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DAVIS: Government Limits, Parents’ Responsibilities

School districts are set to act on smartphone bans. That’s good. But failing to define what problem they hope to address means smartphone bans could fail before they’re ever implemented.

Tonight, Fredericksburg City Schools looks to become another in the line of divisions regionally and across the nation to join the smartphone-ban movement.

Huzzah! Now watch those test scores soar!


As I wrote last week in the inaugural column for Education 540, there is evidence to suggest that removing smartphones from a dopamine-driven generation does, in fact, elevate scores. Especially for those from economically deprived backgrounds.

Once the phones are gone, however, what’s next? No one’s really saying. And that’s a problem.

Government Limits

For years, conservatives have rightly complained about the “Nanny State.” Expecting government to fix every problem we have.

But as Michael Horn rightly pointed out in a column for the right-leaning Hoover Institute publication Education Next, Ban the Cell Phone Ban,” what schools are doing regarding smartphones looks a lot like the string of failed ban-it-out-of-sight nonsense we’ve seen before.

[C]ellphone bans are following the larger trend of banning many things in schools—from books to speakers to certain kinds of speech or topics of debate. Cellphones may make for another easy bogeyman, but blanket bans are ill-informed and regressive.

Why don’t these bans work?

Because when the ban is posited as the solution, then the problem often hasn’t been clearly defined. We reach for bans to hammer perceived enemies; not solve real-world problems.

What, precisely, are King George and Caroline and Stafford and Fredericksburg schools trying to accomplish? If it’s simply raising test scores, then we can reasonably say now that the bans will fail.

Smartboards are in most every classroom in Fredericksburg, and students are issued personal computers. In other words, one screen is being removed, but two other screens that feed the same dopamine addiction, remain.

Teachers are consistently told that lecturing should be limited to 15-20 minutes per class period.

A Washington Post article in 2017 captures the feeling of many professional educators and administrators as it concerns lectures — “It Puts Kids to Sleep—But Teachers Keep Lecturing Anyway.” An article in Science piles on: “Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too.”

Yet lecturing need not be limited to the teacher talking and students listening. It can include Socratic teaching; semiformal, informal, and multimedia lecturing; and more. So lecturing isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s students’ and teachers’ collective inability to talk in depth over an extended period of time on a select topic without distraction that has become the issue.

We’re further hampered by our increasing unwillingness to live with uncertainty. Teaching to provide answers is not teaching. Teaching to create intellectual curiosity and discomfort is the point of education.

Smartphones stunt our ability to do both.

So again. Bans are the answer? Not if we insist on hiring teachers whose primary qualifications are credentials, as opposed to knowledge.

By high school certainly, and I would argue in middle school, as well, the soft skills that run through much of elementary school training — and rightly so — need to start giving way to the hard tasks of learning to think independently.

When students begin to grasp that for most issues in life, there isn’t a right or wrong solution, but multiple solutions; and when they begin to live with inherent contradictions in human life, any human life; then they are ready to wade into the world and all the tools that are available — including smartphones.

In short, if this is what they’re trying to accomplish, then a government ban can help. But short a clear idea of what is going to fill the void that removing smartphones creates, this government ban shifts from helpful to overreach.

Parents’ Responsibilities

The other reason a simple ban won’t work is parents themselves.

In an age in which “parents’ rights” has become a cause célèbre, and the idea that parents know instinctively what’s best for their children, our collective smartphone addiction suggests otherwise.

In fact, a large reason we’re in this predicament is that many parents have given over the development of their children’s minds not to schools, but to screens.

That conclusion is supported by a recent study out of the University of California San Francisco — a graduate school of health sciences in the U.C. system.

The article coauthored by UCSF research Joseph Nagata titled “Associations between media parenting practices and early adolescent screen use,” comes down to this:

Parent screen use, mealtime screen use, and bedroom screen use were associated with higher adolescent problematic screen use and could be limited in a family media use plan. Parental monitoring and limiting of screen time are associated with less problematic screen use.

In short — ban all the phones you want. But until parents can learn to sit down at dinner with their kids and not distract themselves or their children every time that phone beeps at them, then removing phones from schools won’t help.

Carpe Diem

We sit at a rare moment of agreement in education. Left, right, and center generally agree that some sort of restrictions on phones needs to occur.

What this should open up is an opportunity to explore as a community what we want education to be and do.

Unfortunately, we’ll most likely tick the date the ban starts on the calendar, then start comparing test scores pre- and post-bans.

Scores go up, we declare victory. Scores go down, and we begin pointing fingers.

Either way, the same ignorance that has gripped the public square goes on.

School districts have an opportunity right now to do something great.

Martin Davis is the Editor in Chief of the FXBG Advance. This article is republished with permission from the FXBG Advance. 

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