Monday, January 19, 2015

Student Screen a Distraction? The #1 Antidote

In a post that first appeared in Edudemic, I relate that I enjoyed the luxury of teaching in a 1:1 laptop classroom for seven years. In my classes, students took daily notes on computers, did research, created essays and 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 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).

Yet, I rarely indulge in discussions of "Big Brother"strategies. Instead, I prompt 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 proscribed time limits exist, students won’t mess around.

I see the phenomenon at work regularly in my workshops. The more time I spend "teaching" teachers something the more apt they are to check email, Facebook -- or whatever. The more time they spend "doing" in a challenging and engaged environment the less they go off task. And if they know they'll have to present their product to the group, or post it online, they're focused.

More importantly, it happens in 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. There's no "click-along-with-me-and-do-what-I-do-kids" passive activity in these classrooms. Instead, it's more like: "This is hard. And I'm not going to tell 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 conference, or submit it to a state publication, and then watch that heightened focus in their eyes. Note that 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 their doing is important.





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