Monthly Archives: March 2015

iPhone separation and communication

Apparently, iPhone separation results in measurable negative changes to cognition, emotion, and physiology. To which I say, “duh!” I see it every day at my school, as kids walk in the halls like zombies with their faces buried in their electronic devices. I see it every day in my library, as kids text and tweet after repeated requests from me to stop. They can’t. I have a standing $10 bet with any kid to give me his or her cell phone for the duration of a class period. No one has ever taken me up on it. And now a study out of the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication backs me up. The study involved college students, but the same effects can readily be seen among my high-school students.

In a nutshell, the study determined that “the data showed that the inability to answer one’s iPhone while it was ringing activated the aversive motivational system (increases in heart rate and unpleasantness), and also led to a decline in cognitive performance.” (Clayton et.al., 2015). Additionally, the students self-reported raised levels of unpleasantness and anxiety when separated from their devices. Lastly, the study indicated that once a student was distracted by an external or internal stimulus, it took half an hour for them to return to task.

The study raises the question of how not being able to interact with one’s iPhone affects communication with friends, family, and care providers; they have problems communicating with others when their phones are out of reach. But I’ve seen it work both ways; I’ve already had attention not paid me by people I’m talking to due to them texting or reading text messages. This includes teachers, sadly. The school has a “no electronic device during instruction time” that is largely ignored. The kids are allowed to be on their phones in the cafeteria at lunch, but the phones come out in the hallways as soon as class lets out. Even kids who come to speak to me in the library will pull out their phone to look at it during our conversation, in spite of my requests not to do so.

I’m the self-proclaimed rule-follower at my school, and my students know (for the most part) that I won’t accept dress-code violations, hats worn inside, or cell phone use during school hours. I use humor as much as possible to deflect any back talk I may engender, and as I have told the students many times, I will never ask them to do anything I won’t do myself. You won’t see me in a tank top. My hat comes off as soon as I step into the building. And you will never, ever see me with a cell phone in my hand during the school day. Sometimes setting the example, however, is not enough. It’s very frustrating, and it’s very sad.

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Why teaching cursive still matters

The gig is up — children should still be learning cursive in schools. According to an article written last June in the New York Times by Maria Konnikova, children that formed letters in their own handwriting vs. typing or tracing them show connections to broader educational development. In other words, “it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.” Studies are showing that children who write by hand learn to read faster, show an increased vocabulary, and retain what they learn better. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain,” says Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. To me, it’s kind of like a body memory when you train for something over and over; in a stressful situation, your body knows how to react faster than your brain. By learning to write by hand, the brain is forced to recognize “messy” letters; being able to interpret all forms of an “a” for example, may increase the likelihood of recognizing the letter more quickly.

In free-form handwriting, the brain exhibited increased activity in three areas, an increase not seen in those who typed into a computer. But only the actual act of handwriting itself, not the observation of it, demonstrated increased brain activity. Children who produced text by hand generated more words more quickly, and they also produced more ideas in general. (James, 2012)

The benefits of handwriting extend to adulthood itself, as “not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.” (Berninger, 2006.) And things just keep getting better as we write our notes long-hand instead of typing them into a computer: “writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and re-frame it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.” (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2013.)

My own belief tends to uphold the opinion of these studies, that teaching cursive to children and making them take notes by hand produces both immediate and long-term benefits. I personally take notes much better by hand than by computer, and I usually write out all my papers longhand before typing them up. (Granted, I am a generation removed from easy access to electronic devices – I still prefer books over Kindles, I’m not attached by the hip to my phone, and I don’t need a constant blast of music in my ear from my iPod.) I was taught cursive from fourth grade to eighth grade (in a private Waldorf school in California); even my peers in public school were taught cursive. With today’s bipolar emphasis on standardized testing and yet producing creative, inventive individuals, teaching cursive can only provide a benefit to students both directly and with lasting positive effects.

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