Teaching Students How Not to Use Tech

September 13, 2016
Kevin Gant

Kevin Gant

Written in collaboration with Kris Williams

I am becoming convinced that a hugely important part of the work of tech-rich schools is equally about (1) how to use technology, and (2) how NOT to use technology.

I am not  just talking about the avoidance of going to inappropriate web sites.  I am talking much more broadly about teaching kids to exercise restraint with any electronic attachment that carries the risk of becoming such a profound addiction.  And I speak from personal experience – I have spent no small amount of time on various websites (reddit could be my undoing) to the detriment of me doing things that are better for me.   Several of my students with smartphones had a seriously hard time leaving their texting, or Tumblr, or Twitter, or whatever, to engage in actual conversations and assignments in school.   The trick here is that we want them to have the technology to use – so we literally want them to be tempted – but we want them to be able to reject the temptation to spend all of their time (or even a significant amount of time) addicted to those parts of the technology that don’t really help them succeed in a project.

I’ve worked at 2 different New Tech schools, and because, by design, every student has access to a computer, we are uniquely positioned to help learners shun that temptation, and we can give them lots of practice.   The question that I have is this:  are we giving them the tools to really manage their relationship with their tech?   Are we developing an internal sense of self-regulation?  How do we teach this skill?

The idea of self-regulation is embodied nicely in New Tech’s Agency Rubric.  In fact, take a look at the “Actively Participate” domain of the rubric:  “Actively participates in the activity/discussion, team meeting, or independent time and has strategies for staying focused and resisting most distraction”  Sounds very much like a description of someone avoiding their phone, doesn’t it?

If we get our students to value what we value, if we get the culture in line so that students internalize both a disciplined approach to using technology and a desire to explore ideas productively, then teaching them becomes much more enjoyable and effective for everyone.    This is no surprise – we talk in the network about attending to culture first, but I think that we can be much more overt and detailed about what building culture means… and much of this comes down to:

  1. What kinds of relationships students have with each other – first we have to address the most fundamental level of respect and kindness, but then move to the idea of a professional relationship with colleagues, and what that means.
  2. The point of school is to learn and do, and in order for those to occur, you have to have a solid work ethic.  You have to buy into the value of being educated, beyond just getting a good job.  You have to buy into the notion that quality learning is NOT passive.  You cannot just sit and “take in”.
  3. The tool of the world is technology, but it can turn you into a passive learner if you let it, or into a learner that knows how to play Minecraft really well, but little else.   The technology has a huge potential to undermine so much of the culture in the school, so it has to be addressed head on.

I believe that we need to be more overt about the teaching of agency beyond just hitting students over the head with a grade.   We can’t just teach students how not to use technology just by saying, “Don’t use tech right now.”   We need to be explicit about the ways that we as professionals use technology so that it doesn’t hijack our lives and relationships and well-being.   We need to model good behavior with our own tech.  And we need to develop specific lessons that provide students those tools, and mechanisms that reinforce those values over time, so that students (and teachers, honestly) can come to internalize those values.

As an initial brainstorm, here some ideas for some activities or lessons that would move a school toward the goals of balanced and effective use of technology.

  • Consider having an intentional “No-tech Day”, including the use of computers. You can prepare the students for the eventuality, ensuring each student has a book of their choice to help take up time in the day when they don’t have access to their phones. It would be a good challenge for the faculty as well, who might be used to relying on computers for all of their lesson plans.  Consider incorporating a deliberate debrief of the day, and help students   (As a math teacher, I would say that you might want to exempt calculators from the no-tech rule)
  • Have the students track their phone use with an app like Moment, setting goals for spending more time being truly present at school and at home. (This is something almost everyone can benefit from, including teachers). Celebrate successes and the changes that were produced by meeting each goal.
  • Have each student develop a “lifeline” strategy to test out for keeping them from getting sucked into unproductive time online.  Consider having students name the strategy they are testing when developing group contracts or agreements.  For example, a student may say “My lifeline strategy is to give myself 3 minutes at the start of class and three minutes near the middle of class for off-task online time. I set a timer, and I shut off the tech or close that tab when the timer goes off.”  Have students share strategies that are working, or simply what they are learning from the experience, with others in the class.  This can also be an opportunity for you to share your own strategies for using your tech in a way that is helpful.
  • Consider having students read and discuss this article.

These are just a few examples to get you thinking.  Please – share your own ideas or strategies for helping students use tech when it is best used.

Read more from Kevin at his blog, IntrepidEd.

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