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Challenges Facing Rural Schools

Not all school boards are the same -- different boards face different challenges. This is particularly true when looking at rural schools. Around half of America’s school boards are in rural areas, but one thing we can say about rural education is that it is under-served. Students in rural schools are far less likely to attend college, for example, while services and extracurricular activities are generally far less available than in urban areas. This neglect even extends into basic research, with surprisingly few studies being aimed at rural teaching -- despite education being a field with constant studies on every conceivable subject. There is enough data, though, to identify some of the challenges facing rural educators.

Physical distance

City dwellers may reasonably expect to be able to walk their kids to school (or for their older kids to walk themselves), but in rural areas this is frequently impossible. Catchment areas can be very large, making it absolutely essential to arrange a ride to school. Time spent on school buses may easily be counted in the hours per day, while depending on those buses can often mean limited access to after-school activities and sports. Studies have linked long bus times to lowered educational outcomes. But what can be done? The most direct solution would be to build more schools in order to shrink ride times, but in reality rural schools are being shut down and bus rides are getting even longer.

Not only do these drive times hurt grades and after-school activities, they also make it harder to get extra help. Tutor Doctor offers in-home one-on-one tutoring, but other sources of support can be difficult to access due to distance.

Teacher hiring

In many urban areas, there is a glut of talented teachers but not enough jobs available to employ them. In rural areas, though, it can be extremely difficult to attract great teachers. Indeed hiring in general is tougher in rural areas, for fields extending far beyond education. Rural life isn’t for everyone, and a life that’s simpler can seem to some people like a life that’s “less than”. Many services such as health care can be harder to obtain, there may be fewer cultural attractions compared to big cities -- the list of reasons why teachers may be dissuaded from applying for jobs in rural areas can be long.

In reality, rural life and rural teaching offer a great many benefits one can never find in big cities, including an environment that’s cleaner (and safer), cheaper real estate plus a strong sense of community. Perceptions can be hard to fight, though, which can leave rural schools struggling to find staff. The usual approach is to offer higher pay or better side benefits, but this can often be difficult to afford.

Spotty Internet access

People in big cities take broadband Internet access for granted. Not only is it fairly easy to sign up for fast access, people in cities are frequently spoiled for choice. America, however, is still experiencing a digital divide, with, by some measures, more than a third of rural residents lacking access to broadband Internet.

This can drastically affect education. Not only does it make it hard for many teachers to employ digital resources such as YouTube in the classroom, but employing learning management systems (LMSs) such as Moodle can sometimes be impossible. Even accepting digital submissions of homework and assignments can be hard. Also rendered unavailable by slow Internet access are the vast opportunities for digital learning, eBooks, and the ability to collaborate online. Even basic software like Google Docs can be a struggle.

Efforts are still being made to expand rural access to broadband, but progress is slow.

Poverty

Nowhere is free of poverty, but rates of unemployment, malnutrition and poverty are markedly higher in rural areas than in urban areas. Unlike cities, though, where high population density tends to make poverty more visible, it can be much harder to see in rural areas, which makes it harder to cope with.

Poverty is proven to affect educational outcomes, and frequently leads to increased absenteeism (or early drop-outs). Schools frequently have programs to help, for instance providing meals to children in need, but given the large geographic areas in many rural school districts it’s not unusual for teachers to not know how their students are living.

Teachers need to be entrepreneurial

A little-known fact about rural areas in America: they have a much higher rate of entrepreneurialism. Perhaps the result of a different mindset or the difficulty in obtaining services (or a combination of these or more factors), many people in rural areas are just used to getting things done themselves. This extends to education as well. A teacher with a willingness to jump in and get things done will do far better in rural areas than a teacher who is used to being hemmed-in by a bureaucracy.

In rural areas, it’s not unusual for a superintendent to also serve as a principal and even drive a school bus. A “not my job” attitude can be a detriment in a community where everybody pitches in, and this can make it difficult for teachers who are used to specializing.

Five Abandoned Teaching Methods

There is always discussion and debate about new educational methods. For instance, nowadays there is a gradual move toward student-centered education. Of course there is also intense analysis about just what role digital technology should play in the classroom. Debates like these date from the earliest days of modern education, and have led to many well-established ideas being abandoned. Here are a few.

Huge Classes

We tend to think of early education as taking place in one-room schoolhouses, but the earliest attempts at mass education took place in big cities using the “Lancastrian” model, which had a lecture providing a rote lesson to hundreds of learners of different ages. Those students would then reproduce the rote lesson to other learners, and by a sort of viral process, education would spread. It was a kind of “wholesale” teaching model that didn’t last very long, enjoying its heyday in the early 1800s. The advent of public schools soon put an end to the method.

Rote Memorization

Teachers put content on the blackboard, students write it down. Teachers makes statements out loud, students repeat them. Over and over. Once, you see, it was believed that students are essentially empty vessels, with the teacher’s job being to fill their minds with knowledge. It was very much a one-way communication, with youngsters expected to memorize it with total accuracy. Welcome to education in the 19th Century.

The amount of teaching time devoted to memorization varied from school to school, but it was a key element of classroom life. Teaching culture had not yet been professionalized or studied empirically, so by our standards there were many aspects of Victorian teaching methods that would be highly objectionable today -- for instance there was little attempt made to connect with students as individuals and get them interested in the content, while windows were routinely placed high up so that students couldn’t see out (to prevent distractions).

It might sound like schooling was very boring back then, but students in those days learned very early on that any wavering in their attention resulted in physical pain, because corporal punishment was routine and casual.

Tracking (also called Streaming)

Not every student goes to college, and not every student can become a doctor or a lawyer. Each of us has our own path to follow. But for decades, educators largely made that decision on behalf of students by using a practice known as “tracking.” The process was simple. Early on in a student’s career, students would be separated into “tracks” based on where educators thought the students would end up. At the top were the college-bound, and at the bottom were the “vocational” students who were trained for jobs like carpentry and metalwork.

The system was completely unfair. As we now know, youngsters can struggle in their schoolwork for any of a very long list of reasons, ranging from having an exceptionality like ADHD to trouble at home to just having a different learning style. Today we recognize that given the proper help, including one-on-one tutoring, far more young people can achieve excellence than educators in previous generations would have believed.

The worst part of tracking is, because it relies on a one-size-fits-all view of education, it allows prejudice to become a deciding factor. Students were routinely “downgraded” because they were a different race or religion, or because they were poor.

Eventually, tracking fell by the wayside, essentially disappearing in the 1990s (though it still crops up from time to time).

New Math

People still make jokes about this one. It’s often described as introducing strange, nonsensical math concepts to youngsters, but here’s what happened: in the late 1950s, Americans were shocked out of a sense of technological complacency by the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union. This resulted in a crash program to send Americans to the moon, but it also launched a massive effort to close the perceived “engineer gap” with the USSR by, essentially, upping America’s STEM game.

Thence came the New Math, as it was called. This was the intensive introduction of math concepts into public schools that were far in advance of anything attempted before. Even the teachers were often baffled. The goal was to produce a generation of superhuman mathletes, but instead it generated mass head-scratching and a great many jokes on late-night talk shows. Even distinguished scientists like Richard Feynman came out against the move, pointing out that regular folk, professionals, scientists, engineers and mathematicians all used math in different ways and it made no sense to try shoving everyone into science and engineering.

The new math was only a brief fad, but to this day it remains a synonym for absurd nonsense.

Open Areas

The idea was very straightforward: create a large open area, perhaps by merging several classrooms, then populating it with a wide range of students of different ages and skill levels. Within the open area, students would work according to their skill levels rather than be grouped by age. At the same time, students would help one another solve problems and learn skills, while the teachers would move between the groups providing help and guidance as needed.

In many ways, the open area resembles the student-centered learning techniques that are considered cutting-edge in the 21st Century. However without proper guidance by the teachers, and especially advanced training of those teachers, the whole thing can be a mess. Assessment especially can be problematic.

There have been many advances on the concept in recent years, and similar practices are being adopted in more and more schools. However the open area concept was only briefly employed in the 1970s before being largely forgotten.

A Look At Elon Musk’s “Secret” Private School

Elon Musk is, without doubt, an extraordinary person. Born in South Africa, Musk made his fortune with PayPal, eventually selling out to form a veritable galaxy of companies and technologies. These include electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer Tesla, private space company Space-X, the remarkable HyperLoop technology that promises to revolutionize high speed ground transport, and cutting-edge solar power manufacturer SolarCity. He even created a “Boring Company” (yes that’s really its name) designed to dig massive underground tunnels beneath cities like Los Angeles in order to reduce traffic congestion. He’s among the wealthiest people on earth, with an estimated net worth of $15.2 billion. Among his initiatives, however, is a particularly tantalizing effort: he built a school.

Elon Musk is a dad with five sons: a pair of twins born in 2004, and a set of triplets born in 2006. By all accounts Musk is a devoted, involved dad, and when they began attending school in early 2010 Musk was dissatisfied with the education they were receiving. This isn’t about private versus public school but rather the education models used by pretty much all schools in America. Well, Musk didn’t like it and so, as an entrepreneurial tinker, he started his own school, originally for the children of Space-X employees called, appropriately enough, Ad Astra (to the stars).

Ad Astra has one philosophy at its core: student-centered learning. This is an unorthodox approach that, in the case of Ad Astra, employs individualized courses of study that allows students to pursue their interests and passions in addition to required material. According to Musk, the goal is to have education adjust to the unique characteristics of each student, rejecting what Musk calls the “mass production” approach of current schooling that requires young people to adjust to fit the system.

"Some people love English or languages. Some people love math. Some people love music. Different abilities, different times," Musk says. "It makes more sense to cater the education to match their aptitudes and abilities."

The school does not have grades, with all students learning together and helping one another when needed, and whenever possible the goal is to emphasize hands-on learning. According to Musk, the goal is to empower students to follow their passions while encouraging each student to focus on problem-solving.

The latest reports have indicated that Ad Astra is still a very small endeavor, with only around two dozen students enrolled. And is it working? Musk himself insists it does indeed work -- almost to a fault. He says his sons now prefer school over holidays, and get fidgety when they’ve been away from school too long.

Toward a Better Understanding of ADD/ADHD

In the United States, an estimated 11% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD -- that’s almost 6.5 million kids. The rate of diagnosis has increased steadily over the years and shows no sign of slowing down. But there are still a great many misconceptions about the disorder, so let’s see if we can clear some up.

What’s the difference between ADHD and ADD?

Actually both terms describe the same thing. The main thing is that ADD is an old, outdated term that is not really used anymore. Originally, the term ADD described a person who was inattentive but not hyperactive, but in 2013 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, volume five (DSM-V) replaced ADD with ADHD, while expanding the definition to include multiple types. In other words, junk the term ADD.

What exactly is ADHD?

It’s important to remember that current thinking as regards many childhood disorders like ADHD and autism is that we now recognize that all exceptionalities affect different people in different ways. It’s no longer about stereotyping, it’s about trying to understand how something like ADHD affects the individual, because no two people are affected in exactly the same way.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of ADHD:

  1. Inattentive: as the name suggests, this describes someone who has trouble focusing, or who is easily distracted (or both). This person is not, however, hyperactive or prone to impulsive behavior.

  2. Hyperactive: hyperactivity is a tendency to constantly need to move and be active, even when doing so is disruptive. It also denotes someone who is overly impulsive. At the same time they are not inattentive.

  3. Combined: Someone who combines the symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

As you can see, there are many ways a person might behave with an ADHD diagnosis, so don’t make any assumptions.

What causes ADHD?

As with so many childhood disorders, no one really knows what causes ADHD. Some things are known; for example it runs in families, so that someone who has ADHD has around a 50-50 chance of having a child with it. This suggests a genetic component. However studies suggest that environmental influences play a role, with odds of developing ADHD apparently increasing with exposure in utero to substances like cigarettes, alcohol, PCBs or lead. It may also be connected to low birth weight, premature birth or even head injuries. In other words the science suggests many possibilities but nothing solid as yet.

Whatever the cause (or causes), ADHD seems to affect the chemistry of the brain, including neurotransmitters. Certain parts of the brains of people with ADHD may also be smaller than those without it.

What is the treatment for ADHD?

Previously, there was really only one form of treatment for ADHD: Medication. Specifically, in the case of children, stimulants such as Ritalin or Adderall. One might think it strange to prescribe stimulants to youngsters who may have trouble sitting still and focusing, but stimulants in children tend to have the opposite effect than in adults -- it calms them down. It should be noted that not every child with ADHD is prescribed medication. As with the disorder itself, responses to drugs may vary according to the individual. There are also side effects, which can sometimes be difficult to bear. Also parents can be very resistant to giving medication to their kids, even though these stimulants are generally considered safe.

Nowadays, most doctors recognize that medication alone is only a partial solution; a course of treatment usually includes psychotherapy as well. The focus here is behavior modification, helping the child understand ADHD and how best to adjust to its effects. Parents are often urged to undergo therapy as well, to help them cope with the new challenges they will face.

Does ADHD mean my kid can’t have a happy life?

Most definitely not! Kids with ADHD are still human beings capable of great achievement and great happiness. In fact, ADHD can be a source of strength, as one effect of the disorder may be something called “hyperfocus.” This means that someone with ADHD can devote phenomenal amounts of attention and energy toward a task or goal that really interests them. Some studies find that a large percentage of successful entrepreneurs have ADHD. Even the impulsiveness sometimes associated with ADHD can be a great benefit, allowing a certain amount of daring.

ADHD can lead to many struggles for a young person trying to get through school -- sitting still in class, paying attention to lectures, behaving according to expectations that can be difficult to meet, all of these can present many challenges. But once school is done, people with ADHD, in full knowledge of how their mind works and what sort of situations suit them best, can indeed find success and happiness.

Four Great Summer Portfolio Projects

Ah, the Internet. The source of so much stuff we dislike: bullying, trolling, false information, and material that’s just plain objectionable. But there’s a lot of wonderful content out there as well, and the really great thing is that young people can add to the good stuff all on their own. At the same time, creating something special can create a valuable online presence for young people headed for college. The following projects, once completed, will turn up as top results when someone performs a web search of their creator’s name. This will raise their profile not just for college admissions officers but future employers too.

1. Write and self-publish a book

“Write a book? Me?” Yes, you. Not every book is a high-level work of literature. There are collections of short stories, or short novellas, or of course non-fiction, in areas like self-help, photography or countless other areas. Perhaps your youngster is passionate about sketching, or scrapbooking, or has an idea for a kid’s book. Or maybe it’s a novel! The Outsiders was written when S. E. Hinton was still in high school in Oklahoma. The best part is, once you’ve got it together, you can just put it into a word processor like Microsoft Word, create a snazzy cover using free design sites like Canva, then upload it to your favorite book retailer for sale as an eBook. It doesn’t matter if it sells or not, you’ll be able to say you’ve got a book out there! How cool is that?

2. Create a short film

It’s completely wrong to say that movies can’t be made without access to a towering pile of very expensive equipment. Not true! First of all, excellent, pro-level movies are now routinely being made with single hand-held cameras and no lighting -- some even recording video with smartphones. The Red Baron once said, “It’s not the plane, it’s the man inside the plane that counts” and this is very true in filmmaking. If you can come up with a good idea and shoot it in a unique way, you can definitely make a movie that would be a great portfolio piece. A basic laptop would have enough horsepower to edit your film, and the project would be a great way to learn tons of film skills, from writing to storyboarding to transitions and even computer generated imagery (CGI). Once done, you can upload it to the web, and even get yourself an entry in the Internet Movie Database. Remember that film is a group effort, so don’t try to tackle it alone. Use your friends, they’ll be glad to help with something this cool!

3. Record and sell an album

The music industry can be difficult. You’re expected to work away, sometimes for years, performing live, honing your sound and writing songs. At the end of it, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a recording contract and then cut an album. But why not just record an album yourself? All you’ll need are your instrument(s), some basic recording devices, and a basic computer -- and there is great audio editing software available for free. If you’re a solo musician, you can learn how to perform different parts in the same song, but in any event the hard part will be writing your songs. Once you’ve got them all done, you can upload them to aggregators, which will then place your album for sale in all the top online retailers like iTunes and the Google Play store. Rock on!

4. Start an online magazine

Print magazines are very difficult and costly to manage. Thankfully, an online-only magazine can be set up for free and run with little or no money. A young person could create a website using any number of free services like Wordpress, including a unique URL and a simple but attractive layout -- no programming or design skills required. After that, posting to local classified sites for writing interns will get you tons of writers more than happy to write articles for your site. It might help to just use locals in your community, including classmates. Once the site is up and running you could even run ads and make a little bit of money (let’s be honest -- probably a very little bit). You’d be helping inform your neighborhood while raising your online profile at the same time. Win-win!

All About the Fidget Spinner Craze

What are fidget spinners? They’re small devices, around three inches across, that you hold in your hand and, well, spin. They basically just sort of whizz around on their bearings (and you can make them spin pretty fast) but they serve no real purpose -- they’re just for playing with. They’re quite cheap, routinely costing under $10, and are becoming astonishingly popular, though perhaps inevitably this has triggered a backlash against the devices.

Fidget spinners have been around for years. They’ve long been marketed towards parents with children who have autism spectrum or attention deficit disorders. The idea behind this is pretty simple: for kids who have trouble focusing, a little gadget to keep their hands busy would allow them to focus on more important matters (such as classroom lessons).

Now addressing that issue: there is, unfortunately, no evidence at all that fidget spinners help children with exceptionalities. Indeed experts warn it could actually make it harder for kids to concentrate, making their struggles worse.

At any rate, in the last couple of years the little doohickeys have gained mass appeal among the younger set. Predictably, some people have taken things to extreme lengths, with online videos showing the spinners accelerated to absurd speeds with such devices as compressed-air drills and even chainsaws.

In less dangerous territory, many teachers are getting fed up with fidget spinners. They can be very distracting in a classroom, and while generally quiet they do make noise as they whirl about. Many classrooms now have signs reading “YOU MUST BE LOOKING AT THE TEACHER” and “YOU MUST BE DISCREET”. These refer to fidget spinners, and indicate a teacher allowing them to be in class but only if used in a way that does not cause distraction. Other teachers, and even whole schools, are banning them altogether.

It’s hard to predict the future of fidget spinners. They may be here to stay or they may just be a brief little historical oddity. One thing is certain, however: they have entertained, and irritated, a great many people.

Four Great Outdoor Hobbies for Young People

The summer holidays are swiftly approaching, which means it’s time to start coming up with things to do for your youngsters. While reliable activities such as summer camp, day camp or just plain loafin’ are always there, other possibilities beckon -- possibilities that, while being fun, can also be educational.

 

1. Model Rocketry

This hobby has been around awhile, but it’s tons of fun. The way it works is simple: you assemble a rocket (mostly using glue and stickers), insert a standard-sized rocket engine, then insert an igniter into the engine, and then launch it from a simple launch pad using an electric trigger-switch. The rockets and engines vary in size and capability; they can be small and simple or huge and high-flying. Make sure you have access to a very large open field, as the wind can really catch these (especially during the parachute phase). If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can attach experiments, sensors or video cameras to your rocket. Watching them soar into the sky at top speed will thrill your kid every time!

 

2. Geocaching

One of the best uses possible for your kid’s smartphone, geocaching combines socializing, competition, the thrill of the hunt and, of course, high technology. Geocachers leave small items for others to find out in the world. Using coordinates and GPS technology, the goal is to find those items (which only have a token value if any at all). It’s also standard to include a logbook so people can add their name to the list of those who have found it. Now it may sound geeky, but it’s tons of fun and there’s a massive online community of geocachers -- chances are there are targets to find near you.

 

3. Gardening

Planting and nurturing flowers and vegetables is both dead simple and incredibly complicated. Plant, water, prune, weed. Pretty straightforward. Except that some plants require more sun exposure than others. Different flowers bloom at different times in the growing season, some plants can only grow in specific climate zones, water demands can vary … things get more complicated the more you do it. But really diving in, starting with plans, keeping a garden journal, and best of all watching life spring from the soil, can be tons of fun. You don’t even need land, a few pots will do.

4. Stargazing

It’s not crazy to think that looking at the stars “properly” requires a hugely expensive telescope equipped with a high-tech motorized mount and an aperture wide enough to drive a school bus through. The truth is, however, such costly tools, while desirable, are not at all necessary. Cheap refractor telescopes, your grandfather’s old binoculars and even a set of opera glasses can reveal amazing sights in the night sky. Even in cities where light pollution renders much of the heavens invisible, it’s still possible to observe the moon, our solar system and even orbiting objects like the International Space Station. There’s tons to see right above your head -- just remember to be careful when you’re out at night, and never to look at the sun!


 

Great Resources for Homeschoolers (and Everyone Else)

Educating at home presents many challenges, but thankfully there are loads of helpful resources available that can provide learning content, organizational tools, lesson plans and lots more. Here is just a small selection of the resources available:

 

Google Docs

It’s possible you might think of Google Docs as Microsoft Word for the Internet, but it’s far more than that. In addition to word processing and spreadsheets, Google Docs offers templates, collaboration tools, and integrates seamlessly with Google Calendar. You can even share class time remotely with Google Hangouts. In addition to helping with schoolwork, mastering Google Docs will provide an important life skill.

Project Gutenberg

eBooks can be a very cost-effective resource for homeschooling. eBooks tend to be cheaper than hard-copy books, and screen-focused young people often find them easier to read (and it helps that eReading apps include handy features such as bookmarking and highlighting). But Project Gutenberg is a fantastic site that offers many thousands of classic works for free download. You’re unlikely to find the latest bestsellers, but they do have a veritable ocean of works on every subject up to the mid-20th Century or so. Definitely worth a visit.

Cozi

This is an app that will keep your whole family organized. It provides to-do lists and calendars along with integration with Google Calendars, but it is popular among homeschoolers because it’s great for scheduling lessons too. Definitely a useful way of keeping on top of all your at-home learning.


eLearning for Kids

This is a website run by an international not-for-profit that provides heaps of lessons on every subject imaginable, all for free (though they gladly accept tax-deductible donations). Looking for help teaching calculus? How about biology? Or just tips on mental health and bullying? They have it all.

 

Quizlet

It can be hard to prepare for tests and exams -- studying is such a struggle for so many people. Enter Quizlet, which helps out with flashcards and other study tools based on data from thousands of studying sessions in a very long list of subjects. Learning efficient study techniques is a crucial learning skill, and Quizlet can help you do it.

 

Prezi

There are plenty of presentation applications nowadays, including Powerpoint and the previously mentioned Google Docs. One app that’s very popular, however, is Prezi. Students love the ease with which they can create funky presentations that look incredibly professional. You’ll be amazed how quickly your child will master it.



This is just a small sampling of the many apps and websites that can lend a helping hand in the hard work of educating youngsters. There are other resources available, but perhaps the best help can be found in speaking with an educational professional. In-home, one-on-one tutors can fill in any gaps that may crop up in homeschooling.

There Are Extroverts, Introverts — and Ambiverts

When we think about our sociability, we tend to think in either/or terms, as we do with so many aspects of human psychology. In other words, the question always seems to boil down to whether we are introverts or extroverts. Well, a new study suggests that most of us are somewhere in between those poles, falling into a lesser-known category: ambiverts.

For young people, this can be an important question. Socialization can be a real challenge, but using binary labels can put people in a box, build unreasonable expectations or just plain increase stress because they might not fit. The truth, however, seems far more interesting -- and holds out the possibility that young people may possess strengths they may not see.

According to a recent study, ambiverts can often possess the strengths of both extroverts and introverts. For instance, an ambivert would be able to talk to people as well as listen intently. The study found that ambiverts, contrary to popular perceptions, actually make the best salespeople:

"Grant’s research also disproved the powerful and widely held notion that the best-performing sales people are extroverts. He found that ambiverts’ greater social flexibility enabled them to outsell all other groups, moving 51 percent more product per hour than the average salesperson. Notice how sales increased as extroversion increased, peaking with those who were just moderately extroverted."

Research has linked this aspect of sociability with the level of dopamine in the brain. People with higher levels of dopamine are receiving a higher degree of neurological stimulation, so they tend to be introverts -- being less social helps them reduce the level of stimulation they receive. Extroverts on the other hand are just the opposite: with less dopamine in their brains, being under-stimulated leads to boredom and isolation.

The vast majority of people, however -- around two-thirds of the population, according to the above-referenced study -- do not fall into the either/or category. They can be outgoing or not, depending on the situation and their own state of mind.

So if you’ve always found you don’t quite fit either of the introvert/extrovert labels, you might simply occupy a different, more moderate point on the sociability spectrum.

More information on ambiverts can be found here

The Pros and Cons of Smartphones in the Classroom

When you stop and think about it, smartphones are extraordinary devices. They offer multiple forms of communication -- voice, text and video -- as well as a connection to the Internet, access to audio and video streaming, satellite navigation and a veritable galaxy of apps. It’s no wonder they’ve taken society by storm, especially the world of young people. But are they a bit too powerful? Too dangerous? Too distracting? Should they be banned from classrooms, or embraced as learning tools? Let’s look at some pros and cons:

 

Pros:

Instant access for parents

Any teacher can tell you that parents are a major source of calls and texts in the classroom. Some are simple workaday messages like coordinating after-school pickups, while others are of greater importance, concerning family emergencies. Many parents deeply appreciate being able to reach their kids when necessary.

 

Quick answers

Let’s face it, phones are great for research. They provide ready access not only to the World Wide Web but countless research databases and up-to-date news services. Instead of sitting in their seats not knowing answers to questions, students can find their own answers, bringing a bit of student-centered learning to the classroom.

 

In-class assignments

We’ve now reached the point where real work is being performed on cell phones, up to and including feature films and bestselling novels. Students can easily write assignments, shoot and edit photos, audio and video, and craft presentations, then share their work with the whole class via projector or Smartboard. Properly employed, today’s phones can be powerful tools for learning.

 

Social learning

The standard learning model is not the best for everyone. There are many reasons why a student might be unwilling or unable to speak up in the classroom, including learning exceptionalities and just plain shyness. Social media-based learning models offer a route for broader participation and sharing. Indeed the familiarity most young people have with social media can reduce stress associated with learning.

 

Cons:

Safety of digital devices

Officially, smartphones pose no medical risk to people who use them. However, questions remain about the methods used in dismissing those risks, so the matter, to many people, is far from settled. Even if there is no risk, the fears many parents have can make the use of smartphones in the classroom a controversial choice.

 

Inappropriate content

It can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for teachers to control what students view on their phones. We all know that a vast amount of inappropriate content is freely available, and this includes content that is harmful but gets less media coverage -- for instance teen gambling is a serious problem. Schools frequently implement firewalls to block such content but tech-savvy students routinely find ways around these measures.

 

Inappropriate contact and cyberbullying

The digital world can be dangerous. Not only are there predators, but students can sometimes be convinced to share compromising imagery. At the same time, some youngsters find themselves the targets of cyberbullying. Using phones in the classroom can inadvertently expose young people to these dangers -- the opposite of the goals of educators, who are traditionally devoted to the safety of their students.

 

Distraction from schoolwork

Phones are fun. They’re fun. If adults can have trouble tearing their eyes away from the little things, then so can young people. Classrooms are supposed to be devoted to learning, and if students are using their phones for non-educational purposes, well, the whole endeavor is just a waste of everyone’s time.
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