Are smartphones a godsend or a danger? How can schools incorporate technology into their curricula without letting it dominate students’ lives? Schools everywhere are scrambling to figure out the answers to these questions.
At Oakcrest, our technology policies are informed by the basic premise that we want students to focus on learning, academics, growing in virtue and forming healthy relationships with those around them. In practice, this means giving students the practical resources they need while drawing healthy boundaries around technology use.
Since smartphones have become such a huge part of our teens’ lives, the most burning question is what students should be allowed to do with them during the school day. Oakcrest’s general rule is that cell phones should be out of sight and out of mind during school hours. Students in grades 6-9 may not bring smartphones to school (although they may bring a phone without data or access to internet and leave it in their lockers during the school day). For students in grades 10-12, phones must be turned off and stored in student lockers from 7:50 am until dismissal. Students are always encouraged to use the time before and after school to socialize with each other rather than be on their phones.
While a cell phone free environment may seem counterintuitive in today's online social media milieu, we believe we are ahead of the curve. Teaching constructive use of time with others, organizational skills for a full day of classes, study techniques for homework designed to develop thoughtful critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities - keeps our students and faculty partnering in not just hard work but deep work.
Beyond phones, our students are encouraged to learn how to use technology in a manner that encourages purposeful learning. Oakcrest students take a technology class where they learn how to explore and use technology effectively and responsibly. The course covers topics such as best practices for research; privacy issues and concerns; social media and impacts on digital footprint; women’s role in technology and computer science; and light coding. For those students who want to delve deeper, the Upper School curriculum offers classes in computer programming and AP Computer Science Principles. Students frequently use the Microsoft Office Suite in their homework and learn how it can be a tool for productivity and data processing and presentation. Technology instructor Sanaz Noorbakhsh (Oakcrest Class of ‘00) describes the Oakcrest vision of good technology practices in the classroom: “Technology in the classroom is a privilege. Used appropriately, it can increase engagement and enhance teaching and learning. In our classroom, we focus on the concept of digital citizenship, which helps to learn how to use technology appropriately.”
This moderate approach makes sense in light of what we know about the effects of smartphone use on teenagers and the concerns that have been raised about technology’s effects on children in general. An article published in The Atlantic last year reported on a number of studies on these effects. Of particular note was a striking survey conducted amongst teens by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that found, without exception, that all screen activities are linked to less happiness, while nonscreen activities are linked to more.1 In Northern Virginia, where many public schools use iPads, laptops, and other forms of technology as a matter of course in their curricula, parents are expressing concerns about their children being on screens all day and spending little to no time in creative play outside or with friends.2 And an April 2018 Gallup poll of U.S. teachers revealed that 69% of educators believe digital devices actually hurt students’ mental and physical well-being.3
As smartphones’ effects have become clearer, other schools are following the same general route that Oakcrest has taken. Across the Atlantic, the French government recently passed a national law banning students ages 3-15 from using smartphones in school at all.4 The hope is that this practice will encourage students to engage more with their studies and the world outside the screen.
Here at Oakcrest we encourage our students to take advantage of the goods that technology has to offer while also recognizing that technology is simply a means to an end—the end being the discovery of truth and a greater engagement with reality. While we want our students to be technologically savvy, our first and foremost priority is to help them participate more fully in the truth, beauty and goodness of the world around us and the happiness found in face-to-face relationships.
Ultimately, we’ve found that establishing boundaries around technology unlocks a bounty of riches in the social, intellectual, and moral life of the entire community. It fosters in each student joy and the freedom to grow into the person God created her to be.
2. Lisa Lednicer, “Teaching with Tech,” Arlington Magazine, September/October 2018.
3. Brandon Busteed and Andrew Dugan, “U.S. Teachers See Digital Devices as Net Plus for Education,” Gallup, April 6, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/232154/teachers-digital-devices-net-plus-education.aspx.