Is there a bit of hyperbole and bias involved in my assessment of the current situation? Perhaps, but that is the thing about biases – we are rarely aware of our own and they often color our view of reality. So even if I am biased, I may not be able to see it and probably wouldn’t willingly admit it when I am trying to prove a point. Likewise, my students are certainly biased in their defense of cell phones and social media as not being a problem in their lives. So that becomes one goal of this unit: to determine if the soft and subjective perceptions of teachers and students match the undeniable data and irrefutable evidence of academic research regarding the impact of modern technology.
I can, if I am looking for an excuse, take some small comfort in the fact that I am not alone; historically, almost every assessment of new ideas, new playthings, new tools, new practices and policies, and new people (whether just born or just arriving) has been fraught with prejudice and personal agendas. This is why it is important for the newest generation and every generation arriving after it to acquire the skills necessary to discern between objective information and bias-driven propaganda. This includes an understanding of our own cognitive biases, an ability to identify the logical fallacies used purposefully or inadvertently to sway audiences, and a familiarity with the rhetorical elements of ethos, pathos, and logos necessary to evaluate the merits of the arguments being made to us. So that set of knowledge and skills becomes a subordinate necessity to the first aim of this curriculum unit.
It is imperative to have my students develop a more clear and carefully supported understanding of the impacts modern technology is having on their lives, with specific attention paid to cell phones and social media (for the purposes of this unit, future references to tech can be considered shorthand for these two elements of modern technology) because these are kids who are in desperate need of any advantage that will help them survive and succeed in this world. Modern technology could provide that advantage for some of them. Many of these kids are also precariously close to falling into patterns of poverty, dysfunction, degradation, and despair. Cell phones, and social media could spur and speed their descent. What may really matter to their success is their ability to tell the difference between good and bad actors through the critical consideration of offers tendered and promises made. What may really matter to their social serenity and economic comfort is their ability to create and maintain healthy and potentially advantageous relationships with technology, particularly through their cell phones and social media. What may really matter to their socio-economic evolution in this society is their development of four simple skills.
To that end, in my classes, all assignments fall into at least one of four categories: curiosity, creativity, persistence, and self-regulation. These are four of the many “soft skills” that are commonly known to improve one’s likelihood of success in any situation or under any circumstances for which success is possible. Much has been written about these skills and they have often been promoted as highly important to the modern classroom. A recent academic publication entitled Non-cognitive Skills and Factors in Educational Attainment encapsulates much of the research on their value to academic, career, and personal success,5 but there are many articles and resources on their value as well as how to implement them in the classroom that can be easily found on-line. The logic supporting their worth is simple: if you are truly curious you will always seek out answers to the questions you have and doors to new opportunities you might enjoy or need. When a student does not read the required assignment, it often is not because he can’t – it is because he is incurious about what the teacher is offering him (or more curious about alternative options available to him).
Similarly, if you are truly creative, you can always come up with a solution to ameliorate or eliminate a problem that vexes you. When a student wallows in the wake of a problem rather than working through it, it often isn’t because the problem is unsolvable – it is because she lacks the imagination to approach it from another direction or use the assets available to her in new and creative ways. If you are persistent, you will always allow time for your curiosity and creativity to do its magic and you will not give up until you have arrived at a satisfying conclusion. When student work is sloppy or half-finished, it is not because the student couldn’t do better – it is because the student isn’t willing to keep working toward a grander goal. If you are self-regulated, you will not become so easily distracted from the important tasks at hand, nor will you sacrifice larger long-term gains for immediate superficial and short-lived pleasures. When the student stops working out of boredom or frustration, these are not signs that the work is boring or too difficult – this is evidence that he lacks the willpower to avoid activities that are more immediately gratifying. I would argue that grades have always been determined by the student’s mastery of these “soft skills,” but this system makes that relationship more explicit. Reinforcing these skills will be a subsidiary aim of this unit for my classes, and I recommend it highly to anyone who teaches struggling students, but depending on your familiarity and comfort with these ideas (as well as the expectations for grading your school imposes), you may not want to include them as a core undertaking during your study of cell phones and social media.
The subject of this unit logically requires that students will read a variety of articles and essays on the effects of cell phones and social media on people in general, and adolescents in particular. Some of these texts will be provided in the bibliography below, some you or they will need to seek out according to interests and issues of timeliness. Through rhetorical analysis of these texts, students will determine how skeptical they should be of this information and how much they should probably take to heart. Ideally, they will begin to differentiate between reliable sources of information and those with an agenda that may not be in line with the health and happiness of the reader, or society as a whole. More to the main objective of this unit, they will recognize more completely what they are sacrificing through obsessive use of their cell phones and social media.
To make matters worse kids are living in an age when their tech addictions are not only supported by many of their parents and friends, but are seemingly given a wink and a nod (if not overt encouragement) by teachers and administrators at many of their schools. Aside from the lax regulation of cell phones in many schools due to inadequate understanding of their deleterious effects and a faculty exhausted by even the thought of engaging in the emotionally taxing and tremendously time-consuming fight to break students of their well-formed habits regarding surreptitious (or occasionally blatant) use of these devices, there comes from many corners of education the echo that the use of technology is a 21st century skill and therefore must be encouraged. With little research-based support for this (without explicit rules regarding this use and in-depth training for teachers), especially when it comes to cell phones, administrators are hired explicitly for their willingness to promote technology in the classroom and teachers are asked (or coerced) to incorporate it into any lesson they possibly can. This is all done under the auspices of making education appear more relevant in the modern era. This cultish ideology ignores the research suggesting that technology may not improve learning outcomes and may, in fact, be detrimental to them. It ignores that only some technology in some forms has proven beneficial, but only in circumstances when teachers have been properly trained and students have the appropriate framework of basic skills. More often, it seems, the distractions caused by cell phones and other forms of technology “harm not only the user, but classmates as well” in spite of student reports that their technology does not impact their learning.6 Especially with regard to student attempts at multitasking (surreptitious or otherwise), the research suggests that attempting it produces negative outcomes on almost every standard measure of learning skills and achievement.7 So my students (and ideally their teachers and parents) not only need an awareness of how their personal devices affect their growth and learning, but also how the modern pedagogy of technology may also may be hindering or robbing them of their success in academics.
Having this awareness, it will then be incumbent on my students to “pay it forward” and offer what advice they can to children younger than themselves who might be straying (or hurling themselves headlong) into an unhealthy relationship with social technology. The vehicle for this could be letters they write to middle school students offering warnings and advice based on their research. By having the class discuss the most important findings of their research and agree upon the most essential elements of the messages they hope to deliver to their pen pals, teachers can be relatively assured that the information being passed along is accurate and helpful to the younger students receiving these letters. An additional layer of supervision over these interactions can also being implemented during the editing process, with no letters being delivered that have not been reviewed by the teacher. Hopefully these letters will spark some longer (and perhaps in-person) conversations about the topics they address, as a sense of belonging to a real community based on in-person interactions is helpful in preventing or overcoming an obsession with digital interactions. Alternatively, they could create a website or a video that provides helpful information and tips for teens and younger students. They may even come up with better ways to communicate their learning to others and help us achieve the second major aim of this unit: to share our acquired wisdom in a way that benefits (and perhaps creates) a larger community of people.
While they are working on their letters we will be reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (with perhaps an alternative for the sake of differentiation, serving individual tastes, or pushing more adept readers – maybe 1984 by George Orwell or 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke . . . or something else with numbers in the title so they know it’s scientific) and discussing what predictions for the future (relative to the author) he got right (either literally or in spirit) and where he might have erred. Depending on time, interest, and the need for models, they may also supplement their reading with a second novel or variety of short stories, poems, and essays that make predictions about the future, analyzing the prescience of these authors as well.
Once they have completed this work, they will have the option of writing a poem, short story, or essay that offers their own predictions for the future of technology, particularly in the realms of video games, cell phones, and social media. This written piece will give them an opportunity to hone their creative writing skills and also satisfy the 3rd (or sixth, depending on how you count – someone should be keeping track) aim of this unit: taking what we know about the past and what we have learned about the present to make logical inferences and evidence-based predictions about the future of our relationships with technology and each other.