Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Distracted Students or Distracted Educators?

Apple iPhone 3G S

Nowadays almost all students arrive at school with a cellphone or smartphone in their pockets.  Sit in most high school classes and you will witness students secretly checking text messages or emails without the teacher realizing.  Even parents are sending their children messages  when they know their children are in class.  It is no wonder many of us are becoming increasingly more frustrated by what we see as a distraction from student learning.

Distracted students...is this actually a new phenomenon? Didn't students used to write notes to each other and secretly pass them to others in the classroom? Weren't other students composing notes to pass on to friends later on in the day? I would argue that distracted students are nothing new.  No, our students may not be writing notes to each other with a pen and paper anymore.  But the reality is our students are simply using new tools to communicate with each other.  Instead of pens and paper, our students are now using phones to compose their messages. Yet, suddenly we are using technology as the scapegoat for a problem that has always existed.

The better question to ask is 'Why are our students so distracted?'  The simple truth is they are more interested in communicating and interacting with their peers than they are in some of the things they are doing at school.  Unfortunately, there are some students who probably feel as though what they are doing in class is distracting them from their ability to interact with their friends.

Students, much like ourselves, are social beings.  They want to interact with each other and the majority of them are quite willing to interact with each other about the topics covered in their classes.  In most cases, it's not the content of a lesson that they find boring.  More often than not, the reason our students tune us out is because we have not given our students an adequate opportunity to interact with each other about the material.  In some instances, technology may be a useful tool that enables our students to interact with each other, but again, I'd like to focus on the fact that the incorporation of technology or social media into a lesson isn't necessary in order for our students to interact with each other and engage in the content.

The point I'm trying to make is that we shouldn't focus on the digital tools as the distraction.  Schools can create policies banning cellphones from the classroom and we can micro-manage our students in an attempt to police them, but in the end is this where our energy is best spent?

I believe it is time for us to accept the fact that the reason our students' attention gives way to distractions is because they are not engaging in their learning.  The tools that our students bring to school are not the distraction.  We should derive some comfort from this because the reality is that our students are not going to stop bringing these tools with them to school.  We must take responsibility for the fact that as educators we hold the power to engage our students in their learning, thereby minimizing their tendency to be distracted.  Much like our students, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by the prominence of cellphones.  Our focus should be on improving our pedagogy in an effort to increase student engagement.


  1. Excellent point. I think part of the problem is that why should students care about what they're "learning" in class if they can just as easily look up that information when they need it on Google? Education needs to be based more on critical thinking so that it engages students and goes beyond the simple facts that the internet can restate to them.

  2. Tyler, I completely agree! Information has become so readily accessible to our students that they no longer see the purpose in learning facts and dates. Our goal should be to encourage students to think critically about the information they read on their phones, assess different perspectives and relate the information to current situations that are occurring in the world. I think it is also important for us to capitalize on the capabilities of technology and promote communication and collaboration beyond the traditional walls and hours of the classroom. During my experiences observing and participating with students in the use of social media I have witnessed increases in student engagement. When we teach kids how to engage in productive conversations using social media, it is amazing what they can do. When given a forum to express themselves, they contribute a wealth of thoughts, ideas and perspectives. I am committing to encouraging others to incorporate social media and technology as a learning tool in the classroom where appropriate. How about you?

  3. I agree totally about bringing in the critical thinking aspect. It would be good if this gets brought in at the high school level because I don't think universities are currently doing this adequately.

    Although I agree that social media can engage students, I'm not sure how this can be utilized in a curriculum-driven system? Have you thought of a way to achieve this?