Blaming students and technology instead of us

Here’s a comment that was just left over at BigThink on an old post of mine:

I am a senior English teacher. Here is my problem with using technology in the classroom: I walked into an AP class this past year and stood in the back for the lecture. I took notes about what the students were doing. 4 (the top 4, mind you) were using their netbooks to take notes. One student was on Skype with his college girlfriend, 6 were playing games. 2 were on iTunes and actually had earbuds in. Really? What are they learning here besides what they can get away with? When I allow students to use their netbooks in my classroom, it is only when I am actually giving notes from the board in a prezi or on power point. At that time, I walk around to make sure they are doing nothing else with them. I know, however, that when I’m walking in the front of the room, those students are working. I see the ones in the back of the room clicking around and begin feverishly typing as I get closer to their table.

High schoolers do need to be able to use technology, but if they don’t use it properly, it is more of a hindrance and distraction than a good, useful tool. Do they have the maturity to use it appropriately and how do we get them to change to proper behavior – those are the questions to ask. In case you can’t tell, this is a pet peeve of mine

This is primarily a pedagogical and/or supervision issue, not a student or technology issue. When are the students off task in this scenario? When the teacher is lecturing to them and they’re just supposed to sit passively and take notes. Are they engaged? Are they interested? Do they get other opportunities to use technology besides taking notes? It doesn’t appear so. If I were a student in those classes and I had a laptop, I’d be off task too [yawn].

Classroom management stems from good instruction. Engaging learning environments mitigate ‘off-task’ behavior. We need to stop blaming students or laptops for our own failure to create better learning spaces (and that’s true whether we’re talking P-12 or postsecondary). Mindless compliance from students? No thanks.

Image credit: Bigstock

31 Responses to “Blaming students and technology instead of us”

  1. My question to the English teacher would be: What were the students who did not have a computer/phone/tablet doing? Were they engaged in and focused on the lesson/lecture? Were they daydreaming? Were they thinking about the test in the next class period? How would you know?

    If you knew that some students hid a comic book inside their text books, would you ban text books in your classroom (or allow students to use them only when you are walking around the room)?

  2. I’m curious to know how the students did in the class in terms of grades. If they still did well, perhaps the teacher needed to recognize that these students were not challenged so they knew they could drift.

    Again, I’m not sure we are asking the right questions nor staying in the question long enough when addressing this idea of distraction:

    • The kid skyping his college girlfriend made good grades, but he did not pass the AP test. 3 of the 4 taking notes that day did, however. The ones playing games passed the class by the skin of their teeth and got nowhere near passing on the AP exam. The students at our school get weighted credit whether they pass the test or not; that is the reason they took the class.

  3. My question to the English teacher is why were you primarily lecturing? In a 21st Century scenario where these student have all this technology access, why not provide your lecture notes for them to read prior to class and have them doing interactive collaborative learning when engaged in the classroom??

  4. Scott, I’m so glad you shared this. I sent a tweet out during ISTE that got a lot of play having to do with this same topic. Classroom management is an engagement issue not a technology issue. It’s also an adult issue, not a kid issue.

    Assuming that technology is going to keep kids engaged because they are “natives” is akin to assuming that students will learn more by watching a movie because they are all “visual” learners. The magic that the very best teachers have is their ability to engage students regardless of the tools being used. All too often I read/hear about teachers using technology to motivate and engage and it makes me shutter a bit. Technology, like any tool, is to be use to provide access to information, to knowledge, to the curriculum. If used appropriately, it can result in incredible learning opportunities for kids. But to assume that it itself is going to keep kids engaged does a disservice to the teachers out there who get the fact that the most important factor in student engagement is the relationships that they have with their students. As a virtual school official and a proponent of #edtech, I couldn’t imagine finding a replacement as powerful as the relationships that can form between a teacher and his/her students.

  5. Just happen to be reading Phil Schlechty’s newest book, Engaging Students: the Next Level of Working on the Work. Some of what I’ve read applies here.

    Important in any classroom are two things: the relationship that the teacher has with the students and the work that the teacher designs for the students to do. Sounds like this teacher is more about who he is (an AP teacher) and what he does (lectures).

    Engagement, according to Phil, involves four components. Students who are engaged are 1)attentive and focused on what needs to be done, 2)committed to their task, 3) persistent when faced with difficulty, and 4)find meaning in the tasks that make up the assigned work. Too bad that many educators confuse engagement with being on task.

    The key, of course is to design work that elicits the four components of engagement. I’m thinking it wouldn’t make much difference what technologies were being employed in that kind of situation.

  6. I am a not at all senior IT teacher. Here is my problem with using pen and paper in the classroom: I walked into an class this past year and stood in the back for the lecture. I took notes about what the students were doing. 4 (the top 4, mind you) were using their pens to take notes. One student was writing a note to his college girlfriend, 6 were doodling, 2 were folding origami ducks and one was actually drawing on the desk. Really? What are they learning here besides what they can get away with? When I allow students to use pen and paper in my classroom, it is only when I am actually giving notes from the board in a prezi or on power point. At that time, I walk around to make sure they are doing nothing else with them. I know, however, that when I’m walking in the front of the room, those students are working. I see the ones in the back of the room chewing their pens and begin feverishly scribbling as I get closer to their table.

    High schoolers do need to be able to use pens, but if they don’t use it properly, it is more of a hindrance and distraction than a good, useful tool. Do they have the maturity to use it appropriately and how do we get them to change to proper behavior – those are the questions to ask. In case you can’t tell, this is a pet peeve of mine

    The only consistent bit? — That it’s a behaviour issue not a tech issue…

    • The only problem is that this doesn’t sound like any AP class I attended back in the early 90’s. Those who were engaged were doing so because they wanted the college credit, not because the instructor did a dog and pony show for their attention.

      I’m amazed at the change in attitude reflected in so many of these heartfelt entreaties to “take responsibility” for engaging the students in the class.

      Is education like a service now? Like something that needs to reach out to you and make itself palatable and fun in order to “maintain” your patronage or engagement?

      As much as I agree with some of the sentiment here, I’ve got to come out and say that I’m kind of disgusted by what I’m hearing.

  7. A bit cruel maybe, but this “throw the blame in the lap of the tech” just makes me so cross. Learners who are bored with the subject will entertain themselves some other way with whatever’s in front of them – from a iPad to a bent paperclip.

    Banning the distractions is attacking the symptom not the cause…

  8. Engagement, engagement, engagement. In my 10 years of classroom teaching at a private high school, I have faced this as a challenge of engagement.

    My students are almost always in full tech mode, phones, laptops etc (limited to one ear bud). I have to keep the class moving in such a way that I am directing the. Hoices the students are making with their tech. If they have the internet in front of them, I ask them to use it.

    When I choose not to plan my stucdent’s use of tech in class, I have to be prepared for them to follow their own plan.

    I have to be prepared to say “screens down, ear buds out.”

    I also have to set clear expectations about tech use in class and remind students about their obligation to the class.

    i have to plan tech use
    I have to detect off-topic use (most students have no poker face and I bust them when their facial expression does not match what we are doing in class)
    I have to hold them accountable, and makef the reward for being on task better than there friends fb post.

    This is my challenge and I am learning. Living is learning.

  9. Wow! You all seem very quick to jump on the teacher here. Do these 17 – 18 year old AP students have no responsibility to engage in the class? I expect more personal responsibility from my 7th graders.

    While I’m not one to blame technology for behavior, I think it is naive to equate the tech of a pencil with the abundance (of information & distraction) that the web provides. I certainly see many adults seduced into the web during meetings when they should be participating – students are no different.

    You can be pro-ed-tech without belittling teachers who struggle with the technology and enforcing appropriate use of technology in their classroom.

    • I think we’d be more apt to putting blame on the students if there was some attempt made by the teacher to engage them. While we certainly aren’t seeing this with our own eyes, from the context presented, I don’t see that attempt being made. I completely agree that we shouldn’t give kids a pass, but in this example, I don’t blame them.

  10. I agree with the others that identify the problem as an issue with the planning, not the tools. Yes, even if the greatest teacher is teaching the greatest lesson ever created someone in class will still be screwing around. That doesn’t mean we need to stop making the best lessons using the best tools available. That just means kids (like the rest of us) screw around some times.

  11. Carol @missmac100 Reply July 11, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    I agree that the problem would occur with or with out technology. Have you ever just observed a faculty meeting? Teachers are having side conversations. Some are playing games on their phone or texting. Others are grading papers while others are just zoned out completely. Now we are talking about adults here. Now if we are engaged in a conversation or have a task to complete that pretty much goes away because we are INVOLVED in the process. The teacher is not bad but just missing an opportunity to think about how to really change things to engage them. We are all guilty of being like this teacher. We all need to change to make things better.

    • As I think of the faculty meeting example, one issue here is the “lecture” style of many meetings – where we are told things that might be included in a memo. Here one issue is agency of teachers and whether leadership is shared. Why engage if you have no power over your own learning or teaching? Cambourne says engagement requires that the learning experience (or faculty meeting) is relevant to the leaner.

  12. No one should be able to call themselves a teacher of any level or mode of literacy if they are still struggling with what constitutes current literacy tools. We no longer live in a parchment scroll era, and neither do we live in an era of pen, ink, ckalk and slate.

    The primary mode of all kinds of communication, literary or not, is currently electronic – period. It continues to be unfortunate that there are still teachers who have not realized the changes that have happened in how the world communicates.

    • Speaking (not texting), listening (not via earbuds), writing (not by typing or speech-to-text software), and reading not from a screen are not skills that should be developed anymore. Real teachers prepare students with (virtual) life skills. Learning and communicating without electronic tools stopped in the last century. Have I accurately represented your point?

      I’m a tech-heavy teacher of students at the high school, college, and graduate level. Like most of my colleagues, I still use a chalkboard and order books made of paper. I also use SmartBoards and make use of digital texts and tools.

      Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” _The Atlantic_ July/August 2008

      • No, Andrew, you have not accurately represented my point. I encourage you to do a little closer reading of the text of my post.

        Affording me the opportunity to expand on my post, though, is appreciated. I did not write that speaking is no longer vital; it is, especially for those who are able to do it in any language or languages. My use of the adjective ‘primary’ would have been improved had I written ‘predomominate’ instead. Although, electronic communication is, indeed, primary and vital for some of us humans. That was not even a possibility when Keats was writing his famous letter containing the idea of negative capability ( which anyone can now easily know about via a brief web search.)

        As for forms and methods of writing, I think the guest post that Scott so generously permitted me on this blog a couple of years ago still accurately summarizes many of my thoughts - .

        I have a post on IWBs somewhere, too, I think on Shelley Blake-Plocks now defunct but venerable ‘Teach Paperless’ blog; I think they’re inferior to document cameras for a lot of reasons.

        I still really enjoy drawing in all kind of media, except Cray pas. I especially like graph paper for several types of illustrations.

        And I’m not quite comfortable or especially fluent with touch screens – my teenage son and daughter roll their eyes whenever I work a touch screen in their presence. But, the amazing possibilities of tablets has inspired me to try to get better ( I just got a new word processing
        program for my iPad which is really making that easier.)

        I own way more books than I need, and I can’t imagine ever getting around to reading all of them, but some of them like a paperback copy of Roethke’s Collected Poems which is now very dog eared are precious.

        I stand by my original post as would Wendell Berry, and invite further conversation via any means.

  13. Warwick Peter-Budge Reply July 12, 2012 at 6:52 am

    What about if the students were writing love notes to their boyfriends / girlfriends… Doodling aimlessly in their books… Sky gazing out the window… Or, in probably the most obvious example of disinterest – sleeping their way through the lecture!
    It might be worth the teacher getting the students to Skype with content area experts, research relevant content on itunesU, or create game like structures for students to work and learn with…

  14. Educators need to take responsibility and find better ways to teach students. Technology is important in today’s society and so are learning environments. It is the job of the educator to make sure students are learning and are engaged. I have spent my entire life developing my math and memory system Brainetics ( to better educate kids through a fun and engaging platform. Teachers in today’s world need to be innovative and smart about how they teach.

    Great article!

    Mike Byster
    Inventor of Brainetics, Author of Genius, Mathematician, Educator

  15. ewwwwww weeeeeee!
    I wish that was all I had to leave as a comment, but as a future educator and a current EDM 310 student, I must leave more.
    I will start by saying, I can certainly see both sides of the arguement for obvious reasons. Students tend to get side tracked when they’re not fully engaged in the discussion. It doesn’t take a netbook or an i-pod to cause that. If they leaves are twirling around and a lecture is boring, I will watch the leaves. It’s simple. Personally, I’ve spent 90 minutes in a lectured class doing the following: texting,facebooking,twittering,playing games,etc..just to stay awake! As a student, (college student especially, due to the amt of $$ we pay) this is unfair. Teachers should interact with their students, put those netbooks in gear and engage us please! Then, there are those professors who make implementing technology in the classroom look like a piece of cake. Those are the instructors you wish you could take for every course, every semester!

    From a future teachers’ perspective, I have to 100% agree with Sam Patterson’s comments above. You have to take charge of your classroom, point blank. There is nothing that is more bothersome to me than a teacher who lacks the control of their classrooms. In my opinion, for an educator to abruptly blame technology on the reason his or her classroom is uninvolved shows little respect for the future of this profession.

  16. Tools of every type, be they pen, netbook, tablet or smartphone are useful adjuncts to effective teaching and successful learning. However, rather than focusing on the tools or the teacher, I (as a secondary school English teacher) would rather focus on the learner.

    In my experience engaging anyone is simply a matter of building relationships. Building relationships requires emotional literacy. As an Engligh teacher my aim is to help students discover their literacy skills, critical, creative & emotive. When we as teachers start with the learner and walk by their side, rather than sit in front or behind them, it doesn’t matter which tool we use, students learn because they have chosen to belong within a partnership.

  17. Effective teachers know how to create the balance between technology and classroom management.

  18. I think it is helpful for students to be exposed to some of the articles that discuss the Y Generation and their need for social connectivity. Provides for interesting discussion to be conducted before the actual coursework.

  19. I completely agree with the idea in the main post that good teaching is the best classroom management tool. If students are engaged with technology, then we (teachers) need to “hook” them through it.

  20. Design lessons that incorporate technology into lessons that use “clickers” so that students have to respond.

  21. As a teacher who is still teaching but long past retirement age, this is an interesting discussion. Students use technology like I used a pen…to take notes, to doodle, to keep myself in boring classes. When my mind was engaged I was on task.

  22. Teaching mathematics where essential tools might be computer/calculator/pencil changes the playing field. Students remain engaged when the task is stimulating and the outcome is workable.
    However, the necessity of student engagement and building relationships are apparent.

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