Technology as Distraction

Oct 09, 2017

Today most inspirational messages, books and challenges to schools are to “prepare them for anything” or “future ready” or “solve big problems” or “change the world”, all good and valid messages. I’ve already shared my concerns over an overemphasis on innovation. I’m not saying these things aren’t important but I think what’s missing is recognizing that student health and well-being needs way more attention, emphasis on “way”. If we look historically at the purpose of school, it moved from a primary mission of knowledge distribution to job preparation. Health was an add-on at best and mental health wasn’t even on the radar until the last few years. Technology has fostered the conversation about a broader definition of jobs and future. Lagging way in the background is student health and well-being.

Certainly, that title I’ve used here is no earth-shaking, profound insight. We’ve all become well aware of the distracted nature of technology. Some will argue, we’ve always had distractions and this is nothing new. I used to fall more towards that side of the argument but have been more inclined lately to think that technology and specifically the smartphone has accelerated this problem to a magnitude of distraction and stress beyond anything we’ve ever seen not only for our students but for adults as well. Without sounding like the old man I am, I’m scared at what I’m seeing.

But the title I use here isn’t even specifically about that kind of a distraction but rather as a distraction among educators and leaders vying for our attention.  Despite some who say schools haven’t changed in the last 100 years, they have. The conversations around everything from personal learning to connected learning to making school more relevant and empowering is by in large what every school is moving towards. These conversations have been driven by technology. While that may not be the focus, that’s the reason the conversations exist. More and more we’re hearing messages and reading books that speak about innovative ways to make learning more relevant and powerful. This is good. But I’m just not seeing enough conversations that address the fundamental question of “How do we help kids to live healthy, happy, productive lives?” 

The smartphone becomes a dominant technology in 2012. That means students graduating this year have had this device since they were in 5th grade. Moving forward this means all our students will never know a world without it. Without all the stats and stories about the power, potential and ills of this device, my concern is that students don’t have a choice anymore. As one small example, consider the average teen trying to sleep at night. Their choice is a world of information, entertainment and connection vs the back of their eyelids or time thinking quietly. That’s not a fair choice. That’s a choice many people struggle with including myself. Yes, we need parents to intervene, yes this is not specifically a school problem. But this one problem is repeated in various forms all day long. Schools are mostly worried about student focus and bullying. But this is way bigger.  I’m not sure we can ignore it.