Letter: Compassionate computing in schools

Here at The Grauer School, it seems every year we have more conversations about how ubiquitous cellphone technology is becoming. We debate if it’s addictive. We talk about what students, teachers and parents should do. We ramp up the policy or decline to. We’d much rather teach “discretion” and self-regulation than control. What about emergencies? Calculators on our phones? Whatever we decide, annually it seems it’s only a partial solution.

As our Dean of Students, Clayton Payne, expressed, “Interruptive technology always gains in ubiquity faster than we can address it.”

The classroom is a sacred space. When students use technology, they are not in that space. They are in a different room. The classroom world and the digital world are separate worlds.

Our peace of mind is breached when cell phones keep us, our children and teachers under surveillance. Concentration is adulterated and privacy violated.

Not long ago, I asked students what it was like being so tethered. What I discovered was students feel they need to be digitally tethered to friends and parents. But, to many, open cellphone use doesn’t resemble freedom.

When I told students they couldn’t stay by the phone, that we couldn’t continue this practice in class, many were anxious. The most common reason was worry their parents would be angry with them for not staying in touch.

“The misconception of urgency is yet another sign of addiction,” notes English teacher John Rubio.

Students express they need a hand and are trapped in this digital lure. They want guidance and our school feels some responsibility. Not all schools feel this—some free and democratic schools, particularly very small ones, leave it up to the students.

We currently define “compassionate computing” as using your digital device while maintaining full awareness of those you are with. To re-establish eye to eye connection in a cellphone-free environment, we’ve instituted a “cellphone storage pocket caddy” to hang inside the door of every classroom.

According to Nielsen, the average teenager now sends 3,339 texts per month. Studies show that multitasking like that is incompatible with serious cognitive work. Suggested protocol includes:

• Silence their devices putting them face down.

• Every 15 minutes, allow students to check phones for a minute.

• Gradually increase the interval to 30 minutes.

• If protocol is violated, students forfeit the next phone break.

• Using phones as part of a learning experience.

There are many places the minds of our students can go in our classrooms and at dinner tables It’s time to draw some clear lines. Check your phones at the door. Be here now. The classroom is sacred space.

Stuart Grauer, PhD,

The Grauer School