Monday, April 25, 2011

7 Solutions for Educators Who Want 21st Century Students to Tune In

"If your target audience isn't listening to you, it's not their fault, it's yours" Seth Godin
More and more I am reading articles like this one Colleges worry about always-plugged-in students. In it they talk about college professors and administrators who have or are considering unplugging student’s access to the internet or banning technology altogether so students will focus. These learning institutions are moving in the wrong direction!
When we blame or ban the technology,  we solve our issue temporarily, but we are ignoring the root of the problem.  
When it comes to learning, many educators know banning is the easy way out, but there are a number of reasons behind why students are not paying attention. Rather than taking away student rights and the freedom to use the tools they want, we must address the root of the issue that is causing the problem. My advice comes from someone who teaches adults and students in a “no ban zone.” These ideas work for me and they will work for you.  

Ideas for Educators Who Want 21st Century Students to Tune In
1) Problem:  You have poor classroom management
Solution:  While you may have been a master of classroom management in the days before the internet, the environment has changed.  How have you changed your classroom management techniques?  Do you let students know when they should have their lids at 90 degrees? Do you allocate at least some free time where students can catch up on their need for personal issues?  Are you having students sit in different configurations, sometimes with their laptops, other times they may circle up for conversation or have breakout groups that report back.  

2) Problem:  You are not engaging your students
Solution:  Educators who stand at the front of the room lecturing are not engaging students like me.  Even if I’m interested in the topic, I can’t stand sitting and listening to you for a long time.  It’s boring.  I want a piece of the action.  Provide accountable interactivity.  Perhaps have students Tweet relevant thoughts, ideas, and links using a provided hashtag and at the end of your lecture you have a fantastic subject specific newspaper to read if you use something like Maybe you can create a method for students to share ideas and thoughts during your talk using a backchannel.  While traditional instructors may believe students should sit up and listen, the fact is you are boring students like me to tears, so give me a job to do and I’ll pay attention.  

3) Problem:  You complain about technology, but you don’t incorporate it into instruction
Solution:  Stop complaining that your students are on Facebook and not paying attention and start incorporating tools like this into instruction.  People are social.  We like to discuss and make meaning.  We’ll do this about the thing you’re talking about if you’ll provide such opportunities.  Perhaps teachers could make a Facebook page and use that as a hub for students to connect and share during instruction.  Perhaps the teacher sets up some discussion boards or Wall Wishers to share ideas.  Many 21st century students aren’t content sitting and listening to you blathering on.  Make your teaching more interesting, and your students will reward you by being more interested.  

4) Problem:  You never shut up
Solution:  Let’s face it.  Sitting in class listening to a lecture is just plain boring for many students. Why do they have to come to school to listen to you talk.  Of course your students aren’t paying attention.  Flip your classroom and tape your lectures for students to listen to on their own time. Spend class time doing stuff...real stuff that your students are interested in and you can help them with. Parents will like this idea too because instead of needing to hire tutors, class time can be used for the teacher to help students having difficulty with their work.  Salman Kahn explains this beautifully in this TED Talk.

5) Problem:  I don’t need to hear you telling me something I can look up
Solution:  When I was pursuing my license in educational leadership I took my laptop to class.  In class I often found teachers were just reading some theory to me that I could pull down from the internet and save in my online bookmarks.  This meant I could use class time to do my other work because I didn’t have to take down notes.  I already had them.  While the instructor shared some such theory with the class, I was already doing the homework assignment we had.  At nights I would go out to the local bar while my classmates did their homework. At first they complained this wasn't fair and said I was cheating. As the program progressed, more students had their laptops in class and joined me at the bar later.

If you are just telling students something they can find on the internet, stop. Give them the link and use class time to have discussions, do work, or make meaning of the work.

6) Problem:  You think you own the learning.  You don’t!  
Solution:  You don’t own the learning.  Your students do.  If they’re not interested in what you have to say, then figure out a way to say it in a way that they’ll be interested or ask your students to do that for themselves.  If students simply aren’t interested, then perhaps you can give them freedom during class to do what they are interested in.  Multi-millionaire, Aaron Iba’s favorite teacher was the one who let him do just that.  He got to sit in the back of the room working on his computer.

Another option is to give up some control and be part of a growing and successful trend in letting students own and design their learning.  Educators are finding that giving students ownership and responsibility for their learning pays off quite well.  

7) Problem:  Technology is just too distracting for some students
Solution:  Okay, so you think technology is just too distracting for some students.  Remember your job as a teacher is to help prepare students be successful in their present, not your past.  A teacher is not helping a student become successful by creating an artificial environment in school.  Instead teachers can help empower students to take ownership of their learning and self-monitor.  Many students are very good at this. They may just have a browser closed at certain times, turn off chat, turn off sound, or as the students in Colleges worry about always-plugged-in students shares, use an app like “self-control” which blocks certain websites for specified periods of time.  

Schools should not encourage dependency learning and dependency attention.  It is incumbent upon educators to empower students to be able to self-monitor and discover the optimal conditions to learn and create.  Imposing restrictions on students, is certainly more convenient for educators, but it is NOT what is best for students. 


  1. Thank you Lisa!
    This is a thought-provoking list, and one that should spark some discussion. I just had a conversation along these lines w a friend who teaches in a one-to-one HS. Because I don't teach in such a school, her answer to me (when I argued that we have to change), was that I just didn't know what I was talking about. She sees much technology as a constant problem, and student behavior as being uncontrollable in this regard. She and many of her colleagues would rather just ban, ban, ban. It's the instinctive response.
    It's clear to me that it is *us* that need to change. We must help students hone the skills that they will need to succeed in their "real world"--and that world includes technology!

  2. @Jamie Camp, Thanks for the comment. I have a question for you. Can you allow your students to bring their own technology to school? That is why I do. School tools are an extension of home tools. I have a great post coming out tomorrow about a school that does this.

    And, you are right. Many outdated teachers find it easier to ban than to update their practice. You don't need to disconnect students to FORCE them to connect. You just need to figure out a way to make your teaching worthwhile enough that they want to bother doing so.

  3. I love this list. Thank you. I will incorporate many of these into my curriculum next time. I especially love number four as I am often trying to incorporate both a lecture AND work time into my class.

  4. @Richard Keeler, Glad I have an idea you love. Yay! And, thank you for inspiring this post and the one I did yesterday...even if it did result in a delay of breakfast for the beau :-p

  5. Use technology.
    Kids love it.

  6. Just about everything you have mentioned is blocked at the high school I am currently assigned to. Wish I could use more technology!

  7. The world is the classroom with an open, transparent, and real-time class. It engages students and teaches them how to better learn, create, collaborate, connect, and communicate in the 21st Century.

    Your list gave me a few new ideas on how to better do this.

    Thank you.

  8. Excellent post. While there is no single solution or recommendation for successfully integrating technology with classroom teaching and learning, nor is technology relevant to every lecture topic in every course, it is important that we all recognize the need for some integration.

    What are the odds that faculty who ban technology in the classroom have something in mind other than lecturing to a class? We have to remember - and convince those who wish to ban - that it is not solely about technology and using it in teaching, but rather about engaging 21st century learners. It will not always be about Twitter, Fb and laptops but really it is about open discussion, engaging debate and other methods of interactive and active learning.

  9. So, I really like most of these things and agree with many points. The things I'm still chewing on:

    ---Great ideas. Some of these are difficult with elementary students and lower technology schools. Even though many kids are wired this way, many schools are not.

    --- I worry about students developing crutches. Have you ever given students a learning styles survey? Some kids use the results as a crutch to immediately tune out when they feel a teacher is not meeting their learning style.

    If the student doesn't enjoy the content it's "You're not meeting my learning style, so I can't learn from you." That's never the point of the survey. It's to show students a strength and a preference.

    ---That's why I'm not convinced that Seth Godin's quote is 100% applicable. As sucky as it sounds, in a way, students have to listen to teachers. They are responsible for their learning. One day a teacher may not have the most totally engrossing, collaborative, tech 2.0 lesson. The student is still responsible for learning.

    ---Going back to the crutch thing: I don't want to see kids immediately write things off if it isn't collaborative, self directed work and doesn't come packaged in a screen with beeps & clicks. Not all learning can be like this. Sometimes I think learning is listening to someone wiser than you talk to you about something.

    Teachers are responsible for making great student -centered and engaging lessons, don't get me wrong. But, that can't always happen. The students need to be responsible for their own learning, even in times that they don't "like" it.

    - @newfirewithin

  10. @Justin Stortz,
    Thank you for taking the time to chew on this. Not surprisingly, I have push back, but your challenging my ideas is appreciated as it helps me think about issues like this more deeply.

    Here are your points and my counterpoints.

    Outdated school hardware and wiring…
    --Schools need to update. No excuses. They also need to stop treating youth as criminals and allow them to bring their own tech. iPads, iTouches, cell phones, etc. don’t put as much drain on the school infrastructure and come at no cost to the school.

    Learning style crutch…
    --I’m with the student. I’m bored when you aren’t reaching me. I usually just fall asleep in class. If I tune out it’s not important to me for one reason or other. Let the student have some choice in the learning. That could help.

    Students have to listen to teachers…
    --No. They don’t have to and they don’t listen often. As I said, I slept. Others drop out physically. Students like me dropped out mentally. Teachers need to realize they can’t beat information into the heads of students who just don’t care about the goods you are offering. Leonardo Da Vinci said it well. “Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” Teacher as partner is more effective than teacher as dictator.

    Writing off learning…
    --When the teacher owns the learning, the students can write it off. If the teacher hands power over to the student, s/he is no longer the one responsible for the beeps and clicks. The student is. Check out my recent blog post on student centered learning for more.

    Teacher Responsibility…
    --I disagree with you about teachers being responsible for lessons. I think it is a flaw in school. Partner with students so they can create their own student-centered, engaging learning. If they don’t like it, we shouldn’t force them to. I was “forced” to “learn” a lot of things I didn’t care about. The reality is that though I had the coveted memorization/regurgitation skill. Unfortunately, like the graded papers and bublesheets that sit in a landfill somewhere long forgotten so is the material schools failed to dump into my brain.

    1. I work at a school that is about 86% economically disadvantaged. We are 1:1. We have fairly reliable networks that provide adequate wi-fi speeds and plenty of supporting technology. All that said, I don't see it being truly effective.
      1. I agree with many of Justin's points and I find your push-back a bit pushy and one sided.
      2. You cannot teach to everyone'e "learning style" or "preference" all the time. While I use activities that allow for visual, auditory, and pencil/paper on a regular basis, rotating throughout the entire day, the bottom line is that when it comes down to it, you cannot just say, "hey student A, you need to learn this today...go figure it out." They need more than that. Even if you teach them how to evaluate proper use of internet resources, they are kids and most will find the quickest, easiest way out.
      2. You cannot simply allow them to bring their own tech because by default, you cannot block their access to their wireless networks. This presents a hole other set of challenges.
      3. Even if a school is 1:1 like mine, most students do not have access to wireless networks outside of school and this makes the access to your "flipped" lesson at home impossible for them. I've already anticipated your push-back here. What about local libraries, school libraries, etc. For one, I, like so many other teachers on my campus already give up our lunch times to allow students access to these types of resources. I stay late (5PM) nearly every day (when I'm not working with other "expected" after school programs) to allow them access. But, again, many of my parents have no transportation and no way of getting students to the library of picking them up late from school when buses are done with their routes. Even when we have extended day, students ride one bus and sometimes don't get home until after 6PM. How is that good for them (missing family/dinner time) etc.
      3. The always plugged in part. I feel that one of society's biggest problems is technology because of that. We have stopped allowing kids to be kids (especially younger ones) and have put so much pressure on them to "LEARN What we want the to LEARN" that they don't get the amount of fun/playtime that they need. I think if we allowed young boys to be young boys and let them go out and get their "wiggles" out, there'd be less of the ADHD issue. When I was in school (yeah a long time ago) I had recess a couple of times a day. Now kids are herded into cafeterias, forced to sit in prison like seating, given a couple of minutes to eat, ushered outside for 10 minutes of social/playtime and then sent back to a classroom to "learn" something they find little value in.
      I like the idea of blended learning and differentiated instruction to a point. But if you look nations who's achievement levels absolutely demolish ours...China, S. Korea, etc. how are they doing it? Structure! Regimen! Discipline! Regular physical activity.
      Kids haven't changed so much...our society has. We want to make everything easier for them and we've taken the "work" out of work.

  11. I so agree with this post. Unfortunately my Ministry of Education and school board do not. I have a very content dense curriculum I am required to teach.

    I got switched from grade 4 to grade 7 & 8 on Nov. 1. I tried to have student led classes. In math I assigned problems to solve collaboratively and hoped to have class discussions about different ways to solve. I tried to give them choice for writing assignments (I still had to follow the very directed English structure - we all have to do the same reading strategies and writing forms at the same time - gah). Some of the students were happy about that, but a lot were not. They are very used to monkey see, monkey do. They like it because it's easy, and they get good grades without much effort. They think I'm a bad teacher because I don't talk a lot. When I do talk, they don't listen. I think the Nov. 1 date had something to do with it. The grade 8s loved their teacher and were sorry to see her go (maternity leave). She was very strict and very much showed them what to do, they did it, got a good mark if they followed the instructions. Sigh.

    I also let them use their technology and we had some big issues. Like texting one another abusive texts leading to big drama. Taking photos of someone's fat rolls and posting them on facebook. These are the grade 8s again. I think that the entire culture of school has to change because they are just doing with technology, what they do in person. Teasing, being mean, etc. I don't have the solutions right now. If I have the same grades next year (I get switched almost every year), and the school board comes up with a technology policy, and we create a more inclusive school culture (Tribes, maybe), then it might be better.

    My own twins are 4 and in JK but I want to pull them out and unschool.

    Sorry for the rant.....I'm looking forward to hearing solutions.

    PS: I realize that some of this is my fault, but I don't think it's fair to blame the individual teachers all the time. They are trapped in the systems they work in.

  12. How about we start by providing engaging and rigourous work that is meaningful and relevant? Isn't that the best place to start with getting kids to tune in? Rather than using backchannels, twitter and letting kids do what they want, how about we give them interesting, challenging and relevant tasks to do? Lets start with engaging content, rather than dressing up the usual stuff with glitz and free time.

    1. Your reply pretty much says what I wanted to say. I read this blog post above and agreed with some points and disagreed with others.

      I have taught 5th grade for 14 years. The only times I have had any discipline concerns were when my hands were completely tied to doing the curriculum exactly as it was designed. Today, I have the needed autonomy to teach standards and curriculum my way. I rarely veer from objectives. I integrate 21st Century skills into most of what we do. I am a 1-to-1 laptop classroom for half of my day, so we integrate technology often (check our website out:

      I use solid pedagogy to keep my students' attention, motivation, and excitement high. I earn their respect through mutual appreciation, allowing fun in the classroom, and truly caring about them as individuals. When I have to lecture, I ask for their best effort, despite the poor delivery method (and they give it to me). They know that the majority of our day involves them directing their learning (but towards a teacher-assigned or teacher-inspired goal).

      Students are encouraged to become life-long learners in my classroom. If they want to spend their time learning something that isn't taught in school, I encourage them to do that on their own time (just like I do) - they blog about it to me if they want me to be a part of that or share it with me in person the next day. During school, our focus is on curriculum and 21st Century skills.

      I've had teachers who let me do what I wanted in class. I had no respect for them and tuned them out. Students can't always choose their topics and their styles of learning - the world won't continue that trend when they leave school. It's time for teachers to do what's best for students. A great way to start is by showing your students that you care about each of them individually, and that they need to trust your professional judgment in providing them with an educational program that will provide them with success in their futures.

  13. @Neil Stephenson, work should be more than meaningful and relevant. It should also be real. The use of technology is not an alternative for real, relevant, and meaningful. It is an option for those, who like me, learn better that way.

  14. Great read! Are on the job market by chance?

    Would love to chat with you!

  15. What do you think about the book: The Shallows. What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. by Nicholas Carr. I haven't read it yet but he talks about how constant multi-tasking with hand held internet devices is making us dumber... I am interested to hear his POV but not entirely sure I buy into the idea. Have you read it? Any thoughts about the precept?

  16. @JenO, Not surprisingly, I don't agree with Carr's assessment. I kind of touch on it in this post: The Kids Are All Right

  17. Technology is more distracting for the teacher than for the student. Students are use to the fast pace of the world that we are living in and teachers keep wanting to try and slow things down to what they are use too. The best ways is to meet in the middle. Have the help of technology, but show them the importance of instruction as well.

  18. @Susie, your comment brings to mind a recent school visit where students were empowered to use technology and work at their own pace. I was speaking to the students and asked them how they liked working this way. A fifth grade girl said, "I like working at my own pace because now the teacher doesn't get in the way and slow me down." The rest of the students agreed.

    In many cases students don't need to be shown the importance of instruction. If something is important and valued by a student they will work to learn it. In today's 21st century world, the teacher doesn't need to be the almighty imparter of knowledge. Instead educators can empower students with the ability to learn at their own pace, in their own way, using the tools they love.

  19. This is a very interesting discussion and I agree with much of it. I train teachers in the use of technology in language teaching, so I am by no means anti-technology. However, I have to take issue with a couple of points:

    1. Why do we assume that the students have a better idea of what is worth learning than the teachers? It is the job of an education system to provide a cohort of suitably-educated workers in a consistent manner for the country as a whole, not to pander to the whims of individuals within the system. This doesn't mean we should not design flexible, customisable, personalisable learning, just that it does not have to fit a given individual's idea of what is useful to him or her. Life and work are not always interesting, so it is perfectly reasonable to expect students to remain commited to the task in hand even if it is not exactly exciting to them.

    2. Not all students want to take charge. I have been defeated on many occasions trying to promote the kinds of things mentioned in this excellent blog post, but the students don't want to know. They want me to be in charge: it is easier for them. This is also a very cultural thing, and the kind of student-centred approach mentioned here is very Anglo-Saxon. It is doomed to failure in many cultures, some not so apparently far from the Anglo-American perspective that seems to be involved here.

    One-size-fits-all is never a good approach in teaching, and I think we have to bear that in mind in all aspects of teaching and learning. I promote a student-centred, communicative, active approach in my teaching, but hate it as a learner. I much prefer to be taught at. It works for me, so why would I want to work harder to achieve the same goals?

  20. Kevin is right. It is not the job of the system to pander to the individual,and it is not it's nature to even acknowledge the individual. If we want to pursue our individual interests and learn independently of the school environment, then we must dissociate from that environment. We cannot change the nature of what it is. If we don't like it, we are free to leave it. And so many of us do.

  21. Dear Lisa,

    I'm so glad this post was on your top five hottest posts of 2011 because it's a reminder to return to it. As I read through the comments, the discussion between you and Justin Stortz is of particular interest for me. I see both of you as being correct and believe a balance is needed. A teacher needs to know how to put on the facilitator's hat and needs to know when a director's hat is more appropriate. However, that balance is not often seen in classrooms. Even the most traditional whole class lesson can be differentiated so content and discussion comes from the students. In 2012, I truly hope to see a better balance between student discussion and teacher led discussion from K-12 and beyond.

    Kind regards,
    Tracy Watanabe