The Most Important Lesson On Technology in Schools

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

I’m a high school teacher, so I spend every day in the classroom hoping to impart some kind of wisdom to my students. Sometimes I know that class time is better spent relating to them as humans and trying to pass on life lessons, rather than worrying about the content I’m supposed to be teaching them.

The other day, for example, one of my classes came in and before class even started I could see exhaustion and sadness in their faces. And I don’t just mean just a few students, but nearly the entire class looked as if they had just experienced some traumatizing event.

So I had a choice to make: I could start with my planned lesson and force the students through whatever it was that I wanted them to learn that day or I could improvise and come up with a new plan to take their minds off whatever troubles they were experiencing.

There I stood in front of my class, looking out at their forlorn faces. So, I decided to intervene by asking, “What’s going on with you guys today?”

It didn’t take long for one of the most outspoken girls in the class to speak up first. “School is really stressful,” she said.

“How so?” I asked. Half-knowing exactly what she would say next.

And then she basically gave me the response I was expecting. I’ve been teaching for long enough that this sort of complaint isn’t new to me. Students will always say that tests are too hard, teachers are too cruel, there isn’t enough time to study etc. None of this is new to school or to students’ lives.

This time, however, something seemed different. Because it wasn’t just this one student voicing her concerns. I looked around the room and even some of my usually perky, never-the-type-to-complain students looked despondent too. In their case, it wasn’t necessarily that school was too much. There were other underlying factors contributing to this overwhelming sense of defeat in my students.

That’s when I saw that some of my students, instead of participating in this open discussion which had nothing to do with learning, took the opportunity to pull out their cell phones. I saw them checking their notifications, because they thought discussion was a class derailment clearly was not meant for a grade so they had free rein to “check out” for a moment.

Now normally I just tell students to put their phones away. I don’t allow them to use their devices in class, but I’m also not one of those teachers who yell at students about it. I will politely go by a student and simply remind them to “put it away please” — which is something I’ve also wanted to tell adults in the real world lately. On any other day I would’ve re-directed the student and moved on with the lesson, but today was different.

In looking around the room at the student’s natural tendency to “check out” on their phones I had an epiphany — much like the “ah-ha” moments that usually takes place on my students’ faces. This time the lesson clicked for me instead. I realized that the reason so many of my students looked absolutely drained and saddened by life was because of their addiction to their devices.

I recently posted about this exact addiction that I myself experienced. I felt like I needed to take a break from technology and instituted a bit of digital cleanse for myself. And I was able to do this pretty easily, because I’m an adult completely in control of my emotions and cognizant of how technology was affecting my life.

My students, however, are not as self-aware as fully mature adults. Their brains are still developing and I realized that day what a deleterious role that technology was playing in this process. I witnessed how addiction to technology and the ever-increasing competition for “likes” on social media or “W’s” (“dubs” as students say, which mean “wins”) at the latest video game craze has spiked anxiety through the roof for my students. In some ways, just watching how compulsively they check their notifications and unlock their phones was giving me anxiety.

In fact, two university researchers — Drs. Richard Harvey and Erik Peper — surveyed a group of college undergraduate students to find out how technology impacted their lives. As Dr. Peper points out,

“It’s like being in a casino and hearing the slot machines ringing. There’s a goodie there. When you hear the notification or feel the buzz of your phone, there’s a goodie waiting for you. We are wired as human beings to update our gossip for the survival of the species. We needed to know what was going on to survive. These notifications are an evolutionary trap. They take the signal that we previously used to survive, and now they’ve amplified it.”

To an adult, such an addiction would be difficult to overcome but then imagine how much more difficult for impressionable youth, like my students. In a world of constant distractions — and high-speed connectivity — some students don’t understand how it is affecting their brain development and emotions.

And it’s more than just cellphones. At the school where I teach all students are “1-to-1”, which means every student has their own laptop that they carry around and take home with them. So teachers have become accustomed to using computers for assignments and classroom learning. I, for one, love the many advantages that having computers has afforded my lessons and teaching. I can connect my students to the world at large, which is huge for learning a new language and exploring far away countries and cultures. Students can also connect with me so much more easily outside of class and, even better for me, the less fun tasks of teaching — such as keeping grades — are now quick and painless.

But there are also dangers of students having their own laptops. It took a few years into the 1-to-1 environment for me to fully comprehend that sometimes I must force a student to shut his or her computer. Or worse, I had to take the computer away altogether, because the student didn’t have the self-control to regulate his or her own behavior.

And throughout the past few years this technological lifestyle has become ubiquitous in American society. So much so, that almost all students in school, and even younger children, are essentially connected at school, home, and everywhere in between. And although some of them are learning to regulate their behaviors, what they aren’t learning about is the effect that the exposure to instant notifications via social media coupled with immediate gratification when watching Youtube or binge-watching Netflix is having on their mental health. Not to mention that no one in school is talking about how screen time, especially late at night, is affecting students’ ability to not only get enough sleep but also restful sleep.

That’s why, on this day in the classroom, I altered my lesson to accommodate a much-needed teachable moment. As previously mentioned, I had been working on mindfulness in my own personal life. So I had done some reading about meditation and how to be fully present as a way to overcome life’s stressors — one of which, ironically, is my students.

So rather than continuing with what we were learning in class, I simply stopped everything and told my students to sit quietly and put everything away. I turned off the lights and then I found a guided meditation recording to play over the speakers of my classroom for my students to listen to. The calm, soothing voice of the instructor told us to close our eyes, so we all did.

And for five minutes no one talked and everyone concentrated on their breathing. Now naturally, as the teacher in the room, I opened my eyes to peek at how well this experiment was going or whether my students were secretly looking at their phones instead. To my surprise, my high school students were not only participating, but I could see that they were starting to relax.

After the brief meditation was over, I continued the lesson by speaking openly and candidly with my students about what I was noticing in their behavior. I also shared my own personal journey with tech addition and how I worked to overcome this by deleting social media apps and limiting my screen time. Some students spoke up and admitted that their phones did make them feel stressed out. They hated dealing with incessant texts, notifications and the compulsion to have their phone nearby at all times. It was eye-opening for me that they would be so honest and in agreement what what I was saying.

And the lesson that day was, for me, the most important lesson I’ve taught these students all year.

Although my experiment was just a small part of my students’ school day, I think it has had an important impact on teaching them to be more mindful and reflective. As a matter of fact, it was rewarding to hear only a few weeks afterward what impact this small moment had for one of the students from this class. She and her mom came up to speak with me during the usually scheduled parent-teacher conferences. As I routinely ask all of my the students who show up with their parents, I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help her in my class and she said, “More meditation, that was helpful!”. Her mom even loved the idea and agreed that mindful practices like these are important for students.

And this brief interaction led me to another revelation: why couldn’t schools actively incorporate more mindfulness practices throughout the whole school day?

The episode of stressed-out students in my classroom was by no means an isolated event. I could recall that in recent years I had more and more students missing school and some even becoming hospitalized due to various mental health issues. I watched students struggle in class, because of ADD or ADHD or depression. And although these aren’t new diagnoses for teachers to accommodate, I had noticed that maybe their prevalence among students was increasing.

As it turns out, a recent study found that between the years 2009 and 2017, the rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by over 60%. At the same time, rates of suicide among teens climbed as well. And in the midst of all of these unfortunate problems, schools have kept trying to teach and help students learn, all the while knowing learning is nearly impossible with other mental health issues affecting the livelihoods of our students.

But is it possible, that many of these mental health issues are a direct result of the screen time epidemic? Could it be, that the stress of technology coupled with the normal school pressures is actually increasing stress for students and yet schools haven’t really done anything to combat these issues? There is good evidence that this theory makes sense.

So I did some research and discovered that this increase in mental health issues among teens is not a coincidence. In fact, Dr. Jean Twenge — prominent researcher and professor of psychology — wrote her most recent book about the distinct differences in behavior that characterize the generation after millennials (which I belong to). Dr. Twenge refers to this newest generation as “iGen” — marked by changes in adolescent behavior right around the year 2012. This specific year overlaps, interestingly, with when smartphone usage in America surpassed 50% of the population — so all children born right before or after this year are now growing up not knowing a world without the internet, the iPhone, or Instagram. In her words,

“There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.”

For these reasons, it’s critical that schools implement new strategies to adapt to this new generation and their unique set of struggles — such as mindfulness strategies throughout the day. Much like my impromptu meditation session, schools should take a more proactive approach to helping students develop their own self-awareness, especially as it pertains to technology usage in their lives. There is nothing wrong with using technology as a tool, but I think schools are missing an opportunity to teach students how to use and manage their tech habits to become effective and happy adults.

Given the hectic, ever-increasing pace of life due to technology, if we want to prepare students to be successful in their futures, then we must teach them mindfulness practices and how to self-regulate screen time. It’s about teaching coping strategies for handling the spectrum of feelings that we all experience each and every day — such as the anger felt when someone sends you a nasty text or the joy of bingeing your favorite show on Netflix.

Still, there are many other reasons besides technology for why schools need to teach mindfulness. In fact, I would argue that the current education system has features that work in tandem with the stresses of technology. American schools are designed to promote competition, which causes additional stress and anxiety for students. From comparing grade point averages to betting their future on standardized test scores, school is almost like survival of the fittest. I know from experience that this causes students to feel alienated and anxious in their classes. It creates an environment in which students don’t care about true growth and learning, but rather just want the “right” answer so they can be done and get back to seeking instant gratification from their devices.

Another challenge is that many of the adults in the school system don’t exhibit their own mindfulness either. I have witnessed teachers lash out at students, clearly not in control of their own personal feelings, and in doing so create a divide between them and their students. And technology has only enhanced these feelings so that many of the adults in schools aren’t aware of the anxiety-producing and addictive behaviors that technology has brought upon themselves, their students and the rest of society.

Now how can schools integrate mindfulness education into everyday learning?

I think it starts with small, repeated lessons to help build self-awareness in students. Things like having mindful moments — maybe at the beginning and end of every day — to pause and reflect on life and learning. It could also mean actively putting devices away to engage with people in the room. It could mean learning meditation or keeping a gratitude journal to share throughout the year. It could mean building in small breaks in the school day so that instead of rushing from one stressful class to another — especially after major tests — students could instead take time for themselves to recharge.

But these lessons aren’t just for students, after all, don’t adults need these coping mechanisms in their jobs as well? For example, I like to sit in silence after lunch when I have my plan period, because I need a break from the chaos of teaching. I like to make a cup of tea or coffee and sip it leisurely while I choose what sort of work I want to accomplish. This is my mindful moment every day and I don’t see why students shouldn’t get their own too.

So let’s imagine a world where all people understand that technology is only a tool, not a way of life. Where everyone knows how to turn off their screens and engage with the world around them, because it matters for their mental well-being. A world where people are in tune with not only their own emotions, but also of those around them. A world where people communicate in person and deeply connect with each other, instead of responding behind their digital profiles. A world where mental health issues begin to decline, because people are equipped with strategies to manage the everyday stresses that come with the modern lifestyle.

That world is possible, if we start sharing this important lesson now.