Quit Blaming the Devices

There’s a popular article from a teacher describing why she hated her experience of using iPads. She describes the way kids seemed to be distracted. She was bothered by alarms that went off. She felt frustrated with bandwidth issues.

Her biggest issue, though, was with the silence.

As she puts it, “My lively little kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe.”

Imagine the same complaint with a book. “My lively kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-necked, lost in a book posture of scanning text and flipping pages.”

Kids stopped talking and started reading. I worried that they were getting anti-social.

See, lively and talkative are great components of a classroom. However, so are silence and solitude. Susan Cain reminded us in Quiet that we need space of silence in our classrooms. Loud, noisy, and chaotic are great. But so are silence and solitude. It’s not just a matter of accommodating introverts. It’s a valuable part of introspection and deep thinking.

I’m skeptical that the teacher would have the same complaints about journals. “The entire class got silent, head down, pencils up and they scribbled their thoughts in their journals. Maybe they’ve lost their ability to speak.” Or maybe not. Maybe they’re just writing. Silently. And maybe that’s a good thing.

When I walk into classrooms with or without iPads, the biggest barrier I see to students talking to one another is direct instruction. I still see teachers who will speak for twenty minutes to a group of eight year olds without stopping to let them process it through a pair-share. I don’t see direct instruction as a bad thing, either. Kids need to learn how to listen. There’s a balance.

Which is ultimately the issue with these types of articles. They push false binaries that they would never apply to other learning materials. The bandwidth was awful! Yes, but what about the copy machine? Does it ever go down? The kids were silent! Yes, but were they silent when you were doing a demonstration? The kids were distracted! Okay, but they’re eight. Is there a chance that maybe they are easily distracted?

We have developed nuanced positions for other strategies and materials because they are so ubiquitous to the learning experience. However, iPads or Chromebooks seem so different that a teacher, suddenly faced with new challenges, will be tempted to focus on the device rather than rethink her pedagogy.

The Goal Is Transformation

I would describe the author in this article as being in stages five and six of the technology journey. It’s a time of frustration. After hours of planning and tons of excited conversation, suddenly she’s hitting a techno culture shock. It’s natural to be frustrated. My hope, though, is that through coaching and self-reflection she will get beyond a fixation on the device and start thinking about how she can transform her practice.

Notice that the iPad activity seemed to be inherently quiet, but there is nothing that cues us in to the level of transformation in the learning experience. Is it essentially a digital worksheet or is it a powerful creative and connective tool?

It has me thinking about the SAMR model:

Is it possible that the real issue isn’t the iPad but rather the lack of creativity in the learning activity? I don’t blame the teacher here. Students come in, not as digital natives, but as consumer natives. Teachers need to be the trailblazers offering a new, alternative vision of technology as a platform for creativity. Teachers are the ones who can demonstrate the powerful opportunity to connect with the world.

I noticed this recently when coaching a group of teachers in the middle of a district rollout. After taking a self-assessment, many realized that they were in the fifth or sixth stage of the technology journey. They were trying to fit technology into everything and, along the way, feeling burned out. They described many of the issues mentioned in the article. Kids were distracted. Kids weren’t having rich discourse.

Teachers were ready to ditch the devices and go back to using only paper and pencil.

After making sense out of the technology journey and openly admitting their frustration, teachers were able to think about integration and transformation. I challenged them to ditch the device part of the time but plan a few intentionally transformative learning experiences. As they planned out video projects, podcasts, and collaborative blogging projects, teachers were able to build student discourse into the process.

Teachers were able to catch a vision for the connective and creative power of the devices and later they described the lack of the distractions and the amazing conversations students were having with one another.

Ultimately, that’s the goal. We have powerful devices capable of transformation. We just need the vision and the foresight to make it happen.


If you enjoyed this post and your curious about this topic, feel free to consider the following:

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

3 responses

  1. John,

    Thanks for writing this post. I read the same article the other day and was sad because it was clear that Ms. Cain was unable to get out of the substitution stage. As the prinicpal of a 1-1 school, I see the same frustrations within some of our classrooms. Teachers get stuck between substitution and augmenation, which really limits their instruction. As school leaders, it is important that we help our teachers to see past the early stages of SAMR by showing them what modification and transofrmation can look like in the classroom. After reading Ms. Cain's article, it is easy for anyone to say, "Yeah, I told you those things are just a distraction". Although, in our school, I have seen some brilliant uses of the iPad and some amazing creative learning opportunities for students. Teachers need to stay in the game long enough to get past the substitution and augmentation stage so they can witness the beauty of modification and the ulitmate transformation of teaching and learning in their classroom!

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I think you're right. It's far too easy to remain stuck in the substitution stage and yet when teachers stick with it long enough, transformation happens.

    2. Except that the author of the article in question is not Ms. Cain. (Ms. Cain is the author of Quiet.)

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