While wifi has crept into the skies and allowed us to access the world from 33,000 feet, there was always something so lovely about being up in the air, disconnected from the planet below, with only your playlist, the window view and the seatback pocket magazine for company. A set of noise-canceling earphones, some foam earplugs and a playlist including David Gray, Sting, Queen, a little OneRepublic and Imagine Dragons, and I’m transported a million miles away from the 200+ people around me and the engine roaring outside.
It was during one of these disconnected moments in November 2016, that I picked up Delta’s Sky Magazine and turned to an article called “Powering Down - companies are finding new ways to help cut the power cords that bind us to our devices - and return us to ourselves.” The author, Sarah Elbert, introduced me to a number of ideas that she had investigated that companies across America and the world were implementing in an endeavor to address that magical unicorn that is work-life balance. “For many of us,” she writes, “our phones are extensions of ourselves, a digital appendage that’s never far away and itches naggingly with every new email alert, vibration or notification.”
We all relate to that line, right? For many of us, these smart technologies have become an intrinsic part of ourselves and our day. The endless apps that apparently make life easier for us - tell us the weather, update us with what is going on in our social and wider world, count your steps, calories and even make phone calls. According to Pew Research, “77% of Americans now own a smartphone” (November 2016). Tracking this data only began in 2011. Within five years (the age of the average Kindergartener), two-thirds of the nation has access to this technology. Dig a little deeper and add in some demographics to find that “92% of 18- to 29-year-olds own a smartphone” (Pew Research Center), with rapid uptake in the 50 and older categories. The rapid adoption of technology has rewarded us with an interconnectedness never seen before on a planet of seven billion plus people. Rapid diffusion of ideas, concepts, knowledge, and wisdom haunting our desires, our hopes, elevating our dreams and ideas of what our lives should and could be, pervade our day. Long-term, we know from history that great ideas, enlightenment, wisdom and communication result in revolutions - and it’s been argued that we are in the age of the technology revolution. As Elbert wrote, “The long-term effects of our digital compulsions aren't fully known, though studies have shown that internet/gaming/tech addiction can affect the brain in much the same way that drugs do.”
That line got me hooked and as I continued to read, the article addressed how there were moves to disconnect the burned out masses - “tech fasts”, “retreats”, “unplug” - to “loosen our grip on technology”. As Director of Academic Technology in a 1:1 school that openly fosters healthy and open conversations about technology for learning, I wondered, “What is happening to our children’s wiring if they are constantly connected?” and “Where do we, as educators, get the balance?” I grabbed an old school pen and started to annotate the article with these and all the questions that it brought to my mind! Head of School, Mike Mersky would have been proud!
We’ve tinkered with these questions and ideas here in Saint Edward’s School. Mrs. Kennedy has her English students give up their phone (and social media) for a week (including a weekend) as a kind of social experiment. She uses Project Zero Visible Thinking strategies to enable students to collaboratively reflect on the experience and evaluate their engagement with this technology. The aim is to gain an understanding of their habits and lifestyle choices. Incidentally, this has also led to reflections from parents as to how they communicate with their 21st century digital natives!
During Spring Break, Dr. Monaghan takes a group of students to the heart of Yellowstone National Park to observe wolf packs. Phones are turned in at the start of the trip as they really are a useless appendage in a part of the world that is delightfully devoid of wifi connectivity. In our library, Mrs. Feliciano has observed the trend and will trial the opening of a “Phone Box” to dial down the device distraction and invite our students to make the decision to divorce themselves from their personal smartphone when they need to be more focused in the library, collaborative, quiet and silent spaces.
Even beyond the four walls of our school, we are, more and more, seeking strategies to put down the device - with many small business cafes, like Kibbitznest in Chicago (boasting “Books, Brews and Blarney”) ditching their wifi connections and even going so far as banning the swathe of the ethereal laptop glow that meets us when we frequent many chain coffee shops as many of the 21st Century workforces navigate their day to day work. It harkens back to the coffee shops of my teens - where we met with friends, hung out and talked “blarney”. I’m glad to see that this most Irish of ideas is very much still alive in Chicago today!
So as Spring Break approaches, I have a challenge for our parents, students, faculty, staff. Make Spring Break 2017 a “Screen Break”. Yes, I know you will be traveling to all sorts of exotic places and doing amazing things that you just have to post for all your friends to see instantly - because it can’t wait! (Note...it can and it should!) Yes, I know that being disconnected from all your friends just in case you miss something strikes fear into your hearts. But think about what you are missing when your face is buried in that little screen as the car whizzes down that winding, country road or as the aircraft majestically lifts into the air during take-off. The faces and expressions of the people that you meet, the sounds, the smells, the feelings that full immersion in a life evokes. I could write a list of strategies to help you put the device down - but the only strategy that matters is that you want to put it down. You want to experience life. You want to disconnect - because when we do, we reconnect with life in all it’s delicious wonder!
"BBC - Capital - Some Cafes Are Banning Wi-fi to Encourage Conversation." BBC News. BBC. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Smith, Aaron. "Record Shares of Americans Now Own Smartphones, Have Home Broadband." Pew Research Center. 12 Jan. 2017.
Web. 28 Feb. 2017.