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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Ways Students Should Be Connected Beyond Technology

By Peter DeWitt — May 14, 2017 5 min read
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Being connected. When we hear it, most of us instantly think of technology. Connecting through technology is important. It gives us a chance to maintain relationships with friends and family who may live far away from us. For those of us in education, it has helped us create relationships with people on-line because they have the same interests in topics like leadership, social-emotional learning, technology or literacy.

Truth be told, being connected through technology has been life-changing for me. I have fostered so many positive relationships with people that I met through Twitter, and we have now become good friends. Being on the road every week running workshops is not always as glamorous as people think, but in many cities I work in I also have friends I met through Twitter and we get together for dinner or coffee.

I’m old enough that I have seen the evolution of ways to be connected. My brother Jody lived in Saudi Arabia for about 12 years, and when he first moved there are the age of 24, my mom and I would call him once a month by phone, and it would cost $4.00 a minute to talk...if we were lucky enough to get in touch with him.

Over the years, my mom and I got a phone card that brought the cost down to $1.00 a minute, but that was still a lot of money, and we did not have a lot of disposable income to pay for that every month. But then something amazing happened, the internet was born.

We taught my mom how to use Skype, and she and my brother would see each other face-to-face. Then came Facebook was created and my mom and brother could keep in contact every day if they chose. Now, my brother lives in Doha, and although he makes it a point to come home every year, we all stay in touch virtually.

This level of connectedness has many implications. There were a few times while my brother lived in Saudi that the compound where he lived was compromised (yes, let’s call it compromised), and then he lived in Cairo when civil unrest broke out and he had to flee to Italy for 3 weeks. What would have taken days or week to find him, took about 15 minutes when he “checked in” to a hotel through Facebook. I saw that my mom posted, “Glad you’re safe,” and I thought of how fortunate we are to be so easily connected.

Are Students Too Connected?
There are thousands of articles, blogs and books focusing on the topic of using technology in school, and allowing students to be more connected. Principals are looking for those patterns of technology connectedness in their observations and walkthroughs. But is it possible to get too much of a good thing? Can we find a better balance between our virtual world and the real one?

Unfortunately, we know that balance isn’t happening as often as it should. In this article, Tom Kersting, author of Why We Should Rescue Our Kids From Our Electronic Devices, says,

Research shows the effects that technology is having on kids' brains," Kersting says. "We're seeing more high school students diagnosed with 'acquired attention deficit disorder' and anxiety disorders, as a result. I see more kids who lack coping skills and the ability to manage the bumps and bruises of everyday life."

I think we need to expand this idea of being connected. Being connected, long before “Al Gore created the internet,” has been important. Although there are many educators trying to teach students how to be connected in a variety of ways, there seems to be an unbalance in how often students are connected. I believe we need to reconnect students to other ways of being connected.

There are at least five important ways that students need to be connected. They need to be connected:
To Social Emotional Learning - The very foundation of how we move on in the world is set through the Collaborative for Academic, Social, Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL has done important work in the area of social-emotional health. Their five competencies, along with the definitions, are:

  • Self-awareness - The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior.
  • Self-management - The ability to successfully regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations -- effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself.
  • Responsible decision-making - The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
  • Relationship skills - The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups.
  • Social awareness - The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms.

To their peers - Beyond the use of Smartphones, which is one of the primary ways teens are connected, is through that of play out at recess, sports and drama. All three teach students how to work through issues face-to-face, help them connect to a greater good, and most times provide an understanding of sharing rather than always being in control. We need to foster well-rounded relationships that go beyond a screen.

To their families - I was once running a workshop, and a participant told me she was worried about the increased use of Smartphones on the part of parents. Since then I have noticed parents pushing strollers that hold their toddlers while the parents read texts on their Smartphones. Do all families have a place to set their screens down and unplug while they connect as a family?

To Nature - I will never forget reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. According to Louv, there is a “lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation--he calls it nature-deficit--to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.” There are so many things like climate change that is happening, and we can learn about them through our Smartphones, but we can feel them by acting outside of our screens.

To society - Look around. Our society is highly disconnected. We don’t talk with people who have different views than us and unfriended people on Facebook due to who they voted for in the last election. We, along with our students, have to become better connected as a society, and that means branching out beyond who agrees with us.

In the End
Our Smartphones provide us with a very important connection to our outside world. Many of us remember a time before the internet and social media. However, our students do not because they have grown up with it around them. As important as being connected and learning how to use Smartphones appropriately is important, so is putting them down and finding connections in other ways.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward), and the forthcoming School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press/Ontario Principals Council. August 2017). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.