I was going to title this post “Screen-free Learning at Trinitas,” but our decision to be a screen-free* environment is about more than helping kids build their attention spans for academic achievement. It’s also, and more importantly, about helping them build their ability to pay attention to others, to engage the person next to them or across the table, to “be present” in community. We founded Trinitas in 2006, the year before the first iPhone was introduced. Already many schools were jumping on the screen-learning bandwagon. We resisted that temptation, not primarily for budget stewardship reasons but rather for the sake of the students (and their teachers and families). We suspected that benefits of screens in schools might turn out to be something like the emperor’s new clothes. What we had not anticipated was how screens at school and at home and in cars and in pockets and nearly perpetually in hands could be worse than the naked emperor.
We’d like to highlight two articles recently linked by Protect Young Eyes. (If you do not receive their emails, we recommend you sign up for them.) The first article is very short, it’s on social media and brain development. The second is longer, but worth the read; it’s a call by Doug Lemov for phone-free schools and for re-wiring (or de-wiring) the learning environment for attention, achievement, and belonging. As Lemov points out, it’s not good enough for schools just to say “be responsible with your phones.” I remember waiting to pick up one of my high schoolers for an appointment during lunch. It was a lovely day, and a group of girls was eating together outside. I should say “together.” In the ten or more minutes that I waited, not one of them looked up from her cell phone. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, one did look up briefly. To take a selfie. I’m not exaggerating when I say my heart broke a little when I witnessed that snapshot of what we are losing. Simply put, in light of the overwhelming data on attention, anxiety, loneliness, and depression, a best practice for school and home is carving out long periods of time free of screens.
While the technology may be new, the problem is not. From ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle to the apostle Paul, from the medieval poet Dante to the master apologist and storyteller C.S. Lewis, the classical Christian tradition has recognized the importance of three things in intellectual and moral formation: habit, pleasure and pain, and early childhood.
According to the familiar words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”** What are our screen habits? Or, more to the point, what habits are the screens building in us? As Lemov observes, screens are far too often habituating us in half-attention. Half-attention to teachers, half-attention to work, half-attention to entertainment, half-attention to conversation, half-attention to this post, half-attention to the person next to us. Lemov cites John S. Hutton, a pediatrician and director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, who says simply, “If you want kids to pay attention, they need to practice paying attention.” At Trinitas, a phone-free and screen-free environment provides opportunities for that practice.
The classical Christian tradition has also recognized the importance of taking pleasure and pain in the right things. Research on the addictive nature of so much of what pulls our attention to our screens suggests that the dopamine we get from those cheap and frequent hits and the subsequent drop in dopamine can leave us less able to find pleasure in the real world and our interactions with real people. In some situations, teachers may face a classroom of kids in withdrawal.
While interest in the impact of screen use on the developing brain is modern, a focus on early childhood for establishing a trajectory of learning and life is not. Even the ancients knew it is important to start forming good habits of attention and care and wonder while children are very young. We’re committed to this at Trinitas in our classes and hallways and lunchroom and playground. You can do your part at home too. Turn off the screens and get outside, read a book, make a meal, throw a ball, sing a praise song, visit a friend. Do it together. Do it now.
*We’re not Luddites. Trinitas teachers occasionally show videos to enhance learning, e.g., moon walking (astronauts, not Michael Jackson) or a production of Macbeth. Older students compose their essays and do their creative writing on computers at home, receiving online feedback from their teacher. But, students at Trinitas do not sit in front of laptops or have access to cell phones or other devices during the school day. They’re not at a disadvantage: their study of logic, grammar, Latin, Greek, Singapore math, and the habits of attention formed while they are young equip them well to pursue tech careers if they choose those. These habits of attention also increase their capacity for joy in the world and in community, whatever their job.
**You can’t always trust what you read. I once saw this quote attributed to Shaquille O’Neil in Reader’s Digest in an orthodontist’s office.