Digital Distraction vs. Engagement in Action

We recently received a question from a middle school teacher asking about digital citizenship and digital distraction. Specifically what to do about students who are off task or using their device for something other than school work. She wrote: “In the past I have removed computer privileges from students who were either playing games or using Gmail accounts to chat (not about the content)…What do other teachers/schools do to implement responsible use of computers/devices while in the classroom? What do you recommend…?"

Before we jump into what we think is the heart of the matter, let’s make a quick digression. Many teachers who are new to 1:1 often feel that, since their school or district shelled out the money to provide the devices, teachers are supposed to use them every minute of every class period of every day. We have yet to meet an administrator who pushes this policy. Many of the challenges teachers face with distracted students come at moments in class when students aren’t really actively doing anything. We may be giving instructions, or reviewing a sample of an assignment, or setting up an activity. This is prime distraction time. (Just look around at the next faculty meeting during general announcements for teachers checking email or sending off a quick text; digital distraction is pretty common.) It is for this reason that we encourage teachers to build norms into their class routines, and verbal cues into their lesson transitions. Jen’s students know that during silent reading time, their laptops need to be closed. Diana’s students have gotten comfortable with her cue to “chill out and listen” while she gives directions — hands clasped behind their heads (where they can’t type), reclined in their chairs, eyes off their screens. If distraction during these brief windows of time is an issue, it’s completely reasonable to have students power down.

But our hunch is that’s not the entirety of the question. What do we do when it’s time to power up for learning and our students veer off topic? When our classrooms are 1:1, and our students truly need their computer or tablet to do their classwork, then we have moved past a time when technology is a privilege and into an age when it is a necessary learning tool. Very rapidly, computers and tablets in our classrooms are becoming as critical as textbooks were several decades ago. When our students need technology to be productive, removing it also removes any chance they have for doing their work. The issue, then, is not about the technology; it is about disengagement from the learning task. The challenge is that with a screen in front of our students, a whole host of more engaging activities are close at hand.

In some cases, taking away the computer may be exactly what a student wants us to do. Consider this story from a few weeks ago in Jen’s classroom. A student, who should have been collaborating with his partner on an activity, was reading his book instead. Jen asked him to please put the book away, open up his laptop, and help with the task. He did, but a few minutes later Jen’s colleague, a co-teacher who is new to 1:1 teaching, brought her the student’s computer. “He was playing a game, so I took it away.” she said.  When Jen looked over, the student had his nose back in his book, an activity now seemingly sanctioned by the removal of his laptop. Jen told her colleague she should return the computer; she protested that the student had been off-task. “Yes,” Jen explained, “and now he is still off task because without the computer he can’t do the work today.” Taking his laptop was more of a reward than a punishment. Without the computer the student was free to read his book without having to collaborate with his peers. With his computer back, and a bit of closer supervision from his teachers, he spent the rest of the period working with his partner.

Taking a computer or tablet away from a student should be our last resort, and only if we are ready with some other equally rigorous task. Consequences for off-task behavior should be the same whether the work is analog or digital. We wouldn’t take away a student’s pencil because the child was doodling or writing notes to friends. We think part of the solution for off-task students is to reframe the problem. Students who are doing other things are not being willfully defiant; they are looking for something more engaging to do. Let’s admit that many of the things we expect students to do in school are not always going to be interesting to them. Making sure we have taken steps to create a student-centered curriculum is the crucial first step for increasing engagement, and thus, limiting digital distraction.

Beyond curricular changes, students need to know that the work they are doing matters, and that we will hold them accountable for completing it. Having clear consequences for completing work is a useful way to motivate students to stay on task. Additionally, we suggest partner work activities that rely on the contributions of both students.  Moving around the room, and having direct conversations with off-task students about why they are choosing not to do their work are other ways to show students we care about their success. We suspect  many of these strategies sound familiar from the pre-1:1 days. In short, our recommendation for encouraging responsible use of technology is to be sure that our learning tasks are engaging, the consequences of not finishing work are clear, and the spirit of  productivity guides our lesson planning. There is work to be done.

Making our 1:1 classrooms an engaging place for learning is the subject of all of Chapter 3 in Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning (which we highly recommend, of course.) Chapter 3 explores three core conditions for student engagement—connection, perplexity, and curiosity—and uses a series of classroom vignettes to illustrate these conditions. The second half of the chapter details five strategies for increasing engagement in your 1:1 classroom. We share reasons why each of these strategies works to encourage and integrate all student voices, put students in conversation with one another, and transform teacher-centered instruction to personalized learning. Using back-channeling, online discussion boards, polling and data collection, interactive feedback systems, and educational games, you can easily enrich the great teaching you are already doing. The chapter closes with a brief discussion of disengagement and offers suggestions for ways to detect and reduce distractions in the 1:1 classroom.

(This post originally appeared as part of the Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute. To read comments, or other posts by Stenhouse authors, visit: blog.stenhouse.com)