Scrolling through Facebook, a friend had posted “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think” by Johann Hari.  This article largely summarizes an argument by Bruce Alexander, Canadian Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University.   Through direct and academic research, Professor Alexander demonstrates the following two claims are either false or unsubstantiated:

Claim A: All or most people who use heroin or cocaine beyond a certain minimum amount become addicted.

Claim B: No matter what proportion of the users of heroin and cocaine become addicted, their addiction is caused by exposure to the drug.

One component of the research cited was the “Rat Park” experiments.  Some rats were alone in a typical cage while others were in large, scenic, entertaining, and social cages.  Both groups were given the choice between two water bottles – one laced with morphine and one with plain water.  The lonely rats in the boring cage drank predominately from the morphine water and poisoned themselves to death.  The socially engaged rats in the large awesome cages largely shunned the morphine water and none died.

Thankfully, I don’t see a lot of students addicted to heroin or cocaine on a daily basis, but I do see a lot of kiddos who seem to be addicted to their phones.  Like heroin or cocaine, these personal devices offer a dopamine drip that is inherently addictive.  However, just as most people who get heroine to cope with temporary pain don’t end up as hopeless addicts due to simple exposure, most students aren’t hopelessly addicted to their phones – but some are.  Why?

Consider the “cage” we put a lot of students in – especially in high school:

  • Boring rooms with chairs in rows.
  • Material and delivery that isn’t inherently stimulating.
  • Mitigating socialization (Ever hear or say the words at parent/teacher conferences, “Little Johnny is very bright, but he socializes too much.”)
  • Physically removing “problem” students from their peers
  • Isolation effects of bullying

What if the answer to the cell phone “problem” (and I’d argue many other problem behaviors that manifest themselves as apathy) is to change the “rat cage”?  Imagine a school environment that:

  • offers variety of seating
  • each classroom was uniquely and interesting decorated
  • the curriculum has room for student choice
  • most periods were filled with engaging practice and not endless lecture/reading
  • encouraged socializing – or even used it as a primary means of educating
  • sought alternate solutions to problem behaviors that keep students in the classroom with their peers
  • proactively supports bullied students instead only focusing on prevention

3 thoughts on “Upgrade the “Cage” We Put Students In

  1. Engagement is fundamental to student success! Your comments ring very true in my experiences and teachers need to consider how students will be engaged in their learning as they plan every day in their classrooms.


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