Technology as Distraction

Like many before this post started with a tweet….

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 the future.

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 became 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 versus 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. We should be asking questions and teaching things like:

  • “How to be alone?”

  • “What does it mean to be disconnected?”
  • “How can we better appreciate the simple joys of life?”
  • “How do we develop habits of mind and body when the dopamine effects of these devices are so compelling?”
  • “What does contentment look like?”

Those questions are ones adults should be reflecting on forever. They are hard questions. But if you get them right, chances are you’ll live a rich life. One huge advantage adults today have is we remember a time without smartphones. Not to be overly nostalgic, but there were some habits and experiences we had that need to be revived.

Until recently schools’ exclusive responsibility was academic only. Social, emotional and physical well-being fell into the “nice by not necessary” column. That is changing somewhat but we’re still far from where we need to be. Schools have not traditionally been asked to care for student’s health beyond a mandatory few classes. This isn’t as exciting as helping kids become entrepreneurs, creating an app, getting a scholarship or even just helping them graduate. Talking about the power and potential of the technology is exciting and very palatable. I should know, that I’ve done this and continue to get invited to share messages that promote technology as a powerful tool for learning. I’m not going to stop but I have and will continue to embed hard truths and realities about focusing on what really matters. I don’t want anyone to be distracted by technology. I’m not a mental health expert. My little book on joy is about all I know. And while it’s far from a manual, it at least speaks to the value of living a life of wonder, gratitude and joy. That’s a start. Mental health is complicated, and messy and doesn’t translate well to data or even a story.  But our current level of focus and attention on well-being is pretty abysmal.  I’ve not even mentioned physical health which I believe is far underserved. If it were me, I’d be fine to trade in all the time we spend on Math and use it for health. That’s a simple solution but the bigger concern is what are we going to do about this? Unless policy, curriculum (thankfully BC and Ontario have started this shift but it’s really early in its implementation) and intent change, we’ll do what we always do, acknowledge it’s an issue and keep doing what we’re doing.