My high school is a formidable fortress of red brick with a navy blue, metal roof in my memory. It is a place surrounded by quiet woods that eagles circle over. The dark, tinted windows encasing the school’s stairwells glisten from the outside and leave your car’s reflection rippling as it approaches the security gate where visitors must state their official business before entering.
I remember strict dress codes where girls were not able to show even the seductive hint of their shoulders. It was a world of humorous note passing to alleviate math class boredom, watching VHS tapes of mitosis during Biology, learning about Microsoft Excel during Computer Applications and dancing along to Ciara’s “1, 2 Step” at birthday parties. When a boy in my senior psychology class brought his brand new iPod with him to class one afternoon, he was the epitome of modernity. I graduated in 2007.
Although it has not been that long in “real time,” the world of mobile technology has rocketed ahead in five short years, leaving many in the education business stumbling to keep up. When I returned to my alma mater just two months ago to chat with high school juniors about the college search process, I was amazed at what greeted me in the halls and classrooms. Everyone had a smart phone where I had made it through four years of college without one. They were constantly texting and even playing music in the middle of their teachers’ opening addresses. I saw a kid composing music on an iPad outside of the chorus room and had to stop and do a double take.
While I realize that my old high school is better off than most and that many within it can afford expensive gadgets, that is beside the point. Yes, I understand the world has advanced technologically, and that’s great. There is much to be said about the benefits smart phones and the like bring to our daily lives, from instant access to email to the ability to read up-to-the-minute news. But this isn’t an issue of accessibility as much as it is one of respect–for one’s education and one’s educators.
The teachers in my memory rarely allowed our attention to waver from what they were saying. In fact, they readily confiscated cell phones and ripped ear buds from eardrums. Yet after spending a day roaming the halls, I had the distinct feeling that things had changed.
“The kids are supposed to only use [cell phones] in the halls or at lunch. I have noticed that half the time it’s the parents that are calling the kids in the middle of class for something ridiculous. I don’t approve of texting in class, but now it’s so prevalent that unless it’s all the time instead of work, I just about have to give up. What happened to not allowing them in the building at all?” complains one Spanish teacher.
Although her students are allowed to listen to music while doing independent work, she believes social media use is out of control and vividly recalls a day she chose to start an ill-fated conversation with a student about it. “Right before class started this girl was taking a picture, so I said, ‘Are you going to put that up on Facebook right now?’ And she says, horrified, ‘Oh no! Nobody uses Facebook anymore. We all tweet.’”
Of course, there is some irony in the fact that I got in touch with instructors to ask them about this issue via Facebook and that they all responded fairly rapidly. I was amused–and must admit somewhat gleeful–when our group Facebook message led to some teachers educating others about the ways in which they are combating the rise of disruptive cell phones in the classroom. “Cell phone use has no purpose in the classroom. I, along with several other teachers on my hall, will be requiring students to place their cell phones in a holder within my classroom next year. If the phone is away from them, they cannot use it. My fear with the phones is using them to cheat on assignments or the increase of teacher sabotage by recording the teacher and using it [against him or her] out of context” explains a social studies teacher.
A history teacher chimed in to say, “Before the iPhone came out, kids could text without looking at their phones. They had the digits’ locations memorized. I knew they were texting but couldn’t take the phones away because I couldn’t see them. Today, girls either leave their purses–the BIG bag is en vogue–on their desk at an angle, so the teacher can’t see the phone or cross their legs and place the phone in their lap and pretend to haphazardly look down at the floor.”
She admits that she gives her students an ultimatum when she sees the phones. They can either put it away immediately or have it confiscated. School policy states that on the second offense, a parent must pick up the phone. Yet many parents claim they cannot run down to the school to grab their child’s phone, so many administrators wind up having to return them to the students anyway.
She has also noticed that those who text constantly almost always perform less well on tests than those who pay attention in class, explaining “That’s common sense. Brain’s can’t perform two tasks at the same time.” A scholarly article published in Teaching of Psychology in 2010 upholds this idea. It speaks of a study conducted on college students who were split into two groups. Both watched a video and were told to take notes on it as its material would appear on their next test. Yet a ringing cell phone disrupted one group’s movie experience, and those participants performed significantly worse on the part of the exam that covered information they could not hear as well as the other group due to the ringing.
Maya Cohen writes in “Cell Phones at School: Should They Be Allowed?” that cell phones allow kids to be in touch with their parents in the event of an emergency. Yet she also argues that ring tones and text-message alerts can prove extremely disruptive during lectures if students forget to silence their phones. Plus, cell phones have been used by students to call in false bomb threats to schools, and of course, they could be key tools in effective cheating and cyber-bullying.
According to David Raths in “Revisiting Cell Phone Bans in Schools,” 24 percent of K-12 schools in the U.S. ban cell phones altogether, and 62 percent allow phones on their grounds but ban them in the classroom. Nevertheless, organizations are eager to explore the market for mobile educational technology. PBS and the International Society for Technology in Education have created many educational apps geared toward students while the Princeton Review and Kaplan now offer text-based test preparation for the SAT.
The very recent decision of public schools in Montgomery, AL to allow cell phone use in the classroom sparked a debate of its own. Some argue that teachers can walk up and down desk aisles to monitor what their students are searching for online. An English professor from my college, however, has made the point to me that bringing devices like the iPad, which allow users to flow between Google, a Pages document, Facebook and online shopping with the sweep of a finger, to class would make it incredibly challenging for educators to monitor their usage for academic purposes.
Greg Graham argues in “Cell Phones in Classrooms? No! Students Need to Pay Attention” that New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the right idea when he instituted a cell phone ban in 2007 for the city’s public school system. He writes that today’s teenagers cannot remember a time when we weren’t so wired, when life didn’t move as quickly and accessing information took longer. He laments kids sleeping with cell phones beneath their pillows so that the buzzing of incoming messages will startle them from slumber. Neurological research is now confirming that we think and perform the best when what we are focusing on has our undivided attention. That means that texting and listening to the teacher discuss the causes of the Civil War is not the best way to ace the next exam.
As Michael Waterson mentions in “The Techno-Brain,” there is now little doubt that our love affair with technology is rewiring the very structure of our brains. Mobile devices constantly pinging and buzzing are cultivating a new ability to be drawn to distractions and an inability to switch tasks with ease.
Yet there is still hope for academic America. Students can be trained in the art of “single-tasking” in the classroom, if, as Dr. Naomi Baron, executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning desires, “a classroom (becomes) a room for sharing ideas, a space for contemplation, a setting for social interaction. None of these functions harmonizes with intrusion from the outside.”
No doubt high school students can belt out the chorus to Carly Rae Jepsen’s summer smash-hit “Call Me Maybe” or argue about the benefits and drawbacks of Twitter if you give them the opportunity. But whether or not they are allowing themselves unlimited and uninterrupted access to a solid–not to mention free–education is much more difficult to measure now that the rules of communication have changed.