First, I empathize with classroom teachers. A lack of professional development, time to curate the best digital tools, and opportunities to be innovative and take risks with students are severely restricted by the standardized testing numbers game. The pressure on teachers is enormous, and this means if a strategy or technique (or a laptop) doesn't work perfectly the first time, it may quickly be abandoned for more traditional means of instruction (and coaching books, and drill and kill worksheets, and daily direct instruction aka "spoon-feeding"). I get that. But I also get that if those traditional methods were so effective, why isn't every child advanced or proficient in the subject matter by now? We often resort to what we always did because it is far more comfortable to us as teachers; thus, we abandon the need to reflect on why certain technology-embedded lessons failed and simply blame the device and distractibility to justify a return to our own comfort zones. As George Couros expands upon in his incredible book, The Innovator's Mindset, "we often resist change not because it doesn't work but because it forces us into the inconvenience of having to think differently about what we have always done and the ways in which we have always done things." Granted: students can be distracted while on their devices and this can lead to teacher frustration. But before one would totally abandon the initiative to incorporate a powerful learning tool into the classroom, here are some ideas worth reflection:
- Reflect on the task you asked students to perform - a digital version of a worksheet is still a worksheet, no matter how many links are offered or how many images and colors are placed on it. While paper and pencil do have their place in the classroom, if students are being asked to produce only what they would normally produce on a printed paper, then perhaps we need to re-assess the task. What are we asking students to produce?
- If the activity is engaging, challenging, there is an authentic audience and prescribed time limits, students will be more likely to stay on task. According to this article by Tom Daccord, the best classroom management tool is a good lesson. First, high expectations for what students are expected to create must be established. We must differentiate the term "create" from "respond" here. When we ask students to create, we are asking them to take what they are learning to produce something new and different. When we ask students to respond, we are only asking them to demonstrate a transfer of knowledge for that moment. Assignments can also build towards sharing with an authentic audience. If students felt there was value to their work outside of the classroom or the school, there is a likelihood of developing a greater investment of effort. Not every assignment can be presented at a conference; however, the use of social media to highlight and share student work on a daily basis can be a powerful tool for connecting to a larger audience.
- Use grouping to create accountability - Sometimes we overlook the value of collaboration when working on classroom activities. If you have several students who are distracted easily, place them in groups with higher performing students, and allow those students to gently hold the others accountable. What's even better, though, is to place those distractible students in effective group structures and make them accountable for leading the group through the assignment. Again, prescribe expectations for what will be produced, and provide clear time limits. The distracted student might be more inclined to remain on task when given the responsibility to lead others through the activity.
- A technological device is not a cure for bad habits - the novelty stage of technology in the classroom has worn off. Hoping that somehow student access to world class resources and powerful digital tools would turn the most reluctant learner into a raging genius is silly. Likewise, thinking that technology would make a teacher's life "easier" is just as ridiculous. Students and teachers both need explicit instruction regarding how to use digital tools to augment teaching and learning. Furthermore, the use of technology in the classroom must begin with pedagogical questions, such as "what is the purpose of this task? Why is technology the best means for producing the results I am expecting from this task? The same elements that make a lesson so terrific that students are begging to have more time to work on it are the same elements that need to be incorporated into lesson planning with technology. But there is also another side to this: if students are not spending time on task, what are they clicking?
- Are they chatting/messaging? Why not incorporate more collaborative strategies into your lessons?
- Are they streaming videos? Why not talk about the elements that make a video interesting to them, then ask them to use what they are learning to create a similar product for an authentic audience to review?
- Do the websites they visit contain elements that are personally important to them, and can those elements be woven into your lessons?
- Are they streaming music? Why not use digital tools to create and record a composition that reflects on class material?
- Are they gaming? There are tons of resources available for creating gaming elements within a class to make it more engaging. Additionally, there may be simulations, role-playing, and other immersive apps available that align with the content you are teaching.
- Increase opportunities for student feedback - Teachers as well as students know when a speaker is presenting static material without any regard for his or her audience (just go to any faculty meeting and watch how teachers surf email or "click other websites" if they are not engaged or the material is static). Purposely planning for ongoing student feedback through backchannels like TodaysMeet, Google Docs, or Padlet (hey, even Twitter works!) can provide students a purpose for remaining attentive. Calling on those students and actually responding to the feedback as it occurs helps students feel part of a dynamic process, not just receivers of a static presentation. Once they sense they do not need to be held accountable for input, it is distraction time!
No particular pedagogy can end all distractions. Other elements can cause students to be off-task, ranging from the social, emotional, to the biological. But as educators, we should reflect upon the above considerations before reverting back to our comfort zones of "the way we used to do" education. Not only does that attitude stifle our kids' ability to use technology to acquire the necessary skills to function in the 21st century world, but it also denies our students role models of innovative and creative thinking in the classroom. As George Couros states in his book, "The Innovator's Mindset", in a world that constantly changes, if our focus is to
only maintain what's already been done, we are
bound to become worse".
Couros, George: "The Innovator's Mindset"