When I first started teaching there were no iPads, mobile phones or laptops in the classroom to distract students’ thoughts away from the matter at hand, but make no mistake there was still plenty to distract. Instead of surreptitiously texting each other, students would pass notes, which would snake their way across the class from hand to hand under the desks, or glide in paper aeroplane format gracefully over heads while my back was turned. I know this happened because I have intercepted quite a few in my time, and because I was a student too.
I haven’t seen any notes passed in quite a while, but I know that students in my class don’t always use their devices to take notes, or work on the task at hand. Any teacher who tells you that students are never distracted in their classroom is seriously delusional. Electronic devices are particularly prone to distraction because they form such a part of the fabric of our lives. Just as bad habits gained watching television at home has made talking in the movie theatres so annoyingly prevalent, so our capacity to multi-task with our devices has made classroom distraction emerge from the surreptitious art it used to be and blossom into full-blown addiction.
In the old days when you caught a student passing a note they were apologetic. They knew they were doing wrong and accepted your admonition to get back to work with easy grace. These days students seem genuinely puzzled and sometimes indignant that you are insisting they stay on task! “I was just checking my emails!” To be fair, they still see games play as something the teacher has a right to interrupt!
Some schools, or teachers, of course simply ban devices from the classroom, confiscating cell phones when they surface. Others have policies which stress the need to turn them off when they are not being used, or at least to switch off the screen. These are all very sensible, of course, but when so many use tablets for note-taking, even this policy is hard to implement at times. I agree that there should be switched off moments during any lesson, and I uphold this approach in my own classroom, but there are those messy grey areas, those moments when some students are using devices productively for sanctioned work, and others are clearly just getting distracted. The other day I was moving from group to group as my students were working on producing a news report from the trial of Shylock: part of our study of The Merchant Of Venice. Some were editing footage they’d shot in the previous period on their iPads, Others were trying to find the script they’d written on Google docs and now couldn’t find.
One student was playing a game.”The others are editing, sir,” she said innocently.
“Aren’t you part of the group?” I asked reproachfully. She shrugged, and reluctantly closed her iPad and slid across a vacant seat to rejoin the group. If I hadn’t checked I might have fondly thought she was searching for a graphic to use, or downloading some music for the soundtrack. I wanted to use the moment to help her combat her distraction, though. “What game was it?” I asked. I didn’t know the game, but I persisted. “What level are you on?”
She became quite animated, and told me she was close to the end of the game. I can sympathize with that. So close to completing the final level and to have to work on some silly project. I almost wanted to tell her to go back to her game, and apologize for interrupting! Compared to the epic win, any question about Portia’s mercy, or lack thereof pales into insignificance.
It struck me that blanket bans on devices, or strictly enforced switch-offs, while clearly necessary at times, are not very helpful in teaching students to manage their distraction. This sounds odd, but we live in a world where multi-tasking is seen as a virtue, and the value of focus is in peril. If we want to help students focus when we need them to, we need to go beyond simply imposing periods of digital silence, we also need to help them manage the ability to set distraction aside when they need to. If we don’t, they will never learn this skill. I don’t think this can be done when devices are forcibly switched off: the device needs to be on, and you need to be managing your impulse to play with it. We need to be engaging in discussions with students about device addiction, and stepping in and helping them get back on focus when they slip. We should be gently, but firmly, vigilant about distraction and steer our students towards greater ability to set a device aside when appropriate, and leaving it switched on, still stay focused on the activity of the moment.
To this end, I would like to suggest a slightly different policy towards device distraction: a three-phase approach, much like a traffic light. Student devices are then in one of three phases: The phase gives a guideline as to whether devices should be switched off completely, available for use, but with screens off, or are on and in use. The phase also determines what sanctions are in place for infractions.
Red: All student devices are switched off. Maximum focus is required on a task which does not require devices in any way. Any digital distraction is policed by the teacher and there are sanctions for infractions. Devices may be confiscated for the duration of the lesson, for example.
Amber: Devices are on, but with screens switched off. they may be used if necessary for note-taking, checking a fact, or making calculations if necessary. Distraction is still policed by the teacher, who tells students when they may or may not use devices, but no punitive action is taken, and the focus is on students managing their own need to use a device. The teacher assists by identifying when use is appropriate or not, and advises when the screen should be switched off, but devices will not be confiscated.
Green: Devices are integral to the task at hand and students are encouraged to use them freely. Self-management is essential and any off-task behaviour is flagged, but not policed. Ask students to report on and reflect on how well they managed to stay focused and avoid distraction. Students are being encouraged to manage their own behaviour. In group work, the group may become jointly responsible with the individual. If the teacher spots off-task behaviour they may ask the individual or group to remember to report it in their reflection.
The desire is to have a system which both makes plain whether devices may or may not be used, and to encourage self-management.