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Dealing with classroom disruption is Chapter 1, page 1 of “Being a Teacher 101”. Teachers have always had to deal with distractions and interruptions – but the introduction of technology brings new challenges. Even the very best teachers who can command a room with ease can’t account for the potential technology has to distract students.

This (I’m slightly ashamed to admit) applies to myself, at the age of 26. Although I’m a hard worker and I’m fairly intelligent, I’m a serial procrastinator. If I’m in the right mood, trying to focus my brain is like trying to control an unruly 5 year old. “I need to write that email… OOH, SHINY!” From primary school all the way up to university, I have to admit that I think technology has sometimes been a distraction for me. Having the entire internet at my disposal, it’s sometimes hard to focus on that one task that just needs to get done.

It’s obvious to see that without careful thought, technology has huge potential to really disrupt a class. Here are a few thoughts on combating digital distractions.

Make the tasks interesting

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, in my GCSE Business Studies class we were often instructed to just copy from the textbook. Generally, I’d finish copying before the end of the lesson, so I found myself playing this game where you had a swinging fishing rod that you had to click at the right time to catch fish. The point I’m making is, the task wasn’t engaging, so once I’d finished, instead of asking for something else to do or expanding my own learning, I’d find another way to pass the time.

If students are given immersive and engaging tasks to perform with technology, you should be able to keep distractions down to a minimum. What if actually completing the lesson objectives was more fun than opening the Photo Booth on the iPad and taking selfies with their friends? That’s a sure fire way to keep them focused. Using things like augmented reality and programmable robots and encouraging students to make multimedia content to express and explain the concepts that they’re learning about can help harness their attention and allow them to use technology without tuning out.

Blocking vs educating

 Aside from being a potential distraction, giving a classroom full of students free reign to access the world wide web comes with a host of other risks, particularly around safeguarding and security. And while you might choose to take the position of “well we’ll just block everything we deem to be unsuitable” – could this be problematic?

Take YouTube for example. YouTube has the potential to be a massive distraction. But it also has the potential to be a really useful classroom tool. You could bring up a clip from Planet Earth in biology, or a live recording of a concerto in music. So wouldn’t just blocking access to YouTube be unrealistic? Sure, you might be able to grant students different access levels, but what if the teacher wants them to be able to find and curate their own content? What if a student wants to access a “how to” video?

We don’t hold the answers on this one, but it’s definitely one to think about. Blocking anything you might think would be a distraction or a safeguarding/security risk outright could solve some problems but create others. Using monitoring software like NetSupport or Impero can help you to carefully validate student activity, and allow you to capture anything suspicious in real time so you can get an idea of context. For more on this, check out this blog post we did on online safeguarding.

A better approach overall may be to educate students on how to use the tools available to them safely and appropriately. Not just from an e-safety perspective, but also from a focus perspective. Why not teach students how to stay focused and avoid distraction in the context of technology? Give them a choice by introducing them to a range of productivity tools, or even ask them if they’d rather take their laptop to the library or another quiet space if it’s going to help them focus. Giving them the freedom to make their own decisions and manage their own focus and attention could give them valuable skills they need for their future career. It’s an interesting thought.

Get creative

As digital natives, today’s students are often hard wired to take the devices they use every day to the limit. They know how to get round your filtering system with proxy servers, they’re quick enough to minimise a window when you walk past, and they’ve mastered WhatsApping under the desk. So should you be kiboshing this behaviour, or cleverly harnessing it to engage your students?

In this article from the New York Times from a couple of years ago, David Reilly, principal of Woodside High School in Redwood City, California observed that a students’ chosen digital distraction reflected their personality. Social butterflies would be glued to their phones and avid social media users. Other less social students might be more into games, or YouTube. For music lovers, Mr Reilly has introduced an audio course that teaches kids how to mix music. As he puts it: “today music mixing, tomorrow soundwaves and physics”.

Can you harness the very technology that is distracting your students to engage them in their work? Could you ask a student who you are consistently catching watching YouTube videos on their phone if they’d like to submit their next project in video form? Could the student constantly taking selfies and Snapchats be encouraged to take up photography? And with the computing curriculum in full swing now, its easy to see where the opportunity lies for encouraging avid gamers.

This article turned out to be a little bit “blue sky”, but I think that there are some interesting concepts here that should be explored. Great teachers are good at spotting the particular strengths and passions of their students, and the great teachers of today need to be able to apply this skill to technology. Students should be prepared for being able to focus their attention when they enter their first job, particularly as more and more jobs have a heavy digital element. Distraction in the classroom is inevitable – but maybe technology could be more of a help than a hindrance.

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