The Cold Hard Truth

"Before we consider measuring student engagement, we should ensure that what we teach is engaging…" (Tomlinson, 2018).

A teacher emailed me today about a technology problem that she has been having in her classroom lately.  She claimed that students were displaying off-task behavior by visiting gaming websites when they were supposed to be working on a school assignment.  This was her email to me:

"I am finding it difficult to keep tabs on all of the students and whether they are staying on the site I've chosen for them.  Some are switching to play games.  Last year while working at my previous school, the tech guys showed us a program with which we could monitor the use of the student laptops while they were working.  All of the student screens would show up on my screen in tiles.  In other words, we could see all of the students' computer screens on one screen.  Do you know about this program?"

To me, this is not a technology problem.  This is a behavior management problem.  Students getting distracted in class has been going on ever since schools were built.  I guarantee that if students did not have mobile devices during her lesson, they would be doodling, passing notes, or demonstrating some other off-task behavior.  Therefore, I believe the root of the problem could be that her students do not see the relevance of the lesson, or the challenge is either above or below their ability level.  Both of these situations can cause students to become either anxious or bored in the classroom.

As teachers, we've all been there before.  Back when I was a teacher, I remember teaching some subpar lessons where students were not paying attention and acting out.  In these situations, it is easy to point a finger and blame the students.  What's difficult, is to look in the mirror and reflect on your own teaching.

In my response to this teacher, I shared my personal and professional feelings on the situation.  As the Director of Technology and Innovation at my school, I first thanked her for reaching out to me, and I let her know that I was aware of these types of applications (such as Hapara).  I explained to her that I was not an advocate of these types of tools, because I believe that they are too invasive and lead to micromanagement, as opposed to student empowerment.

My advice to her was to have the mindset of "mentor over monitor" that Devorah Heitner shares in her book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in their Digital World.  By mentoring our students on appropriate technology use, we can empower them to make trustworthy decisions and help them to become digital leaders.  I also recommended that she remind her students of the shared expectations that were created in the beginning of the year, in addition to our school's responsible use of technology policy.  Finally, I suggested that she uphold these expectations by administering consequences to individual students who fail to meet these expectations.  Punishing everyone by removing their devices should never be the answer.

What I failed to mention to her was the cold hard truth.  That "if your students are distracted, then improve your teaching" (Kamenetz, 2018).  I should have told her to reflect on the relevance of her lesson and the delivery of her instruction.  For example, did her lesson have a prompt that ignited curiosity in her students?  Did she allow for autonomy in their research?  Did she allow for choice in the demonstration of their learning and understanding? And did her students feel trusted and empowered to direct their own learning?  These are the types of questions that she should really be asking herself.

What I love about my role, is that I have a very large sphere of influence in my school.  Since every teacher is dependent on integrating meaningful technology in their lessons, I have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to make a positive impact on their teaching when I can.  Therefore, as I reflect on this experience that I had today, I will be sure to continue this conversation with that teacher.  I feel like this could be such a teachable moment for her, and I would be doing our students a disservice if I did not provide my honest opinion as an administrator.

So in short, the moral of this post is this:  If students are gaming when they should be learning, you need to up your game!


“Measuring Doesn’t Come First” by Carol Ann Tomlinson in Educational Leadership,
February 2018 (Vol. 75, #5, p. 90-91),'t-Come-First.aspx.

Kamenetz, Anya. “Laptops And Phones In The Classroom: Yea, Nay Or A Third Way?” MindShift, 25 Jan. 2018, 

HEITNER, DEVORAH. SCREENWISE: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. ROUTLEDGE, 2018.