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.

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