Students Need Real-Life Experiences to Overcome the Lure of Mobile Devices

I sometimes feel like my life consists of moving from screen to screen. Every day it’s a cycle from home screen to mobile screen to work screen with only a few breaks in between.

It’s the same story when I go out in public. More and more people are looking down into their phones instead of looking up at the world around them. Doctors have even started to diagnose cases of “texting neck” — where the unnatural angle of looking down all day strains the head and neck muscles.

I can’t help thinking we should be fighting the shift to a screen-driven existence. Perhaps we can, if we make a special effort to foster more authentic connections in our classrooms. Here’s where to start:

Do good for each other in class

While our classroom needs rules, regulations and order, we need something more: a culture where all students are expected to treat each other well. You should say this openly at the start of the year, make it an expectation for behavior and create situations where no one is left out of an activity.

Random groupings, teaching collaborative strategies and having students participate in authentic learning activities such as problem-based units all can help students build authentic connections to one another. People bond through shared frustrations and successes, and your classroom can be a large part of that.

Launch a simple service project

If you want to help your students to connect with each other and with you, put together a service project. It doesn’t need to be anything elaborate or complicated. Simply starting a small food or clothing drive or sending letters of support to overseas military personnel can help your students think beyond their mobile devices.

You’ll help your students feel good about themselves and give them a common reference point to discuss and remember. We make the mistake of thinking that people connect face-to-face, but often they connect shoulder to shoulder. Put your students to do work doing good and you can make that happen.

Enable face-to-face conversations

Another way to help students connect is to create class activities that require them to discuss, solve and attempt things together. Get them busy researching and mulling over a problem. Their solution should be collaborative and they should share in its presentation to the class, and answer any feedback as a group.

It’s too easy today to communicate solely through text or email. Helping students develop face-to-face skills can offset the influence of the screen. Rather than spending their time considering their next text, status update or tweet, they can be working collaboratively to solve an age-appropriate complex problem.

Teach skills and awareness

I take pride in being an early adopter of technology that can help us live and work with greater ease and enjoyment, but I also believe children need direct, exclusive instruction on how to best use their screen-based technology. Children need to be taught:

  • When to use technology in public (and when not to).
  • Why they need to put it away for a period of time each day.
  • Why overuse is unhealthy.
  • That future employers will expect them to self-regulate their use of mobile devices.

It’s a mistake to brand all technology use as a bad thing. Instead, we have to reinforce to our children that anything can be harmful if used too much. We can best do this by modeling the expected behavior, setting limits on device usage and offering alternative activities in our classrooms.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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