• Slow learning
    February 20,2013

    Anyone who has carried a cellphone in his or her pocket knows the alluring power of the device to draw attention to itself. If it buzzes, you want to grab it. If you glance at its screen, your eyes and mind become transfixed.

    Teachers have had to contend with the allurements of the cellphone for years, and schools have enacted policies to limit the power of the devices to distract students. At least one Vermont high school regards cellphones as “nuisance items” that may be confiscated.

    Some legislators are considering a bill that would direct school boards around the state to enact policies to limit the ability of students to use cellphones at school. Of immediate concern are students’ use of their phones as weapons of bullying and to enable cheating.

    School officials say a law is not necessary — that most schools already have policies to curb the use of cellphones. They are probably right. Legislators are frequently tempted to go on record addressing a perceived problem, but their good intentions sometimes end up foisting on schools and local governments requirements that are redundant wasters of time.

    Forcing schools to show the state that they have adopted policies that they have already adopted would be such a time-waster.

    That is not to say the effort to combat bullying or cheating is not worthwhile. And it is not that the battle to capture the attention of students is not worth fighting. Schools are already fighting it and have been fighting it for decades. And with the proliferation of devices and the speed of electronic communications, the battle has become more urgent.

    In a sense, the mission of schools is to engage in a battle over the circuitry of young people’s brains. One of the fundamental tasks of schools is to teach reading and writing — which is really a process of slowing one’s brain down sufficiently and focusing attention intently enough actually to think.

    Schools often say that “critical thinking” is one of the powers they hope to foster among students. Critical thinking is the process of considering ideas, analyzing them, weighing alternative ideas and drawing a conclusion. The thought process required to read a book and then to distill its ideas and to develop one’s own ideas about the variety of ideas one is presented with on a topic — that is an arduous process. But it is at the root of what education is.

    Since the advent of television, students have had a beguiling alternative process for receiving information. One can watch a television program about the Civil War without engaging in any form of critical thinking. One gains impressions and familiarity. It is a lot easier than reading a book. Slowing the brain down enough to read and write about a topic is much harder.

    Cellphones engage the brain in a second-by-second process of visual and aural stimulation that removes a person even further from the slow, hard process of learning. If you are waiting for a text from a girlfriend because you sent her one 30 seconds ago, you are not paying attention to the teacher’s analysis of the Dred Scott case.

    Teachers face a difficult battle, showing students the rewards of the hard work demanded to focus attention on the written word. The rewards are there. Students who have been transfixed by “Catcher in the Rye” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” know this. But the cellphones have to be off.

    Schools have had to buy into the technology of the era, providing computers sufficient to educate students about their use. They have allowed students to use calculators to do math, even if the computing power of their brains may atrophy.

    It is a worthy fight that teachers will continue to wage, and they don’t need interference from Montpelier to acquaint them with its importance.

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