Mayoral Musings: Phone-Free Spaces...

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BRIDGETON, N.J. - a way to limit distractions at concerts, in courtrooms, and most especially, in school classrooms.

When it comes to the topic of education and how to improve it, it seems like many discussions center on topics such as whether or not to have standardized tests, the frequency of such testing, and actual standards, among other things. These discussions are certainly important, but they are mostly outcome-based, focusing on the result as opposed to how you get there, or the process.

So I was somewhat intrigued when I read a recent news story about a small experiment at the Maxson Middle School in Plainfield, New Jersey, in which students are required to turn off their cell phones and place them in specially made protective pouches during the school day. This may sound insignificant, but I it see as important because it gets directly at issues involving the process of teaching and the process of learning. What could be more distracting than cell phones that have teachers competing with social media and texting for their attention?

As for the particulars of the experiment, it involves neoprene pouches made by a company called Yondr. Students get their own pouch, which is individually numbered and is designed so that it is able to be locked and made secure. At the start of each school day, phones are turned off and locked inside the pouch, which stays with the student all day, and then is unlocked when school lets out on a special device that is also provided by Yondr.

In addition to use in schools, Yondr touts phone-free spaces such as concerts, courtrooms, or other gatherings where phones would be a distraction or worse. I’m now thinking of the musician or performer of some type who, in addition to not wanting distractions or interruptions, doesn’t want someone making an unauthorized video of a performance but wants to retain the right to profit from video sales.

I’m also thinking about courtrooms and certain government meetings where it is essential to capture the proceedings on the record, word for word, without ringing phones or whatever other sounds (and there are many) might issue from these mini-computers we carry around in our pockets. But courtrooms and meetings aside, I see the biggest upside of these “phone-free” spaces in the halls and classrooms of our schools.

It’s not just the question of distractions during the school day, but one of attention. The National Center for Biotechnology Information says that the average attention span for people has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013, which, they point out, is one second above goldfish. I don’t know if that’s true, but I believe it.

I think about myself, and I am a big offender, along with my colleagues and many other professionals I know who supposedly have sharpened their adult powers of concentration and focus. I know that each sound and vibration coming out of our phones alerting us to some new friend request, status update, blog post, e-mail, text message, headline alert, or sale offer means we have to refocus on the task at hand and pick up where we left off—assuming we actually can.

If harnessing our full powers of concentration and focus is difficult for adults (and it is), how much more for the developing mind of a child? As children grow, they have to learn how to actually learn and that requires learning how to focus and concentrate. That’s hard enough in a school environment without teachers competing with thousands of small digital distractions courtesy of today’s smart phones.

There will no doubt be some who will say that there should be no restrictions on students and their phones, citing school shootings, family emergencies, and after-school transportation logistics as examples where immediate and unfettered phone access would be needed throughout the school day. I’m not unsympathetic but those are different issues in need of different solutions.

I don’t know if Yondr’s neoprene pouch experiment will yield all of the results hoped for or if it will come with some unintended consequences. The Maxson Middle School spent more than $11,000 on a lease to outfit 750 students with their own pouch. If it works, they’ll expand it to five other schools and get a bulk rate of $10 per pouch.

As I consider students in our community and the money spent trying to move the needle on test scores and achievement, Yondr might be worth a try here.


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