At Belmont University in Nashville this past weekend, my fiancee told me just about everyone was on his or her cell phones during the graduation ceremony. Not talking, but browsing the web, texting, tweeting, playing games. In my classroom, I frequently am forced to ask kids to put away their phones or iPods because, to them, anytime seems to be the right time to play a game or listen to music. It’s not just teenagers being teenagers, attempting to get away with it or push my buttons. Young people have grown up in a culture where it is the norm to distract oneself no matter the place or time. This is problematic.
On the new phenomenon of blurring lines between leisure and non-leisure spaces, S. Craig Watkins writes in The Young and the Digital:
In the current cultural milieu, fast entertainment is more than a luxury or a way to pass time. It is an entitlement more and more of us expect no matter where we are–at home, at work, in school, on vacation, or even when driving our cars. That cultural ethos, or the expectation that anytime is the right time for entertainment, is transforming our behavior and our world.
Watkins brings me back to thinking about the classroom–it’s a space where individuals having instant access to personal entertainment options used to be an absurd notion. Not anymore, but most schools have prudently been cautious or even downright authoritarian regarding phones and iPods in the classroom. Advocates for more lax cellphone and internet policies decry these rules as draconian or anachronistic. I used to be one of those advocates, writing a piece for Education Week promoting cell phone experimentation and use in class for educational purposes. I have changed my tune.
I don’t believe great learning can occur without a disciplined, non-distracted approach to thinking, writing, listening, and creating. We overestimate our abilities to multitask. And while advocates for students having open cell phone and internet connection at all times are right about certain advantages, such as opening students up to boundless sources of ideas and inspiration, most young brains don’t have the discipline to stay away from constantly checking their Twitter feed. Can we teach students to unlearn this tendency? Does anybody want to?
Today, when you ask students to turn off their computers, mobile phones, and iPods, you are asking them to turn off their lives. That’s a powerful idea. So when us educators tell students to put away and turn off their lifeblood, students take it personally.
It’s not just young people, of course. I catch myself texting at stop lights when it’s completely unnecessary. I occasionally watch YouTube clips of trick shot quarterbacks when I should be grading papers during my planning period.
Are their any spaces left where one escapes–or chooses to escape–from the constant pull of leisure, entertainment, and or distraction in the connected digital age? Is it worth trying to preserve some spaces? I found this story about a bride caught texting while walking down the aisle on her big day. Surely this is anomalous, ridiculous behavior, right?
It might be futile to revert to more restrained personal technology use. We are barreling towards a place and time where doing nothing, listening, watching, observing, and being in the moment is rare, even weird. I’ve got more questions than answers, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.