Category Archives: Thinking Digitally

Five Strategies to Avoid Digital Distraction in the Classroom

Students will often have several devices about their persons on any given day. Smartphones are almost de rigueur, but if your school has a BYOD policy, many will also have a tablet or laptop. This opens up some great learning opportunities, allowing students to search for information and use digital authoring tools to create content of different kinds. But these devices can often lead to distractions. Some teachers are so concerned they are arguing for devices to be banned from the classroom entirely. Many students are seemingly surgically attached to their phones, and struggle to overcome addictive behaviours. I have some sympathy with the notion of creating device-free zones or periods of time, but believe that the benefits of digital devices far outweighs the dangers they present, not least because as teachers we have a duty to help students learn to manage and control their digital consumption.

Here are five strategies which can be implemented in the classroom and in homework/study routines to address this issue.

1. The Digital Traffic Light

If you are going to allow students to use devices during a lesson, you need some protocol for signalling to students when they are, and when they are not expected to use their devices. The digital traffic light signals what state a classroom is in at any stage.

When the light is red, no devices are allowed. Phones and tablets must be off or on silent and put away.

When the light is amber, students have an option. They may use their devices for note-taking or to answer questions, but it does not form part of the task at hand directly. For example a class is reading and discussing the English set-work in class. Some are taking notes on paper, others on their iPads. Some are reading the text on paper, others from as eTexts. The class then needs to break into groups and answer some questions. In the group the meaning of a word is queried. Students do a Google search to find out what it means.

When the light is green, the teacher is signalling that students must use their devices. The task depends on the use of a device.

This strategy has the benefit of removing doubt from students’ minds as to whether or not they should have their devices on or at hand. It also forces teachers to think about the issue up front.

2. Work First – Reward Second

When students are working on homework, many procrastinate, and so seductive are web platforms like YouTube, that work can quickly become a distant memory. A useful work ethic to develop is to reward yourself for any work done by giving yourself digital entertainment time upon completion of a block of work. If I study for an hour, I can have a break and fifteen minutes screen-time! This strategy is difficult to implement, but once it becomes habitual it can offer huge benefits.

3. Do One Thing At A Time!

As I write this I have several tabs open, a few devices at hand, and several applications running simultaneously. My email is running on my second screen so that I can deal with any issues that arise. I am listening to some music and checking my whatsapp messages regularly. Many screenagers like to multi-task and are very good at minimising their screens whenever an adult passes by! The injunction not to run multiple apps, multiple tabs or multiple devices is hard to follow, but should be a strategy one tries to adhere to. Of course there are occasions where running more than one application is beneficial. If I am writing an essay in Google docs and using another tab to research a quote I can use, for example. Or I am using PhotoShop to create an image for a project, watching a YouTube tutorial on PhotoShop on my iPad, pausing and rewinding as I go to help me work on the image I am making. But striving to do one thing at a time can really help students focus on what they are doing.

4. Monitor Your Distraction

Trying to implement the strategies above will only work if you are able to monitor your distraction. This sounds obvious, but is actually very hard to implement if you do not have a strategy for ensuring that you do it! A simple log of what you are doing can help.

16h00: studying Biology
16h48: Watching YouTube music videos
17h02: English essay
17h45: Rick & Morty!

Keeping a log can help you see where the problem lies and start to address it. In a classroom the teacher can help students monitor how focused on a task they are by reminding students what they should be doing and noticing distractions.

5. If All Else Fails, Go Cold Turkey!

Sometimes the only solution may be for a student to have their parents keep their phone in safe-keeping while they work or study.

In a classroom sometimes the distraction is so seductive that only a temporary ban will work! When the Matric Dance photos were released, even students with iron wills were covertly scrolling through the pictures when they should have been working on their spreadsheets. At first I tried a work first – reward second approach and promised them five minutes at the end of the lesson to view the photos, but when that didn’t work I had to become a policeman, imposing a ban on all devices and open tabs!

I believe that helping students manage their digital distraction is far more worthwhile than imposing blanket bans on digital devices or cracking down on all digital entertainment by blocking sites on the school firewall. Trust me, kids will find a way to circumvent the bans and then you as a teacher have absolutely no traction to help them deal with the curse of digital distraction.


Integrating Thinking & IT

There is a common assumption that IT somehow leads to better thinking. The assumption behind this is that IT promotes more independent thinking, more self-directed learning and greater opportunity for promoting critical thinking. I am not saying that this is not the case, but I do think that it is only the case if we as teachers consciously and deliberately find ways of making it so.

Sans obstacles, gliding ahead with personalized learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Maurice de Hond

CREDIT Steve Jobs School NetherlandsTwo points stood out at the recent ASU/GSV edtech summit in San Diego: there were three times more visitors than two years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the number of new businesses and products in the field of edtech has now grown strong. The majority of those companies and products focus on personalizing education, responding to the level and possibilities of the pupil.

So long as your students are organized into age-based groups as has always been done, the best technology will deliver little return with respect to a personalized approach. It’s like trying to ice skate on grass.

I’ve been active in this field since 2012, like Max Ventilla of AltSchool. I got involved because I have a young child who started using an iPhone and iPad at a very early age. However, when…

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Hack Your Life!

tdLearning to Code is all the rage right now, but how to implement a coding for all programme is not as easy as it sounds. There are a number of decisions which need to be taken. The first decision is around whether it will be merely open to all, or compulsory for all. At my school we expose all the students to a little bit of coding in their computer skills classes, in the form of some Scratch and some JavaScript. I also do a Game Design unit using Flash, with a little bit of Action Script. It works in that everyone can meet the requirements, but not all students embrace coding enthusiastically, so there might be a great deal to say for going the extra-curricular route, or maybe both.

I suspect that both is the right answer for most contexts. Everyone needs to be exposed to some coding, but I’m not convinced everyone can handle a full-on programme. the second decision is what programming language to use.

I started teaching some coding back in the late 1990s, with some Logo, and then quickly moved to JavaScript. The big advantage of JavaScript is that you do not need a compiler. All you need is a browser and a web editor. Currently I get my grade 9s to use JavaScript to create a quiz which will tell the user if they are right or wrong, and tally a score. When they create Flash games, I teach them to use AS3 to create drag and drops, and how to use tutorials to learn more skills. However, with many new interfaces for creating mobile apps appearing, my gut feeling is that this is the way to go, and I am probably going this route this year. MIT has a platform for creating apps, but there are so many popping up, I haven’t been able to research them all.

Here’s the introductory video for the MIT App platform to give you an idea of how it works.

The third decision is around how to build enthusiasm. Some students will enter into it with gusto and there is so much available online that they will be able to teach themselves. But getting the social aspect to work is vital to any programme having staying power. If you can meet face to face that is the best option, but in many schools the normal sporting and extra-curricular programme is so full, finding a mutually agreeable time is well-nigh impossible. I have tried running a virtual club, but the buy-in is limited. Special programmes which run for a limited period of time, such as a Hackathon or Hack Off may work better if you can find a niche in the calendar. I have been trying to shoe-horn some coding time into whole school programmes such as Cross-curricular tasks, or end of year programmes when teachers are marking exams and willing to sacrifice curriculum time, but for some reason staff meetings tend to resist the idea as soon as you mention coding, or even worse, hacking. For students the word hacking has a much more positive valency, however.

I honestly don’t know what the answer is, to all three questions, but I do sense that this year the zeitgeist is different. The idea that everyone should code is so out there, I think it may just take hold!




Thinking Digitally – Approaches to Digital Distraction

Digital Distraction is one of the most pressing issues in the classroom these days. With 1:1 programmes becoming ubiquitous, almost every child has a device of one kind or another on their person at any given moment. This is a fabulous opportunity for teachers to use. A student asked me the other day if she needed to bring her dictionary to school every day. She said it was rather heavy. She was sitting with her iPad open in front of her, so I just kind of looked at her in a funny way! It is all very well to have policies in place where devices are switched off when they are not needed, but students need to learn good habits which will help them focus on any given task and avoid digital distraction.

Thinking Digitally LogoEasier said than done! We all know how easy it is to be seduced off-task by that SMS or whatsapp that pops up on your phone just as you are opening up the spreadsheet that needs to be finished by lunch time at the latest. An email pops up in the corner of your screen – of course you are going to attend to that instead of the urgent report! Children face exactly the same pressures at school, and at home when doing homework.

We are introducing a new Habit Of Mind at my school – Thinking Digitally. What are the digital habits of successful thinkers? In thinking through the strategies that one can adopt to teach good habits, perhaps the most crucial is around the issue of digital distraction. So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to achieve this. And it’s not at all straight forward. A good thinking strategy is usually a simple idea or approach, which is easy to remember, and easy to apply. For example, the de Bono Thinking Hats represent six modes of thought which can be used to guide parallel thinking and stimulate collaborative work. The modes of thought are colour-coded to help memorization and, once understood, are easy to apply.

An effective strategy needs to be framed in the positive. To get good, you must do this! A good graphic organizer, for example, shapes how you approach a task, rather than steering you away from something. So the challenge was to frame a digital distraction strategy that was positive rather than a list of Thou Shalt Nots! It also seemed to me that to be memorable the strategy needed to be short! A list of 10 pointers was just too long!

I looked on the Internet and found lots of lists about switching off, and focusing on one task at a time, and so on, but to me it seemed to boil down to one simple sequence. If you follow these steps you will be focusing on a single task at a time, and cultivating healthier habits.





Do the hard or urgent thing first! Get it out of the way!
Finish one thing before you start another!
When you’ve done some work, reward yourself by doing something more pleasurable! If you’ve finished one piece of homework, reward yourself by checking your whatsapp for five minutes.

Thinking Digitally – The Essential Dialogic

Teaching has been defined as “casting false pearls before real swine” (Irwin Edman). Facetious as this comment may be it sums up what transpires day in and day out. Two things happen in any classroom, anywhere you go in the world. Firstly you will find teachers teaching. Some kind of knowledge transmission will be happening at some point in any lesson. Teachers know something, and they will attempt to impart it. If this is not happening one would have to seriously doubt why the students are there! This transmission model of knowledge is useful because it captures the essential reality of the world. There are things we don’t know, and one of the most efficient ways of finding things out is to have other people tell us.

But secondly you find students voicing what they know, and trying to figure things out. Until you put things in your own words you don’t really understand anything. Knowledge, in other words is constructed, and is essentially idiosyncratic. My understanding of quantum physics is probably not as sophisticated as yours, but it is the only understanding I’ve got. This divide between what has been called Instructivism, the transmission of knowledge from a knower to a knowee, and Constructivism, or how we construct knowledge in our own heads forms a common thread in many educational approaches. But essentially they are two sides of the same coin. We need to be told things, and we need to figure them out in our own minds for it to stick.

I’m not going to rehearse any heavy learning theories, because that’s not what this post is about, but it forms a necessary backdrop to everything else I want to explore. My favourite formulation of this self-evident truth, that learning involves both transmission and participation is that of Mikhail Bakhtin, who spoke about monologic and dialogic discourses: the monologic being socially agreed handed-down meanings, and the dialogic being the numerous idiosyncratic voices of individuals. In any classroom the teacher normally represents the monologic voice, teaching the received wisdom of how the world works, while students bring their numerous voices to the conversation. The monologic normally represents the voices of power, the knowledge students will need to acquire to succeed in life, while the dialogic represents the authentic power of voice, often submerged or repressed understandings of the world, which nevertheless have a validity not least because they critique the established world view.

It is my belief that teachers fail if they fall short both when it comes to giving students access to voices of power, and when they do not sufficiently value the power of voice. As an English teacher I need to be able to help my students shape and express what it is that they have to say, but I also need to teach them standard dialects, grammar and how to construct logical arguments so that they can speak the language of academia and of power.

blogDigital technologies offer some key affordances here. Not so much in terms of the monologic voice, but the ready ability to publish thoughts, just to your classmates, or the wider world is one which allows the dialogic voice to be heard in ways which the essay written on a piece of paper can never emulate. Every year I have my students write in a class blog. They join the blog site as authors and post under their handles. Their peers can read and comment on their posts almost as soon as they are published. It is best to have themed blogs with a clear focus, or student blogging quickly devolves into trivial status updates. If you are studying a Shakespeare play, for example, it is a great idea to have students blog about themes or characters in the play. Their ideas are thus immediately exposed to the view of their peers, and can be debated and revised through comment. I require each student to end off with a significant blog post, which forms their current understanding of the topic under discussion. This is the assessed portion of the activity, and motivates all students to contribute. As teacher I also contribute my ideas as one voice amongst many. I believe this is important because it conveys a message about online learning and how mentorship works in any online community. But I limit my posts to interventions rather than outright corrections. If someone claims that Shylock is not in favour of usury, for example, I step in, but grammar and logical errors I leave alone because I don’t want to be seen as too censorious.

I appoint student moderators. Anyone who contributes more than five posts is made into a moderator. This helps establish a sense of community and helps stamp out any flaming should it occur. It never does! Nevertheless I usually use a moderated blog site where access to the blog can be controlled and kept private.

Some students, in my experience, do not participate, and resist using technology. Some of these do lurk, however, and that is a benefit. I insist that anyone not posting on the blog submits their post in electronic form directly to me. I don’t understand why a small minority appear unwilling or unable to access or use a blog. It is a small minority, but is always present in any year group. They may fear exposure, may find their cultural or personal sensibilities at odds with receiving peer comment … I’m not sure. It is an issue I always have to deal with. Overwhelmingly, however, I find that students seem to enjoy the cut and thrust of online discussion.

In terms of encouraging good habits of Thinking Digitally it is vital that all students be exposed to how to use communities of practice to express their opinions and learn from others.


Digital Literacy and Thinking Digitally

DSC00599I blogged recently about a possible framework for thinking about the new Habit Of Mind that we are developing at my school: Thinking Digitally. One element of that framework was Digital Literacy, and by that I mean the cognitive habits around the use of digital devices, rather than the skills required to use them in and of themselves. The concept is somewhat woolly, and needs to be fleshed out.

Gunther Kress, who has studied different semiotic modes, has argued that combing modes results in qualitatively different forms of meaning (synaesthesia). While text and language are largely governed by sequence and time, images are governed by space, display and simultaneity. The combination of modes transcends what is possible in single modes of expression. Multi-modality, in short, presents us with cognitively different challenges. Studies by Hull and Nelson, looking at digital storytelling suggest that different semiotic modes allow students to re-purpose language and images and helps them craft new identities and agency. The range of new literacy practices thrown up by online games play, fan sites and other online platforms all emphasizes how cognition, identity and agency are being transformed by the new digital technologies.

Mark Warschauer has argued that the ways in which  devices are used in our schools is, however, skewed by class and power. There is an urgent need to explore how students from diverse backgrounds can benefit from using digital technologies in transformative rather than routine ways, which is what tends to happen at the moment. The key to this is the cognition behind the use. Too often I think the issue has been that in schools which serve poorer communities, the emphasis has been on computer literacy rather than on Thinking Digitally. In better off schools digital technologies have often been used more creatively, more critically, and this has exacerbated rather than closed the digital divide.

For this reason I believe it is vital to develop a framework for focusing on the critical thinking behind the computer/digital literacy. As a teacher of computer skills I am faced with a central dilemma. One would like to focus on using the tools to question, collaborate, problem solve. And yet you cannot use the tool if you do not know what the tool can do. My lessons need to strike some kind of balance between simply showing students how to use a spreadsheet, and asking them to use a spreadsheet in a way which will help them solve problems and think better. Teenagers do not simply know how to use the autosum, or create a chart. The notion of the digital native is deeply flawed. The Computational Thinking paradigm offers some powerful tools for understanding the thinking processes behind many computer applications which involve processing of data, but I think it does less well when looking at the more creative packages: Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver or video editing.

I believe there are essentially four cognitive pillars behind all digital literacy practices:

  • Framing The Task: Any task needs to be contextualized. What function does it serve? What problem must it solve? What result must it show? What is its purpose?
  • Assessing Available Resources: What resources are available in the environment which can be used or re-purposed to perform the task? What conventions or applications can be used to perform the task.
  • Designing The Task: The task needs to be broken down into smaller steps, and each step needs to be thought through, and sequenced. The order in which sub-tasks are performed is important. When you are using Photoshop to create an image, you need to think about layering the image, and then what masks or effects must be applied to each layer.
  • Re-Designing The Task: Each step must be tested to make sure it is doing what it is supposed to be doing. Elements are redesigned on the fly so to speak. This re-design and tweaking is an essential part of the process, which is, to an extent, iterative. Once you have tested the application you need to assess whether it meets the brief or not, and re-design if necessary. Often a solution will widen the framing of the task to include new applications which were not initially apparent. The solution may well allow you to re-frame the question!

This framework represents a re-working of the New London Group Pedagogy Of Multiliteracies framework.


Thinking Digitally

Thinking Digitally HOM logoIt seems to me that when thinking about what habits and dispositions are deployed by people who successfully use digital technologies to extend their thinking, we need to have a clear framework for visualizing the process. Without this, there is a tendency to collapse cognition into mere computer literacy, whereas I believe that there are new cognitive skills which we all need to cultivate in the digital era. To help set about creating such a framework I would like to look at a number of key concepts.

The first concept is that of cognitive load. Without going into a great deal of detail, cognitive load is used in cognitive psychology to explain the ways in which the limitations of our short term memory inhibits learning. Our short term memory holds information which we are busy processing. It is distinct from long term memory, information which has been committed to memory and can be recalled, hopefully at need. It is the information that we are currently working with. Short term memory is very small, unlike our long term memory, which is very large indeed. If you read to me a number, as long as the number is quite short, I can hold it in my short term memory and process it. If the number is too large, I simply cannot hold it in my short term memory, and it becomes mere gibberish! We often use cognitive strategies to increase the amount of information we can process at one time. If you read me a telephone number, for example, I could recognize the area code and set that sequence of numbers aside. I don’t have to try and remember them all, because I have that stored in my long term memory as an area code, and I can recall it later. This technique is called chunking, and it allows us to group information together so that we can hold more in our short-term memories for processing.

The second idea is that of cognitive offloading. Given the limitations on our thinking imposed by cognitive load, we need to off-load some of this onto our environment in order to function effectively. For example we do not have to remember a shopping list if we write it down. We could do mental arithmetic to add up a series of numbers, or we could offload that task onto a calculator. Cognitive offloading through writing helps us to think more clearly. Once on paper we can reflect back on an idea and work at it. If we try to hold an idea in our minds, it often slips off into the ether and gets forgotten – in my head at any rate! Once on paper, I can use that to make sure I don’t forget what I was thinking a few seconds ago. Writing, indeed language itself is the foremost form of cognitive offloading, allowing our raw thoughts to be stored in a retrievable form.

This leads us to the third concept, that of cognitive technologies. We use a range of technologies to help augment, extend or assist our thinking. these technologies crucially include the range of new digital technologies which are of particular importance because of their ability to create networked systems and give nearly instantaneous access to information and to other people. It is clear that digital devices, connected through the Internet offer vastly powerful cognitive tools. These tools may spark, as Stevan Harnad has argued a cognitive revolution or may merely offer vastly enhanced ways of doing things. Either way the sheer scale of the ability to access and share information nearly instantaneously has huge ramifications for how we think. With the advent of wearable, and embedded technologies we need to start to think of ourselves as cyborgs, if not in the literal sense, then certainly metaphorically. We may not all have chips implanted in us, but we are surgically attached to our smart-phones, and we use these for cognitive offloading at every turn.

And finally this cognitive offloading onto new cognitive technologies on a scale as never before, amounts to a distributed cognition, in which the human mind can meaningfully be said to reside not in the brain alone, but distributed across the network. Edwin Hutchins, for example, showed how navigation on board ship is not the product of an individual mind, but is distributed across the crew. This idea is somewhat spooky, much like the spooky effects of quantum physics somewhat boggle our minds! But anyone who has used a Community Of Practice on the Internet to solve a problem, used Google docs to collaborate on a project, or played a MMORPG will understand at a visceral level how cognition appeared to happen somewhere out there in cyberspace, rather than in any single location or head.

Given what we have said above, it becomes clear that whenever someone accesses information off the Internet, or uses digital devices as collaborative communicative devices they are, in some way using a network of devices and other human minds to think, to problem solve, to learn or to create. These things can be done well, or they can be done poorly, and successful thinkers develop good habits and ways of working. Thinking Digitally is about these good habits. They fall into five areas of concern and forms a suggestion for a framework for thinking about the habit of Thinking Digitally.

  • Computational Thinking is about the thought processes involved in formulating problems in such a way that they can be processed using computational devices.
  • Information Literacy is about how to access and evaluate information online.
  • Hacking The Environment refers to coding devices to allow one to control one’s environment.
  • Digital Literacy refers to the dispositions and approaches required to use digital devices to create/learn/problem solve. Not the functions themselves, the thinking processes behind using the technology. In other words it’s not about being able to use F7 to spell check, it’s about the habit of using a spell check in the first place.
  • Digital Citizenship or the dispositions necessary for living in the 21st Century. This encompasses all spheres of life, but focuses on the cognitive dispositions that underlie our active and responsible participation in the world.

I am using this framework to help develop strategies and frameworks for promoting digital thinking in my school. You will note that I have borrowed categories already currently in use. This brings many strategies and approaches fully-formed to the table, and should allow teachers to borrow from successful existing practice.

This does mean, however, that there are overlapping concerns. This is a working heuristic, which may sharpen in focus as it gets worked through.




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