On being tech-conscious.

A common question we get at SLA:

“How do you keep your kids from getting distracted by all that technology?”

My own thinking on this has evolved on this over the last few years. SLA has one of the most permissive policies on student possession and use of technology in a high school that I know of.

One thing that makes it so permissive is this: nothing is banned.

I know there is a ton of scientific research, plus scholarly commentary, plus a number of brick-headed adults who argue that access to technology is either “good” or “bad” for kids. I think that obfuscates the real issue, seeing as the technology is not going to go anywhere if somebody declares it “bad.” (I’ve been in schools where cell phones were theoretically banned — like confiscated-and-then-you-get-suspended banned — but nobody thought for a minute kids were leaving them at home. And boy was it a show when a phone went off in class.)

When people are dubious about how gadgets are allowed at SLA, I politely point out that there’s not much sense in banning these items when we give them laptops. It’s all in the mix, and students have to learn how to deal with the positive and negative influences of their tools.

That said, in the past few years I have made a concerted effort to nudge students in the right direction.

Take the beginning of class: my first year at SLA, I thought I was going with the tech-friendly flow by allowing kids to listen to music while they journaled on paper at the start of class. I then watched their preoccupation with their gadgets eat away at their focus. Students had to adjust their headphones. They had to pick their songs. If they were plugged into phones, they knew if they were getting texts. If they didn’t have a portable music player, they wanted to use their laptops — and then got sucked into their iTunes playlists — and all of a sudden journals were being ignored.

Year two I made a new policy: the beginning of class would be tech-free. Unless I explicitly said otherwise, all of your tech needed to be off and stowed away by the start of class, and journaling would be a 100% analog activity for the first 10 minutes.

When I introduce this policy, I make it clear to students that I’m not morally against their tech — I want to avoid any impression that I’m labeling this stuff “bad.” I make the point, however, that they need to be more aware about what they choose to fill their learning environment with, and that unconscious reliance on tech tools can be a problem. To drive it home for the 11th graders, I point out that the SAT is 4.5 hours long, and they need to do some “strength training” for that tech-free marathon.

The process is not without its eye-rolls or willful forgetting about headphones. But at its best, the policy invites conversation about their tech habits. And when everything starts put away, they make an active choice about what tools to use during class. Their use of tech has become more responsible, by leaps and bounds, since that first year.

To answer that first question I posed: Ideally, the students keep themselves from getting distracted. Here’s hoping that the conscious behavior sticks with them when they enter college.

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