Students and Devices: Trying to Find the Answers

I’m trying to figure something out.

At the risk of admitting my age, I will disclose that when I was in middle school, the following were popular “first run” television shows: “The Brady Bunch,” “The Partridge Family,” “The 6 Million Dollar Man,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Happy Days,” and “Laverne and Shirley.”  That was some great TV right there. The thing is, I watched an appalling amount of television when I was a kid.

At that time, there were articles in newspapers and magazines about the harm being done to children through too much TV exposure. My parents and teachers talked a great deal about it: All these kids do is watch television; they don’t play outside anymore; they don’t interact with each other. My teachers lamented that they couldn’t compete with the nature of the material as it was presented on the television screen. I distinctly remember my 10th-grade English teacher, Rich Settani, ranting to my class about TV and how hard it made his job: “Big Bird, Sesame Street … I can’t compete with that! I don’t even wear colorful ties!” (We loved Mr. Settani.)

To anyone following the present-day debate about children and device use, these conversations will sound more than a little familiar. Are devices harming our children? As a middle level principal, I am particularly interested in this discussion.

There’s an informative study from Common Sense Media and a series of TED Talks on this subject. At both sites, you’ll find evidence both for and against device use by young people and adults. Their arguments sound vaguely similar to the disputes about TV watching that proliferated when I was in middle school.

As a principal, I am often called upon to weigh in on this debate. To be honest, I’m trying to figure it out.

I have a small scar above my left eye. When I was 4 years old, while I lay on the floor watching a TV on a metal stand, I kicked over the stand and the TV fell on my face.

Stitches.

As far as I can determine, this is the greatest harm that has ever come to me from watching television.

Our teachers and students can accomplish incredible things through the use of technology that I couldn’t even dream of when I was in middle school. Using technology, teachers can gather real-time, personalized data from students about their learning and connect them with each other and with the world in amazing ways.

But if I posted a photo of my cafeteria on a Tuesday or a Thursday (not Wednesday, that’s “device-free day”), you’d see too many students with their heads buried in their phones. This can’t be a good thing, can it? Personally, I rely on my phone to stay organized, to track data, and to connect with my personalized network of other learners who share ideas and give me valuable support.  But the urge to frequently check my phone has become a physical tic that I know interferes with my relationships and attention span. So you can see how I’m ambivalent when it comes to the blessings and curses of devices.

Principals often share expertise and conclusions, but what do they do when they don’t have either? Is it okay for a principal to say, “I don’t know the answer to this?” I hope so, because that’s what I’m saying.

I choose to believe that there’s power in learning alongside the stakeholders in our school community. I will engage kids and adults in focused conversations, share experiences, help them reflect, and gather data and opinions about our technology use. I’m trying to find the answers to questions about children and devices, but in the meantime, I hope I’m modelling what it means to be a learner.

Are there areas of your practice as a leader or teacher that you haven’t figured out? How are you modeling your learning? How can we be transparent about the process as we learn new things and try to find answers to life’s essential questions?

Donald Gately, Ed.D., serves as the principal of Jericho Middle School in Jericho, NY. He was the 2016 New York Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @donald_gately and visit his blog.

2 Comments

  • Joy says:

    Don, you are right! The best thing we can do as learners is to admit what we do not know and commit to figuring out the answers together. We also have to be comfortable with the shifts that might happen to moderate our technology use as we learn more about its impact on our everyday use and interactions.

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