LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The great sportswriter Frank Deford said that 99 percent of what is written in American media about schools has to do with sports. I have no reason to question his statistic. Certainly, 99 percent of what I have written about schools had to do with sports.
Today, then, I want to contribute to the other one percent. The board of Jefferson County Public Schools is considering the request of eight high schools to allow their pupils -- with teacher permission -- to bring cell phones into the classroom.
The reasons offered are that kids need to learn how to use technology; that Smartphones can help in scheduling and developing learning plans; that there are educational apps available, and other educational uses; and, my favorite, that cell phones are a leading cause of suspensions, so why not just let kids have them?
I certainly appreciate the value of technology. I write for a web site, for goodness sake. I published an e-Book. I have a webcast. Facebook. Twitter. Google Plus. I'm also, respectfully, not a freshman in high school. I text maybe five times a day. I go hours without checking email. On purpose. Let me share a confession. I struggle to write. The Internet, while a Godsend to writers in the way of research and information, also is a distraction. It splinters me into tangents. It drives wedges between thoughts and leaves my writing scattered. Through years of newspaper writing, I already had become conditioned to write in 500-word segments, and my attention span, I realized, was being reduced to the length of a blog post. There are, I have discovered, real-life consequences to the ways we use technology. Every vibration of the phone brings a distraction. And for each interruption, a USA Today-Mashable study estimates that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task.
In his book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains," Nicolas Carr says, "Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning." He characterizes the online life as, "A permanent state of distractedness."
That's one man's opinion. Here's another opinion. This one is courtesy of the Pew Research Center, and was done in conjunction with the College Board and the National Writing Project. It was released last November. In it, 87 percent of the teachers said technology is creating an "easily distracted generation with short attention spans."
A vast majority, 77 percent, said that Internet search tools have had a "mostly positive" impact on the work of their students. But more than two-thirds of teachers, 64 percent, in both middle and high school, said that today's technological gadgets "do more to distract students than to help them academically."
Those teachers must not be in Jefferson County, where the board was told last week that an overwhelming number of teachers in the eight high schools asking to allow cell phones in class were for the change.
Think about that statement, "more to distract students than to help them academically."
In a nation where soon one in 10 of our young people will be in treatment for some type of attention-deficit issue, why would we introduce more distraction into the equation?
Amanda Ripley recently published a book titled, "The Smartest Kids in the World." She took a look at the world's top two nations in educational achievement: Finland and South Korea, as well as its fastest-rising nation, Poland. She followed American exchange students in those countries to try to get an insight for what they're doing right.
Here's one thing they are not doing: Filling classrooms with a lot of technology.
In an interview with Public Radio International's "The World," Ripley said of American exchange students in those countries: "They found that the schools were very old fashioned. They didn't see the technology that they had in their American schools -- the fancy digital white boards on the wall, the laptops or iPads. Even in countries like Korea that are extremely wired and advanced compared to the U.S."
Ripley went on to say: "The U.S. is the third largest spender per student on K-12 education. Anecdotally we know that the U.S. seems to invest more in classroom technology, none of which tends to consistently produce returns in learning. And so it was interesting to see that the emphasis in these classrooms in Poland, and Finland and Korea was more about rigorous learning and less about, you know, shiny objects."
An 18-year-old exchange student to Poland, Tom, from Gettysburg, Pa., told the program, "It's not a question of how much technology we have in the classroom because all of my classes (in the U.S.) we do have laptops, and all of my classes we use smart boards. And what do kids do on their laptops? They play Flash games. And smart boards don't work all the time, and if they do, you're not doing anything that you wouldn't do on a chalkboard."
At some point, the question has to turn to actual education. Kids don't want to leave their cell phones in their lockers. You know what else many of them don't want to do? Math or science. Just giving a kid a cell phone in class doesn't mean they're going to start hearing you now.
And there is, and I know this is a cynical view, the question of money. Frankly, there's money in mediocrity. There's grant money out there for technology, and there's money out there for at-risk students. And if you bus the at-risk students around, you can spread out the money attached to them and instead of dumping a load of Title I money on an inner-city school that needs it, you're making it rain for schools all over your district.
When I hear a drumbeat for cell phones or other technology in schools, I have to ask: Who's selling the technology? Who's going to be hawking these new educational apps in the schools?
There are, without question, wonderful tools being produced that are used every day. I'm not saying they shouldn't be. They're intuitive and can isolate problems. Don't get me wrong. I understand technology can be a tool and it certainly has its place.
But it's only one tool.
And it also can be a distraction, and a powerful one. A text leads to a response. One Tweet leads to reading your whole timeline. If it takes 20 minutes -- or even 10 -- to get back to what you were doing, then you're just a few distractions away from wasting a whole class period.
It seems to me that kids are picking up on how to use Smartphone technology just fine. What might be just as valuable to learn is when to put the phones away and get to work. That's a problem many businesses are wrestling with right now.
Smartphones are fine. Smart kids, however, are even better.