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Striking a Balance: Digital Tools and Distraction in School

Mary Beth Hertz

K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

This school year I joined the staff of a 1:1 high school here in Philadelphia. Students at the school have access to their own devices, which they take home with them. Although I've taught for many years in classrooms where each student had a school-issued device, the experience of my new students taking their devices home has forced me to reflect on the issue of distraction. How do we teach students to integrate technology into their schoolwork and their learning while also making sure that they're staying focused on the task at hand?

Focus and Multitasking

Interestingly enough, an article crossed my path on Twitter about this very topic. In Age of Distraction: Why It's Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus, Katrina Schwartz refers to studies showing that the ability to focus on a task has been linked to future success. She quotes psychologist and author Daniel Goleman as saying, "This ability [to focus] is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health."

In a similar article, With Tech Tools, How Should Teachers Tackle Multitasking in Class?, author Holly Korbey explores research around student study habits and talks to veteran teachers about their experiences with students using technology in the classroom. Many describe the challenges of keeping kids focused in a high-tech environment. Others claim the issue is that students aren't being given challenging enough work, so they naturally move to social media because they are bored. One teacher has a "no-tech" policy in her classroom so she can be assured that students are engaged and focused. The article also shares stories from teens themselves who discovered that they focused better once their phone was out of the picture.

So what are the implications?

Teach Self-Management

I completely agree that focus and attention are huge issues with students today. I hear from my students all the time about how long it takes them to complete their homework, and usually it's because they aren't focusing on what needs to get done. I also believe that efficient multitasking is partially a myth. Every time you switch from one task to another, you break the flow you had in one task so that you can pay attention to the new task. I am not, however, in the camp of removing devices from students' hands. I find this unrealistic and counterintuitive, considering that most students have access to these tools outside of school.

Instead, we should be deliberately teaching students how to manage their attention with their devices. You can have your phone out and listen to music while doing independent work. If the work is getting done in a timely fashion, who cares? If your phone is out in front of you, upside down and not distracting you, why should you need to put it away? That said, if you can't seem to stop texting or looking at your phone, you're better off putting it in your bag until class is over. When my students leave high school, they will need to know norms and etiquette for their devices. They will also need to know themselves -- specifically, their own limits when it comes to distraction. Eventually, they should know when to put their phone away because it's distracting them, or when listening to music while they work is slowing them down.

At the same time, there are moments in class when I ask that all students lower their screens and bring their attention to each other. During a class discussion, or during direct instruction when I am modeling something or asking them to look at something not on their device, they shouldn't be looking at their phones or computer screens. Again, it is important to build these habits in the classroom.

The reality is that devices are not going away, and we need to teach our students how to effectively manage them so that they can be successful in whatever they do. Computers and the Internet are very distracting, even for me. However, I have learned how to ignore alerts on my phone or avoid checking my email or social media when I know that my full attention is needed where I actually am. This was something I had to teach myself as an adult. The least I can do is help my students build those skills now, before they build bad habits.

What are your thoughts on focus, distraction and devices in schools?

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