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We must address behavior and not technology

© 2001 Gary S. Stager/ MagazineDistrict Administrator

Published in the November 2001 issue of


Parent: Are you going to wear your new hat today?
Child: No because fifth graders are not allowed to wear hats to school
Parent: Why can't fifth graders wear hats?
School administrator: Because sixth graders can't wear hats
Parent: OK, now I understand better. May I ask, "why can't sixth graders wear hats?"
School administrator: Gangs!
Parent: Do we have gang problems?
School administrator: No, because we don't let sixth graders wear hats.

The preceding dialogue (experienced by my own family) typifies the wacky rule making increasingly found in American schools. Back-to-school time often coincides with the arbitrary banning of toys, apparel and assorted nick-knacks from our classrooms and playgrounds. It seems as if instinct takes over whenever administrators encounter something kids care about. The reflexive impulse is to forbid these objects from the educational environment.

There are several reasons for taking a deep breath and exercising caution before enforcing the next pog embargo.

We risk alienating children from school and missing potential curriculum connections.

As the world becomes more complex, violent and distinct from the life of the school, educators should look for opportunities to establish closer relationships with their students. Arbitrarily banning objects embraced by children needlessly erects barriers between teachers and students, school and the real-world. Baseball cards may be used to explore powerful ideas in probability, statistics, graphing, sorting and geography. Pogs, and Pokemon cards are excellent manipulatives for sorting, pattern recognition. Virtual pets could be used to explore life cycles, emotions and causal relationships. Hotwheels cars may be used in physics experiments. Even the social equity issues often used to justify prohibition may be explored when children feel that their teachers respect their world. Positive relationships with caring adults will outlast the latest fad.

It's not good to be a hypocrite

Do unto others as we would have done onto us. If as Seymour Papert asserts, "laptops are today's prime instrument for intellectual work," then we should not forbid kids from access to non-violent tools so important to our own work. One school that requires every student to own a laptop banned tamagotchis (handheld programmable virtual pets) from school by enforcing their policy prohibiting electronic devices on campus.

You just can't keep up

As media spin-offs, high-tech devices and toys proliferate, it will be impossible for school leaders to keep up with all of them in order to enforce subsequent bans. High-tech devices allowed today may integrate prohibited technologies in the future. Convergence will bring increasing power to kids and headaches for administrators. What happens when the book bag contains a laptop, the laptop contains a cell phone or sneakers contain a laptop and a cell phone?

New learning technologies will emerge

Laptops, programmable toys and handheld devices are becoming more affordable, powerful and therefore ubiquitous. Disallowing such devices at school will impoverish the learning environment. While Mr. Dette's fondness for nostalgia would earn us extra credit for using a slide rule in his physical science class, he never punished us for using a calculator.

This year schools from coast-to-coast are banning Palm and similar handheld computers. An article in Wired News quotes Alan Warhaftig, a coordinator of the nonprofit organization Learning in the Real World (an organization critical of digital technology in education).

"I know when I'm in a faculty meeting that is boring me to tears, I will read The New York Times on AvantGo and look like I'm (concentrating) on the meeting," said Warhaftig. I say, "duh?" Imagine if kids could vote with their feet. Would classrooms begin to be more reflective of their needs?

Mr. Warhaftig goes on to reveal his belief in the supremacy of the school over the learner when he went on to say, "The magic in the classroom is getting kids to concentrate."[i]

Surely the availability of powerful personal computation and communications devices offer benefits that outweigh concerns of distracted students.

American educators don't hold the patent on stupidity. While on a recent working tour of Australia I read a newspaper article announcing that the Western Australia (state) Principals Association was urging a ban on Harry Potter trading cards BEFORE THEY ARE RELEASED. Why even wait to see if kids like the things, let's ban them just in case!

Some technologies make our students and staff safer

Cell phones are perhaps the most often banned legal devices in American schools. Aside from the obvious convenience they afford, cellular phones have become lifesaving tools. In both Columbine and the terrible terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, cell phones preserved life, called for help or offered comfort for family members. My childrens' high school has unilaterally banned cell phones from the campus as have many schools across the country.

I adamantly believe that a school has no right whatsoever to jeopardize the safety of my daughter who is forced to wander a dark locked campus at 10:30 PM after drama practice. The payphones and vending machines are often more secure then the children. As a parent, it is I who should have the right to locate my child and have her call for help in case of an emergency.

Reducing classroom distractions is often cited as the rationale for this rule, but this is nonsense. If you walk into Carnegie Hall or an airplane, a polite adult asks that you please turn off your phone for the comfort or safety of those around you. Why can't teachers do the same?

If a student disrupts the learning environment then that action should be punished in the same way we address spitballs, note passing or talking in class. It is irrational to have different rules for infractions involving electronic devices. We must address behavior, not technology. This approach will make our schools more caring, relevant, productive and secure. Our kids deserve nothing less.

[i] Batista, Elisa. "Debating Merits of Palms in Class." Wired News. Aug. 23, 2001.,1382,45863-2,00.html

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