Recently the French Minister for Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced that from September 2018 secondary school children under the age of 15 will not be allowed to have smartphones with them in school at any time, not even at break or at lunch-times. Reading responses to this ban prompted me to think about the French perspective and this post captures those thoughts.
Is this about attention spans and focus or is it something else? The French have a fierce history of protecting their identity as a secular, intellectual republic (massive generalisations aside, I make no comment about whether they achieve this – but it is my impression of how they like to see themselves). Perhaps they perceive their unique identity as being under threat in some way.
The huge optimism which existed about the use of digital technology to democratise our lives has given way, under a wave of populism, to fear that it is merely another way of driving consumerism. We cannot ignore the fact that children are being exploited as online consumers any more than we can ignore the fact that digital technology provides great opportunities.
For some reason humans do tend to end up making everything about power. Where that power is shared through some medium, like art, science, sex etc. the outcomes are perceived as positive. Where power is centralised with the objective of gaining control, whether of a market, behaviour or mind-set, then the outcomes are often ugly.
Which is holding sway now? The bewildering pace of change means that the constant lure of the internet our children experience can be seen as a massive experiment. Are things going to turn out well for the “click bait” generation? Whilst positive outcomes are possible, to-date the digital age has facilitated the rise of extremism and provided a mechanism for terror. Are the French are trying to draw a line in the sand at some level?
When I talk about the impact of digital technology with clients I like to put it in historical context. The printing press arrived in the UK in the 1470s – the first book was produced in 1473. In 1870 the Education Act was passed which made primary school education mandatory for all. Such was the degree of social & political control it took four hundred years to achieve universal entitlement to literacy. In comparison, the reach, speed and extent of the impact of technology is staggering. It is unlike anything we have seen before.
Braudel argued that History is not the product of human endeavour. History is shaped first by geology and geography, he argued, then by economic cycles lasting many decades or centuries, and finally by individuals who dance on pin-heads and think themselves important. I wonder where he would put digital technology in that story. In the second bracket, I suspect, although the pace of change drives it towards the immediate individualistic level. Old orthodoxies, even the historical theories by which we understand our past and our progress, are falling away in the face of the rapidity of change.
Do we just let this play out and see what happens or is it too late? Digital technology exists and it is in the hands of big corporations who intend to make it pay, even more so now that net-neutrality appears doomed. It was ever thus. How do we make the most of the opportunities for learning whilst preserving a space in which children are not prey to the next click or image? I can understand the French idea that smartphones are not essential in school, but ensuring that future generations are discerning, critical thinkers is absolutely crucial.