Reflections on a Device-Free Day, Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, our school went device-free for twenty four hours earlier this week. In addition to experiencing life without technology and reflecting on the role it plays in my teaching (and other areas of my professional life), I spent some time considering the implementation of the day itself. In thinking about what worked, what didn’t, and how we might do it better next time, it occurred to me that our collective experience of this day was a microcosm of how to, and how not to, implement change in schools.

I will say right up front that my thinking about this topic of school changed is heavily influenced by Grant Lichtman, Julie Wilson, and Jonathan Martin, among others. These are people who are thinking about what conditions must be present for effective change on both the macro and micro scales, and their work has given me a lens for thinking about change that I am involved in, whether it’s as a leader or a participant.

While I had a great time going device free, my experience does not seem to have been shared by the majority of faculty and students. Responses to the day ran the gamut from complete abstinence to not even acknowledging the day. It would be easy to say that students were on their devices because the faculty weren’t setting a good example, or that the faculty were on their devices because they didn’t think the students wouldn’t be able to stay off them anyway. Both of these conclusions are too simplistic and miss some much bigger lessons that we can learn from the day. Here, then, is my assessment of the critical conditions of effective change and how we fared under each of these criteria.

  1. Know what problem you’re trying to solve – change for the sake of change won’t get much traction; without a problem to be solved through change, there’s little reason for people to embrace it. In this case, the “problem” was clear: we have all integrated technology into our lives to such an extent that we aren’t even aware of it at times. This can have both positive and negative consequences, and a day free from electronic devices is a good way to identify those consequences.
  2. Make a compelling case for change – even with the problem identified, one has to convince others that a change is needed to address the problem. The device-free day was first mentioned in a talk given by the headmaster, and was followed up with e-mails to the faculty and the students, but this didn’t go far enough in making the case for why we needed to do this. People didn’t see a compelling reason for being device free, so they saw no reason to participate in this event.
  3. Obtain stakeholder buy-in – even when the case for change is compelling, people will only commit to it to the extent they feel ownership of it. The school’s Academic Council was consulted about the timing and calendar, but there was no broader effort to get input from faculty or students into the device-free day. The best chance for success depended on people being committed to this, but with no say in the mechanics of the day there was no reason to feel that sense of commitment.
  4. Don’t offer a way out – when change is presented as optional, those opposed to it will opt not to participate. The device-free day was presented as entirely voluntary. Students were told there would be no policing of this, no steps taken to address those found using devices when they shouldn’t have been. Given the option to avoid the challenge presented, many people took it.

This analysis might lead one to believe that our Device-Free Day was a waste of time. Beyond the tremendous personal value I found in the day, I actually think it was institutionally significant. On a small scale, it showed us how change will be received, so we’ll know better next time how to proceed in implementing change. As long as we can learn something from the day, and I think it’s clear that we can, this event can significantly influence how we proceed as we continue down the path of growth as a school.

Reflections on a Device-Free Day, Part 1

Our school had a Device-Free Day this week, a twenty-four hour period from 6 PM on Monday to 6 PM on Tuesday when all faculty and students were asked to refrain from using cell phones, tablets, and computers. There were two stated goals for this day: to connect with people in person instead of through technology, and to reflect on the role that technology plays in our daily lives. Twenty-four hours is a lot of time to reflect, so I’m going to break this into two posts. In this post I’ll share my own experiences and reflections on the role of technology in my life as a boarding school teacher. In a future post, hopefully tomorrow, I’ll touch on the larger lessons we can learn from how the day was implemented.

no tech 2

I should start by saying that I was wildly enthusiastic about this day, much more so than many of my colleagues and approximately all of my students. If nothing else, I will take any chance I can get to remove myself from e-mail. That being said, much of what I do that isn’t in the classroom, and a decent amount of what is, is done on a computer. Without the ability to do this work, I was forced to decide what needed to be done before 6 PM Monday, what was so important that I would need to do it without technology, and what could wait until Tuesday night or Wednesday. It made Monday a little stressful as I kept thinking of other things to do – like remembering to wear a watch on Tuesday so I could time a quiz without the timer on my phone – but once 6 PM hit I was ready to go.

no tech 1

I enjoyed the day quite a bit, and I was actually a little sad to see it come to an end. My work prioritized and completed in advance, I was able to dedicate a lot of time on Tuesday to the things I never get around to during the week. I read a couple chapters of Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, and I went back through some math history that pertained to the work we were doing in class. I rearranged my bookshelf, finding a couple things I’d forgotten I had in the process, and I sorted through a backlog of conference handouts, meeting agendas, and business cards that had accumulated over the last couple years. For me, it was a fabulous day, one that I’ll have to make time for more often.

The day also emphasized some things that I’m aware of but don’t think about that much. I graded some quizzes on Monday night, but I couldn’t record the grades in my electronic grade book so I was unable to return the quizzes on Tuesday. I had to hand write my notes for class, something I haven’t had to do since I started teaching with a tablet PC and OneNote almost a decade ago. I use electronic textbooks, so my students couldn’t do any homework without printing pages out in advance (and wasting a bunch of paper in the process). A colleague had to take her son to the doctor and needed me to fill in for her with community service, which had to be handled through a quick conversation at lunch rather than a text or e-mail at a more convenient time. None of these challenges was significant because none was a challenge for more than 24 hours, but taken together they paint a clear picture of how much technology has integrated itself into my life as a teacher.

I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with this. I am a better teacher because I am able to provide my students with more and better resources. I like that my students can access their textbooks from anywhere in the world and are spared the future chiropractic visits that would come with lugging around a full backpack every day. I also appreciate the time and convenience that texting colleagues and an electronic grade book provide. Stepping away from all these things for twenty-fours has helped me think about the ways in which technology might be keeping me from doing my best work, and it’s reminded me of all the ways technology has replaced things I used to do. If nothing else, reevaluating how I spend my day to keep what’s valuable while recapturing lost activities that are important made the Device-Free Day a productive one for me. As for the institution as a whole? I’ll tackle that question next.