George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Technology

Digital Tools and Distraction in School

We should be deliberately teaching middle and high school students how to manage their devices.
Close-up photo of a student seen only from collarbone to hip, concealing a smartphone in class
Close-up photo of a student seen only from collarbone to hip, concealing a smartphone in class
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As computers become less expensive, many schools are opting to bring low-cost machines such as Chromebooks into the classroom. While this has opened the door to exciting new learning opportunities, with these devices—as well as students’ smartphones—come new challenges, including the distraction factor. 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

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 Daniel Goleman: “This ability [to focus] is more important than IQ or the socioeconomic 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?,” 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 work, so they naturally move to social media because they’re bored. One teacher originally had a “no-tech” policy in her classroom so she could be assured that students were engaged and focused. The article also shares stories from teens who discovered that they focused better once their phones were out of the picture.

Student Voice and Engaging Families

While having a no-tech policy may be extreme and in some ways counterproductive, having no expectations for how tech is used is also unhelpful, especially if teens report that they focus better without devices.

Unless we talk with kids about their use of technology—why they use it, when they use it, how they use it—we’re never going to get them to a place where they’re using it effectively most of the time, both in the classroom and at home. We also need to engage parents, who are often digitally distracted themselves. How can parents serve as role models and have open conversations with their children that acknowledge the role technology plays in students’ social lives while also teaching them the invaluable skill of balancing their social lives with personal goals and success?

We can engage parents in informal conversations during report card conferences or organize school-wide events, inviting parents and students to participate in workshops on digital distraction together.

Teaching Self-Management

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’m not, however, an advocate for removing devices from students’ hands, which I find unrealistic at best.

Instead, we should be deliberately teaching students how to manage their attention with their devices and explaining what multitasking is doing to their ability to effectively complete their work. 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’ll need to know norms and etiquette for their devices. They’ll 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.

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’m 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’s important to build these habits in the classroom.

Devices aren’t going away, and we need to teach our students how to effectively manage them so they can be successful in whatever they do. Computers and the internet are very distracting, even for me. I’ve 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.

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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Mary Beth, i agree this is so important to teach these days because as you stated, even as adults we are struggling to manage the balance. I've begun this work as young as elementary aged students with some simple research projects designed to help educate students as well as families about the importance of health and sleep. Students in multiage groups K-6 researched the effects of screen time on overall health and sleep. They presented their findings to families at an evening program. We found is significantly impacted the ability for some families to more effectively manage student devices and sleep. We also had some elementary students who we found were actually managing the devices and sleep on their own despite families not changing anything. So I totally agree that brining the students in on this can help them learn what we as adults are needing to do which is find balance between our electronic life and health. Here is more info on the multiage elementary research projects we did around sleep. https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/empower-kids-lead-charge-healthy-sle...

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

Thanks, John. Yes, I am collating articles right now for my 9th graders to read and discuss around social media addiction, brain science and use of technology (including the effect of "blue light" on sleep). When we give kids the opportunities to explore these topics on their own and to make their own decisions, choices and conclusions, they are more likely to reflect on and change their behavior. Adults just saying "that's bad for you," is not going to help much!

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