Devices in the Classroom: A Rant

There’s been a lot of articles recently about devices in the classroom. Many of these articles are talking about how we need to ban devices because they distract students, that they are not working as advertised (higher test scores), or mention (even praise) the schools that have instituted bans on devices. Personally, I feel that there is a major flaw with a lot of the articles and research that has been done prior to implementing these policies. As an educator, these articles have raised several questions about the process that was (or was not) gone through. In those classrooms for students are not doing as well, (or where devices were banned) were those teachers taught how to teach with devices and screens available? Were those students taught how to learn with devices? Or as is the case in so many schools, were devices delivered with expectations for results up at the genius level without any of the extra training required?

Learning to read and retain information

Those people who are over a certain age learnt to read on paper, they learnt with only books, they learnt how to find information on pieces of paper. If however, a person had learnt only on a screen then they would have had a potentially different experience. The methodology of teaching somebody with a screen and the methodology of teaching somebody with a book will be slightly different. The strategies that are used will be different, the way the brain understands the information, looks and seeks information is different. So no one should be surprised when students who have been taught to read on paper end up getting lower test scores on screens (or vice versa!).

Professional Development of Teachers

Let’s talk for a moment about the professional development that a teacher requires in order to effectively teach something. Teachers today who have been teaching for more than five or six years probably did not learn how to teach using technology in their classrooms, they probably learnt how to teach with chalkboards and overhead projectors or document cameras. I know I was never taught to use technology in my lessons, and I completed my education degree in 2006! Most teacher’s first classroom may have had one desktop computer for teacher use and nothing for the students. Since that time, some teachers have received extensive professional development on how to use devices as part of effective teaching and many teachers have not.

If people find that students are getting distracted in the lessons and they’re going on their devices, is that because the teacher is teaching the same way that we were all taught in the 70s and 80s? I’ve done a lot of reading about devices in the classroom, I’ve taken several workshops on devices in the classroom, I’ve led workshops on devices in the classroom, and the one thing that I keep coming back to, which seems to be universal, is the fact that the teaching methods need to be different if people expect to have a class that succeeds with devices. When you have those different teaching methods the test scores will go up, and the student engagement will go up too.

It is interesting that people point to students getting distracted by their devices in class as a reason for banning them, but banning the device will not stop the distractions in class! When we were in school in the 70s and 80s (probably before that too!) we got distracted from the lessons – we would take naps, we would pass notes, we would daydream, we would doodle in our notebooks, textbooks, and even on the desks. We didn’t have the luxury of devices so we would have to stare out a window instead of staring at our Windows phone. So yes, it is easier for students these days to find something more interesting to do rather than pay attention to their lesson; however, research has been done to state that the lecture method is the least useful way of teaching students. “Chalk and Talk” is great for standardised testing and creating factory workers, but not so good for creativity, collaboration, or the critical thinking skills that we’re being told is so important to teach for our modern society.

People retain the least amount of information when it is given to them through lecture, so why do so many classrooms still use the lecture method? The answer is because it’s easier for the teacher, and that’s what the teacher was taught to do. It takes a lot more effort for a teacher to design activities that are hands-on, that will guide the students along the path from not having the knowledge to having the knowledge, in addition to understanding the knowledge and be able to apply it to other situations. That’s really hard work and it’s time-consuming.

Universities need to be on board with this too! They are some of the worst offenders for promoting traditional and occasionally archaic practices in education, yet they’re also the ones that are doing the research that states that we shouldn’t be doing the things that we’re doing. It’s a classic case of “Do as I say and not as I do”.

Just to be clear, I don’t think that kids should be on their screens all day every day. In fact, If teachers go through excellent professional development in regards to devices, they will discover that the more of it is about hands-on learning balanced with screen time than it is about putting the kids on the devices.

Distractions and Digital Morals

Things like cyberbullying are a valid concern, but before the screens we had bullying. Nothing has changed except the location of the bullying. It’s still being done on the sly, it’s still being done out of the way of teachers, and a lot of it happens outside the school grounds. Do we need a solution to this? Absolutely! Is banning the device going to help? No! Banning a device doesn’t teach the students how to be good digital citizens and how NOT to cyberbully. Just look at all the adults who post “trolling” comments on blogs, newspaper articles and Facebook posts. They didn’t grow up with devices, yet there are still many adults who should be labelled as a cyberbully.

Parents you need to start modelling how to use the device in a responsible way. You need to model that for text messages, for email, you need to model that for time usage as well. Your kids are watching you! Even when you think they’re not they’re picking up your bad habits telling them not to do something and then you go and do it, doesn’t work. Remember those anti-smoking campaigns in the 80s? Parents told their kids not to smoke and then went and lit up. A lot of those kids ended up smoking as teenagers. There are resources out there for you. Read the Screenwise book by Devorah Heitner, look at the resources that are available on Common Sense Media website, you can even look at your local public library or school district office to see if they have resources as well.

When I was in grade 4, I had a problem with reading. Not the kind of problem that most students have in North America with reading – I read very well! My issue was that I would read my novels instead of paying attention to the (boring) lessons. What ended up happening was that my books were taken away and locked in the teacher’s cupboard. It did not teach me to be a “responsible reader”, nor that there were good and bad times to be reading. Rather all it really taught me was that I needed to be much better about reading on the sly because otherwise, I was going to get caught and have my books taken away again!

Within the workforce, most people in most jobs are expected to be able to use technology. If we want the workers to be using it responsibly, we need to start teaching students to use it responsibly at an early age. I’m not saying that we should be teaching specific apps that students are going to use when they’re 20 and working at McDonald’s, but they do need to be taught organisational skills with an within a device, and they do need to be taught how to manage the distractions that device could give them.

So should we be banning devices? Absolutely not! Instead of banning the device why don’t we actually solve the problem instead of just dealing with the symptoms? If the problem Is that kids are not paying attention in school, the solutions are better professional development for teachers, curriculums that relate to the child’s world, and families that are “screenwise” (check out that book).

The key to solving the world’s problems in the past has often been education. Rather than banning a device, why don’t we educate ourselves about it and use it as it was meant to be used – as a tool. It’s not meant to replace everything, it is meant to make things easier. Just as we changed from quills to lead pencils and pens, just as we changed from slates to paper notebooks and binders, we are now adding screens and devices to our teaching and learning toolbox.

So what are my recommendations?

  1. Universities need to change how they teach things – especially to new teachers! They need to model what they have been researching. The research is showing that hands-on activities, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, all allow the students to learn more than in a traditional lecture method.
  2. We need devices in every classroom – maybe we can’t afford to be 1:1, but there needs to be a significant number (2:1 or 3:1) so that students are able to engage with the device and the contents that they are learning
  3. Parents need to get on board – yes this is something new, this is something different from when you were a kid. Every generation has been like this! Parents don’t know how to deal with the upcoming generation because they’re different from when they were kids. Educate yourself. Better yet, educate yourself all along with your child. Make sure that you are modelling good digital habits at home so that they can then model them at school. If you’re using your phone while your child is trying to talk to you and tell you about their day; why wouldn’t your child then turn around and use their phone in the classroom when their teachers are trying to teach them something?
  4. Administrators: start looking for excellent professional development which is going to teach your teachers how to re-think their lessons and how to re-imagine their curriculums in a more engaging, hands-on, device-friendly programme.
  5. Students: You need to start using some self-control. You have it for other things, use it for this too. Help each other out with that. You can also ask for help too. Maybe you want your teacher to have a basket at the front of the room that you can put your mobile device in on any day that you’re not supposed to have it in class. You could also come up with ideas on how you could responsibly use your device in the lesson and share those ideas with your teacher and the principal at your school.