What if the answer is “UnPlug”?

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

If you have been a part of a student concern meeting in the last three years, you are probably familiar with the way that some of our already struggling students are having a hard time managing their screens.

“She always has her phone in her hand under her desk and when I take it away it’s a constant struggle to get her to focus on anything other than when she will get it back!”

“He can’t stop opening new tabs! We have done everything that we can think of to help him manage his time and choices but it’s like the computer controls him and not the other way around.”

“He got around the parental control lock and spends most of his free time gaming after school.”

“Her doc was last edited at 2am when I asked her about it she said that she was up late talking to friends and was distracted from her work”

“Every time I look at her screen, she has a YouTube video going in the background. She says she’s listening to music that helps her to concentrate but the quality of her work has really taken a hit lately”

“They all know how to flip between screens and I don’t have 20 sets of eyes so I can’t see what all of them are doing at the same time”


Sound familiar?

Laptops and smartphones and the Internet are great! I’m using a laptop and the Internet RIGHT NOW to create this COETAIL blog post and I couldn’t be happier. But as with most things, it’s a double edged sword. Not too long ago I stumbled across this explanation of how we use screens (and I can’t for the life of me remember where I heard it so please tell me if you know what this is from):

Everything has a good use, a bad use, and a dumb use.

Take, for example, a pencil.

You can use a pencil to write a beautiful poem: good!

You can use a pencil to stab someone in the face: bad!

You can stick a pencil up your nose: dumb! Ok, maybe a little bit funny, but also dumb.

The same idea can be applied to screens.

You can use your laptop to connect your classroom to classrooms around the world as part of a collaborative lesson in multiculturalism: good!

You can use your laptop to lambaste a fellow teacher on twitter for their sloppy bulletin board displays: bad!

You can use your laptop as a frisbee during the all staff ultimate tournament: dumb! And expensive! And also probably dangerous!

We like to think that our students are primarily using their devices for good instead of bad or dumb reasons but that isn’t always true. Usually when comments about screens come up in student concern meetings, I try to use it as an opportunity to share some of the helpful management strategies that can be found in some of this week’s suggested reading, things like:

  • screens closed, screens at 45, screens up
  • organizing your classroom so that it’s easier to see screens as you walk around
  • establishing clear classroom expectations for screens
  • giving clear directions for how students should use their time

All of these strategies can really make a difference and send the message that we want our students to be on task and using their devices to support their learning. Unfortunately there are still situations that I think call for some sturdier boundaries. Laptops are tools just like a pencil is a tool or a sticky note is a tool. And it’s really important to remember that you always want the best tool for the job. Not the coolest tool or the newest tool or the fanciest tool, but the BEST tool. So what if a laptop isn’t the right tool, either for the task at hand or a particular student? What if the screens are making classroom management and engagement harder? What if the answer is “UnPlug”?

It makes me uncomfortable to admit this but there are plenty of times that I have told teachers that I, as their tech coach, give them full permission to use a different, better tool to meet their unit objectives even if that means that the laptops and iPads stay on the shelf that day. It worries me a little bit that teachers sometimes feel that they have to defend these decisions to me as if I’m going to upbraid them for not having every kid in front of a screen at all times when the opposite is true! If there’s one thing I can’t stomach, it’s tech for tech’s sake. Start with your learning objectives and then select the best tool. If the laptop or iPad is just going to pull kids away from the learning objectives or you think that it’s going to be more trouble than it’s worth (after applying some quality classroom management techniques) then skip the screens! I think that this is where the TPAC/RAT/SAMR models can really pack a punch: cutting out the excess screen time in favor of face-to-face interaction if you were only going to be replacing or substituting with tech anyway. Put a big piece of paper on the floor instead of opening a shared doc. Give every kid a sticky note instead of creating a new Padlet. Have kids read to each other instead of recording it for FlipGrid. There are definitely drawbacks for cutting out the tech, but there are plenty of situations (last period of the day when everyone has the screen time dead eye or is bouncing off the walls) where paper and pencil are the best tool for the job. You can always snap a picture and share it digitally later on.

Is this tech coach heresy? Maybe! But I’m sticking to my quality over quantity strategy. Have you seen this work for you? Have you ever had technical difficulties (sharks chewing through the wifi cable, monkeys pulled the plug) that resulted in a really successful paper and pencil lesson?

4 comments to “What if the answer is “UnPlug”?”
4 comments to “What if the answer is “UnPlug”?”
  1. This is absolutely spot on and not heresy at all! In fact, it is even more of a powerful reminder when these suggestions come from a tech coach! The best tool is the best tool. And that can totally have to do with the group of students or the time of day. The last block on a Friday is a brilliant time for post-it notes and some face to face collaboration!

  2. I agree with both of you while technology can do amazing things for a classroom so do personal interactions and creating a community by talking to each other and getting to know the people around them. I love the “padlet” idea, there is something about the physical act of writing and moving the sticky note that makes for an improved experience in my mind. It is easy to forget what is written on an online sticky note or whatever tech is being used as opposed to handwriting it where students really have to think about what they are doing

  3. I totally agree with you. In my school we are also moving more to quality over quantity in everything including technology. It is about meaningful integration for deeper learning. We also see a different in how the children are using technology. They are not so interested in the iPads anymore. They are choosing the iPads as a tool when they need it. It is really great to see the thoughtful choices that students are making. Do you think it gets harder as they grow older due to their interest in being connected on social media?

    • This is so great to read this. I am weary of the constant need of tech use for the sake of tech use – it is very problematic! Sounds like the students will take the lead on this as they have some agency and they start to make choices about the most appropriate tool for the task.

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