Students distracted by technology? Then teach better!

A good friend just shared a New York Times article about teachers struggling with technology. Or fighting against it. Or reluctantly using it to teach.

The weird thing about the article, in my opinion, was its title: “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say.”

The title has very little to do with the content of the story, which quotes teachers whining and fretting about students being disengaged from ideas in general and from their instruction. And they blame students’ lack of engagement on computers, video games, and phones.

But blaming technology won’t improve student learning. We teachers have to stop fighting the advancement of time and deal with a fact of life:

Our students have cell phones. Which are more interesting than we are.

20 years ago my students didn’t have these so-called “distractions,” so I was the only show in the room. Having no competition, I felt like a successful showman. Things have changed, now.

But I disagree with the idea that cell phones and computers have “reprogrammed” students to have shorter attention spans and demand “easy answers.” Instead, I think that school has been programming students to be dependent on teachers since 1900. Schools have cultivated dependency on teachers — For entertainment, for information, for laughs, for analysis, and for what’s on the test. Considering where my students were 20 years ago, I’m not surprised that they’re willing to switch from the old master (me) to their smart phones – which are better entertainers, and far superior purveyors of knowledge and information. They help with tests, too.

Someone in the article said that today’s students are more difficult to engage now, but when you do, they’re just as creative and ingenious as they ever were. I agree. In fact, I can see that finally, students have the tools that can make school lessons both personally relevant and publicly meaningful. Twenty years ago, they wrote essays for me. Now they can write those essays — or share ideas in thousands of other ways — with everyone in their class — and through the web, with an infinitely large audience.

But in order to engage students, teachers must disabuse themselves of the idea that students care about what the teacher knows.

Instead of giving students knowledge, teachers have to challenge students to master the material, then do something with it. When students’ daily task is to collaborate with others to build knowledge – and communicate that knowledge with others — then they get engaged. This idea, by the way, is OLD. John Dewey espoused it in the early part of the 20th century. Ted Sizer continued with it through the 70’s, 80,s and 90’s.

Nevertheless, it took me forever to begin to understand that teaching is not just about delivering the knowledge but about helping students to own, then work with that knowledge. And I can thank the smart phone for finally waking me up to this fact. I thank the smart phone because without it, I might still be convinced that I was living in the center of my students’ universe, filling their lives with meaning. I never was, and I never could. The phone doesn’t either, but it represents a chance to discover meaning.

So when a teacher interprets “using technology” to mean “incorporating gadgets into the delivery of content,” then “using technology” is an enormous waste of classroom time. I can make an iMovie for my students about The Odyssey – but why should they want to watch it? If THEY spend class creating building knowledge and making connections to The Odyssey, then the chances that they’ll learn and retain something improve.

When I’m at my best, I’m not doing flips and spins in front of a class. Instead, I’m guiding individuals as they make their own knowledge clear, so that they can communicate about it, collaborate with others, and create things that go beyond what’s already there. And when I forget — or fail to plan effectively — I find myself trying to do flips and spins in front of bored, disengaged students. I can tell because they’re playing with their phones. And I can’t blame them. After all, I do the same thing when I’m bored.

Technology doesn’t make me a better or worse teacher. It doesn’t make my students less attentive or more demanding. It has, however, begun to give that old paradigm of teacher-as-center-of-the-student-universe a final boot out the door. And the faster I can get it out of my classroom, the better.

About englishparsons

A happy English teacher with massive potential for growth. Trying to share the best I have to offer with the teaching world.
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3 Responses to Students distracted by technology? Then teach better!

  1. byron says:

    The fourth paragraph from the end should probably read, “I thank the smart phone” rather than “I think the smart phone”… I’m betting the smart phone helped the blog post from being written the way it was intended. Nice.


  2. Thanks, Byron… Corrected the typo.

    My smart phone may have had something to do with it, but I prefer not to blame the technology… Thanks for reading!


  3. Woden says:

    But Bill, you ARE a showman! Had me laughing, of course.
    Thank you for this — I appreciate the way you’ve used that article to put the focus on teaching, rather than the oh-so-tempting jeremiad. I used to scorn small group work but now I use it regularly because I finally realized that the important thing is not my teaching, but rather my students’ learning. So I agree fully about the teacher-centric model.
    That said, I do think that there’s a value in those quiet moments, that time without distractions — a value that is both intellectual and spiritual. Not everyone thinks best that way, but some of us do. So I try to create a space for that too. In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, there is a time for smart phones, and a time to be without smartphones….
    It’s really fun to read your meditations here — I wish I could sit in on your classes!


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