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Striking a Balance: Digital Tools and Distraction in School

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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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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Comments (17) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Alan M's picture
Alan M

Like it or not, the multitasking challenge is here to stay and the presence of connected devices is a big (and growing) part of it. These devices have the potential to enhance (as well as detract from) education. So I really like the idea of acknowledging this in the classroom as well as addressing the difficult balances it presents.
Related to this important opportunity/ challenge, I am seeking feedback from Teachers on their students' questions. Your responses will help us craft a solution to increase the quantity (and improve the quality of questions) , using existing devices. I welcome the participation of interested educators using the link below. Survey results will be shared with participants.

Melissa Enderle's picture

As tech devices become even more and more pervasive in our students' everyday lives, it's even more important to teach kids how to manage their time using those tools. Discussions need to occur on when there might appropriate and inappropriate times for certain actions/tools and why. This must be reinforced and modeled - by students, parents and teachers alike.
Rather than banning (which doesn't necessarily eliminate the temptation), it may be more productive to set aside a short amount of designated time when it's ok. As adults, we need to model this as well - turning over our phone or setting it away during dinner time, at meetings, etc.
As several mentioned, a code of conduct must be an integral part of any initiative at school and transfer to home as well. Parents must be a key, informed player in order to make the good habits stick.

Ibrahanna's picture

Growing together during implementation of 1:! technology has not been my experience. It has been a soul-sucking and "disruptive" experience and I'm not using disruptive in the new positive manner.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Melissa, great point about parents. I wonder if this is also the role of the school, to provide resources for parents on how to have these discussions and set boundaries with their children.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Ibrahanna, I'm so sorry to hear that implementation has been such a negative experience. Unfortunately, this can be the case when rollout is not thoughtful and deliberate. Did your school provide professional development or supports through the transition or did they just put the devices in the kids hands and say, "go?"

Mike Guerena's picture
Mike Guerena
Director of Ed Tech at Encinitas Union SD and President at ThinkWrite Tech

I have seen teachers that put a procedure for behavior with the devices in the classroom to have success in managing distraction. Being able to see the screen is one of the best ways to manage students usage. Like the author said having screens down when they should not be focusing on the screen is a simple strategy to at least make sure they are not focused on what is on the screen. I have been showing teachers how to use guided access on the iPad when you have a student that is showing poor self control. It locks the students into one app and gives the teacher some way to manage the screens of students that need it.

Joel Rodriguez's picture
Joel Rodriguez
Im a student at St. Edwards University and im a Special Education major.

"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."
I think that is absolutely correct because when you focus you try and harder you try the better results you'll see.
I am guilty of having my phone out and checking it every once in a while in class and i feel that holds me back on certain things in the classroom.

Linda's picture

Right start from this year, the primary students are encouraged to bring their own devices to school instead of sharing the school's in small groups. It's of great convenient for searching and inquiring on Internet. However, distraction generated while they are using their own devices. There are some apps are attractive to kids, such as game, chatter, and so on. In order to clarify clearly that the digital devices are applied for study, we seek for school's and parents' support. We sent an official letter home which need to be signed all of the school, student and parent. There is a clause announced that if the student can't focus on the assignment and distracted by his or her devices, the devices should be kept in schoolbag or at home and school will offer a laptop whenever needed. It's of help to make sure that students aware exactly of the usage of their devices.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Thanks for sharing all of your experiences and thoughts on the topic of digital distraction and devices. It is obvious that there is not one way to manage this issue, but it appears to be one that many teachers and schools and students are grappling with.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

We had an interesting comment come up from within our Twitter community, and I thought I'd share it here:

From: @Randy_Matusky:

I've read it & I absolutely agree - tech devices are here to stay, so we need 2 teach students how to balance work & play.

Start by modeling good tech behavior yourself. Then set rules for the class, but explain the reasoning behind each rule.

Tech in the class allows students to mature and grow into responsible self-learners. We just need to give them a chance.

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