself how to integrate tech — or not. So, beyond the issue of cell phones in your child’s school, you and other parents can influence decisions on technology in the classroom, period.
Consider following the Palo Alto parental lead. They seem like they’re onto something…