“There will be no electronics on this trip.”
“What about cell phones?”
“What about earbuds for the movies on the airplane?”
“What about iPads for the trip from the airport to our house?” [it is a long drive…]
I’ve just returned to Bermuda from a trip to Ontario with eight students. As per so many trips over the last eight years the above conversation played out. And as per so many trips there was a massive benefit to having students disconnect. On the airplane the students played cards, read, played chess with each other, talked to each other, and even started conversations with fellow passengers (I know, it’s hard to imagine talking on an airplane these days!). The stewardess commented on how well behaved, engaged, and polite my students were… I don’t think this is necessarily because they are any more polite than others; I think that is a reflection of them actually being engaged in their world rather than stuck in a virtual world.
On car trips the children literally sang songs and, for a change, looked out the windows and surmised who might live at that farm, or what that building is for, etc. When we were at the rental house they played outside, built snowforts, and even went ‘ice mining’. Inside they never touched the couches and instead chose to perfect their robots (we were in Ontario for a robotics competition) or volunteer to come cook meals with me.
In short, the students never missed their electronics. If there was an electronic device available (such as at Pearson airport on our departure, complete with its million iPads) they of course were mesmerized and drawn back to its power. But they all, without exception, thanked me for the no electronics rule and vowed to avoid their insta-feeds when they returned. I have my doubts about how long this vow will last – but at least, for four days only, they had a chance to be disconnected, or, as I see it, truly free.
We cannot ignore the wave of technology that our children and students live with, hence the whole robotics program that I lead here in Bermuda. However, we are also making a terrible mistake when our children are more connected to their devices than nature. Thus, a trip to Ontario included a day in the woods at Highlands Nordic and purposefully renting a home outside of the city limits where the children had acres to play on. It isn’t technology itself that is limiting our children – it is an incredible tool. It is the ability of the technology to become the social network, to replace creativity, and to stifle wonder that is the problem. Some new friends brought their very young son by to see the robots and I had the opportunity to accompany him on his explorations. He walked up to any team whose robot looked interesting and asked “can I see it work?” His ability to engage people around technology, rather than the technology engaging the people, was a clear demonstration the change we need: prioritizing people and relationships before technology.