Principal Daniel Villeneuve of Saints-Anges Catholic Elementary School in North Bay, Ontario was among the first wave of Canadian school leaders to take a stand against Fidget Spinners, the latest craze among children worldwide.
On May 23 and 24, 2017, the North Bay principal visited class after class to advise his students that the hand-held gadgets were being banned from school grounds, then sent a letter to parents explaining the decision. What he didn’t say was perhaps obvious – the classroom distractions were driving teachers crazy and making teaching almost intolerable.
Marketed as a “stress reliever” for anxious or hyperactive kids, Fidget Spinners became a major disruption, interfering with teaching and learning and affecting everyone in the classroom. Childhood crazes come and go, but this one was different because the gadgets were billed as therapeutic tools providing supposed benefits for children affected by ADHD and a host of school-age anxieties.
In May 2017, school authorities across the world stepped in to limit or eliminate the spinners in the classroom. While American and British education leaders were quick to react against the latest gadget, their Canadian counterparts were more cautious, and teachers were more receptive to claims that Fidget Spinners had therapeutic effects based upon what researchers term ‘pseudoscience.’
The arrival of fidget spinners on school playgrounds had a polarizing effect, pitting regular teachers against those serving special needs children. Influenced by child psychologists like Toronto’s Sara Dimerman, teachers recommended using spinners to help ease the anxieties of students in Grades 3 and 6 writing Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) exams in reading, writing and math during the week of May 22 to 26.
The critical question remains: why did it take so long for Canadian educators to confront the latest menace to effective teaching and learning?
Fidget Spinners, since their invention in the 1990s, have been used with some success to assist in teaching students severely challenged with autism. “We call them fidget tools because they really are tools,” Edmonton autism specialist Terri Duncan told CBC News. “Sometimes it helps to tune out other sensory information. Sometimes it helps them calm and focus. Sometimes it helps them with their breathing and relaxing. It’s a little bit different for every child.”
Serious problems arise when Fidget Spinners are used to simply relieve everyday stress and anxiety. While Dr. Jennifer Crosbie of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children sees value in the gadgets for treating autistic children, she’s not a fan of their widespread use in classrooms. In her words, “it’s too distracting” and “draws attention” to the user, disrupting the class. She and many other clinicians now recommend that schools limit their use to special education classes or interventions.
School authorities in Maritime Canada initially accepted the claims of the marketers and were swayed by their special education program consultants. Self-regulation, championed by Dr. Stuart Shanker of York University, has made inroads in elementary schools, many of which embrace “mindfulness” and employ “stress-reduction” strategies and tools.
Seeking to accommodate learning challenged students in inclusive classrooms, New Brunswick’s Anglophone school districts readily accepted Fidget Spinners as just another pacifying tool to complement their spin bikes and wiggle stools. In the Atlantic Region’s largest school district, Halifax Regional School Board, the policy decision was left up to individual schools and frustrated teachers took to social media to complain about the constant distraction and ordeal of confiscating spinners to restore order.
Prominent education critics and teacher researchers had a field day exposing the pseudoscience supporting the introduction of Fidget Spinners into today’s regular classrooms. A Winnipeg psychologist, Kristen Wirth, found little evidence testifying to their positive results and claims that it is a “placebo effect” where “we feel something is helping, but it may or may not be helping.” Canada’s leading teen mental health expert, Dr. Stan Kutcher, saw “no substantive evidence on spinners” and warned parents and teachers to be wary of the out-sized claims made by marketers of the toys.
The founder of Britain’s researched, Tom Bennett, was more adamant about the “latest menace” to effective teaching and learning in schools. The latest fad – Fidget Spinners – he saw as symptomatic of “education’s crypto-pathologies.” Teachers today have to contend with students purportedly exhibiting “every trouble and symptom” of anxiety and stress. Misdiagnoses, he claimed, can lead to children feeling they have some insurmountable difficulty in reading, when what it requires is tutorial help and ongoing support.
“Many children do suffer from very real and very grave difficulties,” Bennett pointed out, and they need intensive support. When it comes to “Fidget Spinners,” he added, “we need to develop a finer, collective nose for the bullshit, for the deliberately mysterious, for the (purely invented) halitosis of the classroom.”
Magic bullets – like magic beans – which do not pass the sound research test have no place in today’s classrooms. In many cases, they do far more harm than good to our students.