Why Schools Must Focus on Tech-Free Experiences Too

As students’ lives move increasingly to screen-based tasks, schools must help them find balance by planning intentional tech-free experiences.

Over the summer, my friends and I invented a terrifying new game we called Vacation Wirehead Spotting. The rules are simple: While on vacation, observe how frequently everyone in the group is staring at their phones and tablets at the same time and post a photo. This is played, quite successfully, among a group of outdoor enthusiasts. Backpackers, wakeboarders, mountain bikers, and injured pickleball players have been documented in the group chat from locations around the world, spanning three generations, all staring at personal glowing rectangles of sadness.

The term wirehead is associated with science fiction stories where characters have some sort of computer-brain interface. Think The Matrix where Cypher (one of the villains of the film) chooses a simulated reality plugged into his brain that projects a juicy steak rather than the authentic, yet less aesthetically appealing, “true” reality. It’s certainly looking like we’re all creeping toward a wireheaded future. Few of us have computers hardwired into our brains yet, but with the ubiquity of phones and earbuds, not to mention the promise of Apple Vision Pro headsets and Neuralink brain implants, the trend is going in a single, frightening direction.

As a school tech director and edtech enthusiast, I’m a complicit cheerleader. I advocate for device use in the classroom. “Let’s give every kid access to the Library of Congress and a professional-grade multimedia studio,” I preached as I distributed Chromebooks and helped institute a one-to-one bring-your-own-device program. Students now spend several hours a day with their heads buried in their laptops, often producing great academic work.

Once tools such as Khanmigo, Duolingo, and Stretch AI mature, we will likely discover that artificial intelligence not only is going to support learning but also is going to be the primary delivery mechanism of all academic achievement. AI tools will deliver inexpensive, hyper-individualized, giga-differentiated instruction that may lead to students mastering a year’s worth of trigonometry, Hamlet, chemistry, Mandarin, and ancient history in a few months. But if we’re not careful, this will come at a cost of us all getting wireheaded, which is why we need a plan for intentional tech-free experiences in schools.

I’d like to see schools eventually take the shape of a summer camp. A portion of the school day is dedicated to screens and developing the foundational knowledge and skills that students need to thrive in the future. We’ll need to reexamine what that knowledge and skill set are, but it will come from AI tools. The rest of the day will be dedicated to the kinds of activities we know our students need but don’t currently have the time for: project-based learning, service learning, social and emotional learning, and outdoor education. Plus, research shows that kids who spend time in nature build confidence and creativity while benefiting from reduced stress and improved sleep habits.

The eighth graders currently on campus are going to enter adulthood in the 2030s. If we really want to serve those students, they must learn how to function with technology. Preventing students from exploring AI tools and skills is educational malpractice, but relegating childhood and adolescence to AI virtual reality is neglect. Students will need an intentional balance of screen-time learning and tech-free experiences.

Here are just a few actions you can take to prevent your students from getting fully wireheaded.

Get a pet and get outside

We must teach our kids the value and beauty of caring for another living being. Getting a classroom pet, or even a plant, can help reduce stress and develop empathy. We have Fred and Rosie, the campus tortoises. Students at my school have been feeding and caring for them for over 15 years, and they probably will for another 50. If this helps you get your students outside, do whatever it takes. We need to teach our students the value of connecting with nature. Spending time outdoors will help balance too much screen time.

Sit down and do nothing

I try to establish a ritual where the first thing students do as they cross the classroom threshold (with their phones zipped up in their backpacks) is sit down in silence. When the class period begins, I ring a small bell to mark the beginning of 60 seconds of silence. You can call it mindfulness, and if some of my students want to use that time to meditate, fine with me. I simply see it as a way for students to switch mindsets from wherever they were to wherever I want them to be, mentally.

When I first introduced this concept to my students, I thought they would hate it. I was right. Students find that a minute of doing nothing is incredibly boring, and that’s great. We have piles of evidence that the experience of boredom leads to more creativity and well-being. Surprisingly, after a week, my students began to appreciate the minute of silence. Once their brains reset a bit to tolerate a minute of not being entertained, they began to ask for it.

Do good for humans

Building a project-based-learning service-learning component in your classroom can allow your students to apply the skills they’re learning in a way that also develops a sense of purpose. My book The 20time Project provides practical guidance on how to implement service-learning projects in your class, and it’s my hope that with the advancement of AI-powered learning tools, we will have more time to dedicate to building and giving back to our communities.

Next summer I plan to play another round of Vacation Wirehead Spotting, and I suspect that we’ll continue to see apocalyptic images of families mainlining their devices around the various couches of Airbnb. However, if we dedicate the school year to making sure that students know how and why they should unplug, we’ll be able to stop (or at least delay) the moment when young adults line up to plug their brains permanently into the Matrix.