Are Your Students Distracted by Screens? Here’s A Powerful Antidote

I was fortunate to teach in a 1:1 laptop classroom for seven years. In my classes, students took daily notes on computers, did research, wrote essays, created various multimedia publications, and worked on collaborative projects.

Yet I knew that if I wasn’t watching their screens, my students would at some point be doing something they were not supposed to be doing. So, while I was thrilled with the tremendous educational content available to my students, I was concerned with the less-than-desirable elements pervasive on the Internet. Today, I stroll through many schools that are using technology extensively, and invariably I see students using computers for Facebook, IM, playing games, checking sports scores, and all manner of other “evil” things. (BTW, this is as true in middle school classrooms as it is in graduate schools.)

Many teachers I encounter have decided that they need to crack down on — if not entirely eradicate — screen distractions in their classrooms. (A minority of teachers accept it as a form of 21st century doodling.) So, I regularly get questions from teachers asking if they can lock students into apps (yes, that’s possible) or watch student laptop screens remotely (yes, that’s possible, too).

Study-Students-With-iPads-Perform-Better-School

Yet, I rarely indulge in discussions of “Big Brother” tools and strategies. Instead, I ask teachers to consider the most important truism regarding screen distractions:

The best classroom management tool is a good lesson.

If the activity is engaging and challenging, there is an authentic audience, and prescribed time limits, students won’t mess around.

I see it at work regularly in my PD workshops. The more time I spend “teaching” teachers something from the front of the room, the more inclined they are to check email, Facebook, or whatever. The more time they spend learning actively in a challenging and engaging activity, the less they go off task. Add in the possibility that they they’ll have to present to the entire class, or post their creation online, and they’re even more focused.

More importantly, it happens in K-12 classrooms all the time. I know because when teachers relate stories of engaged students using technology, their students all ask the same question:

“Can I have more time to work on it?”

The ingredients for cooking up engaging activities vary, but certain elements are constant. For one, the activities are challenging and expectations high. There’s no “click-along-with-me-and-do-what-I-do-kids” passiveness in these classrooms. Instead, it’s more like: “This is hard. And I’m not going to show you how to do it. But I expect what you create will be excellent.”

There’s also an authentic audience. Tell students you’re going to present their work at a conference, or submit it to a state publication, and then watch the heightened focus in their eyes. Yet, the audience doesn’t necessarily need to be outside the school walls. Just tell them you’re going to show their work to other classes and teachers. As one teacher noted: “I didn’t realize how little I mattered, until I told my students that I was going to publish all their work to an audience.”

And great teachers figure out other ways to make kids care. They personalize the content — drawing connections to kids’ lives — and help students understand why what they’re doing is important.

It doesn’t mean that a lecture is no longer important or needed in our classrooms. Teacher lectures impart useful information and explanations, and they can be lively and engaging. But technology offers us wonderful opportunities for immersive, challenging, and engrossing student activity. If we focus our energies on constructing impactful pursuits, the less likely the screen in front of our students becomes an alluring distraction.

Learn more from Tom Daccord at the July 28-30 EdTechTeacher Summit or test his classroom management skills by participating in one of his Summer Workshops.

3 Comments

  1. Ed DeHoratius

    May 28, 2014 at 6:41 am

    Hi Tom,

    (You ran some PD for us in Wayland’s Language Dept a few years back.) Enjoyed the post. Here’s my take on it, that says some similar things: http://whsipadpilot.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/ipad-as-distraction-in-the-classroom/. I’m in the doodling minority, I suppose. Thanks for posting.

    Ed

  2. @SwayGrantham

    May 29, 2014 at 3:24 am

    When I first started reading I thought my comment was going to be largely a reminder that technology doesn’t ‘fix’ problems and that it’s pedagogy that has an impact but then you got there yourself, so thank you for that!

    I have to say as well, I am guilty of checking social media whilst someone is presenting to me but I can do both at once without it interrupting my learning. Unless it’s causing children to not get their work done and they’re doing that instead of what you’ve asked them then – is it really a problem?

  3. Michael Niehoff

    June 7, 2014 at 9:38 am

    Yes, the activity or project or lesson will drive all. They do what everyone does when bored – surf. Also, they need to use social media as part of activity.