An interesting conversation took place this morning between my daughter, her two middle-school-age friends, my husband and I. It was about cell phones in school; the general complaint from the girls was about the ban on using cell phones, even at lunchtime.
The conversation turned to the ban in classrooms, and my husband, who I have apparently failed to bring up to speed on cell phone issues, brought up what he felt to be an issue of common courtesy: that kids should have cell phones turned off when in class, and their attention turned to the person who is trying to teach them. Reasonable, right?
My riposte: if a teacher can't hold someone's interest enough to keep their eyes away from their iPhones, what are you accomplishing by banning them? At first he was held up by the common courtesy thing, but I hammered away at the whole give-and-get-respect thing, and if he wasn't a quivering mass at the end of it....
Nah, he wasn't a quivering mass; he still holds that until the great education transformation,when all kids are pursuing their passions in and out of the classroom, we should still ask kids to be courteous to the teacher by leaving cell phones off.
A lot of people haven't yet considered that when kids sneak peaks at their phones, when their fingers itch for the keypad during a lecture, it isn't a story that begins and ends with teaching simple manners. Yes, we need to expect common courtesy, but we also need to read the signs when we don't get it.
The message is that what kids are being asked to learn doesn't interest them. The attractive immediacy of connecting with their friends matters more. Contact with the living, instead of the dead material they are supposed to be learning, matters to them.
So what, my husband asks, if half the class is distracted by the other half that are texting away?
Why does that other half have to be in a class that doesn't interest them?
Unfortunately our whole system of education is based on kids learning stuff they don't care about. Oh, sometimes there is a connection between kids and the content; a stopped clock is right twice a day, too. You can't defend a system because once in awhile a kid is genuinely engaged.
The first job of education is to find out what learning trajectory kids are already on. Ideally, it'll happen so soon in their educations that they won't grow up completely negative and pessimistic about the relevance of anything that might happen in the classroom.
If they don't seem to have a learning trajectory, it really isn't rocket science to find it.
Lisa Nielson and Willyn Webb, who wrote Teaching Generation Text) and kids probably could come up with some ideas of their own. This is one of those things that also falls into the category of "not rocket science."
My husband's reaction is a very easily understood one. When we look at a problem or issue (especially in education), we don't always look under the hood and see what's really wrong; sometimes an issue seems clear, and we take it for granted that we have a good grasp of it. We don't associate the problem (a simple avoidance of classroom rudeness) with another problem (we're not producing learners).
It seems excusable for adults to be rude to students in big ways (i.e. an institutional disregard for what they believe to be important), but not OK for students to be rude to adults in little ways (fiddling with cell phones in class).
There are lots of problems in schools that can be associated with a disengaged student body. This one not only has a solution, but one that has potential to teach the teachers as well as the students. Don't make kids power down when they go to school. Allow them to power up and pursue their learning with the technology that our generation provided and made irresistible to them, and that they love.