Define and defying (smart) device use

photo by sik-life CC0
photo by sik-life CC0

There’s more to Modern Learning than delivering lessons on to smartphones.
There’s more to Modern Learning than having a paperless class.
There’s more to Modern Learning because there just is…
And I’m fine with that because there is more to Modern Learning.
So much so, that we are seeing more and more educators trying to define it even if others seem to be defying it.

Walk into a K- 8 classroom and you’ll most likely see students and teachers using smartphones, tablets, MS desktops, Apples, and Chromebooks. Perhaps they’re inquiring about a recent lesson, or digging deeper into a passion project during Genius Hour? Maybe the whole class is playing Kahoot with their French teacher?

From a distance it looks amazing. I have been the teacher who has witnessed all of the above and I’ll throw in a Google Classroom, TED Ed Lessons, Padlet, and raise you a Twitter. Can you hear the government types and administrators applauding and patting themselves on the back for allowing it to happen. However the applause should be for the educators who have led the charge to implement Modern Learning into their spaces. They are willing to take risks, try new things, and make mistakes to reach their Modern Learners. Teachers are in the trenches of learning everyday and understand the what, why, and how of their classrooms.

Outside looking in

To outsiders, visions of devices and technology in every hand sum up their understandings of modern learning. A cynic may equate Modern Learning as simply a shift from text books and worksheets to students completing digital versions of the same old thing.

Keep in mind, “Modern learning” is not limited to tech use alone, but will be for this post. Technology in the hands of educators and learners has now become the conduit through which learning takes place. When modern tools and passionate instruction are paired, learning becomes more relevant and engaging to students. Imagine being able to ask a question and have time to search for the answer immediately with only a few keystrokes and clicks?

“Technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces, so in education, technologies amplify whatever pedagogical capacity is already there.”                  Jørgen MORTENSEN

Board wide access to WiFi means more and more students are taking notes during lessons using the technology at their fingertips. At the same time, teachers are gathering evidence of learning too.  And, still others are watching a cool cat video or streaming music? It’s all possible in the modern learning classroom. However, as many educators have already discovered, the use of smartphones can be a friend and foe in the classroom and comes with a few caveats. Modern Learning

A smart device is a tool in the learning toolbox not a cure all. It is not the only one and as such should never be relied upon for a quick fix or for ushering in the ‘educational renaissance’. Consider what Jason Lodge writes,

Enhancing education is a complex, wicked problem because learning and teaching are multifaceted phenomena, involving biological, technological, psychological, social, economic and pedagogical factors.

Reading this provides little comfort to my understanding of Modern Learning. In fact it leads me deeper down the rabbit hole in pursuit of understanding it better. Despite the wonder promised by all of this technology, students are still engaging with it far more often to connect and communicate rather than curate, create, and collaborate on content.

True story time

The other day I observed a grade 6 student using a device at an inappropriate time. As I approached, she quickly hid it(an iPhone 6+). Like a phablet that size can be hidden. I asked what she was so consumed by on her device that she was defying school policy? She shared it was a fan site for Ariana Grande.

Not the worst use of WiFi by a student, but off topic to be sure. After a few more questions I asked her to explain to me what she liked about Ariana Grande. We chatted about the March For Our Lives rally and about her performance. The convo continued and I got to know more about the student rather than defaulting to a YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER moment, followed by the standard lecture on appropriate use of technology.

Maybe this approach can be considered as Modern Learning too. If not, we can call it Modern Pedagogy that builds relationships and connections before asking students to fall into curricular compliance without context. Maybe Modern Learning has to be willing to defy convention?

By taking the time to discover her interests, some barriers were taken down. It was only afterwards that I suggested that classtime was intended for curriculum, and that I would suggest a Genius Hour activity in the near future where she could combine learning with her personal interest in Ms Grande – all the while helping other students discover, scratch, and share their own intellectual itches.

Another approach

At other schools, students are now required to lock their smartphones away for the learning day as an effort to reduce misuse and device distractions. What the link did not mention was that the school probably has students on computers or tablets as part of the instructional space. Anyone who has booked a computer cart or lab knows that students can become as easily distracted by these tools too.

So what ends up happening are these absolutes and dictums from class to class and school to school. It is obvious that some teachers are more open to embrace this more easily than others. Perhaps it is an admin or system issue, but there does not appear to be a consistent policy about device useage in schools. The dissonance in all of this for me is that we ask our students to innovate, we give them the most amazing and powerful learning/communication devices on the planet and then expect them to be able to put them aside to listen to a lesson that is being pulled from a text book or source older than they are. In other cases, students are creating multi-modal masterpieces of identity and ingenuity.

How about engaging and empowering them to use their devices for everything that is possible, trusting them to make good decisions, and having them create the criteria for use in classrooms? At the same time, educators can model appropriate use by sharing documents, links, updates, and evidence of learning via Twitter or class web sites.

The technology is not going away. The when, where, why, and how it will be used needs some defining so that students are not seen as defying school when they use their devices. Then maybe Modern Learning can be more than just more with technology.

Extra Fuel for your Modern Learning fire;




Designated time a.k.a Genius Hour


It’s quiet in my classroom right now.
A little too quiet.

Did my students just have the most boring lesson ever?
I don’t hear snoring.

Did they all eat turkey for lunch?
Not today.

Are the students all out of the room during prep?
Nope. They are all here and engaged in something called Genius Hour.

Can You Hear the Pin Drop by Daniel CC BY NCSA 2.0
Can You Hear the Pin Drop by Daniel CC BY NCSA 2.0

Here’s what led up to this moment.

Me: Have you ever wanted to study something on your terms and wasn’t in your text book?
Them: Yes. I do. Wait what? Followed by another 6 simultaneous comments in favour.
Me: Would anyone like to do that now?
Them: Yup. YES! Me! Followed by another 6 simultaneous comments and another 6 side conversations on top. All if favour of this strange, but intriguing opportunity.
Me: Okay, but here are the rules.
Them: Oh great, now here come the rules…(I only imagined this last line).

The Rules

1. Your topic must be declared and shared with the teacher before proceeding. That way some suggestions and direction may be offered if needed. Switching topics in not encouraged. See one idea/interest through, and chase after a new one next time. Ask them if this something they really want to share? Why is this interesting to you? Explain.
2.You must work quietly on your own. Don’t annoy your peers. They’re working too – so be cool.
3. You must be on task. Independent learning sounds easy, but carries a great deal of responsibility to those who are privileged with the gift of time. Use the present(see what I did there?) wisely.
4. You may use technology or texts or whatever you can gather information from to do your research. Interviews are cool too, but may require more than the time allotted. See teacher to negotiate.
5. You may use headphones to screen videos or audio content as long as it relates to your topic.
6. You may share your new learning in the format of your choice. This can include, but is not limited to; visual presentations, works of art, a performance, video, a poem/song/rant, research paper, or TED style talks.
7. You will become the in-class expert on your topic. So enjoy discovering the knowledge that is waiting for you to find it.

The certainty of uncertainty

When students are empowered and engaged, the resulting learning is immersed in intense inquiry and thought. The room is filled with nothing other than productive silence; barely broken by keystrokes and infrequent fidgeting as grade 5s are wont to do. Students’ questions are usually met with responses of redirection that affirm their instincts rather than direct answers. I want them to develop and trust their instincts as learners by stretching beyond their comfort zones. If that means answering a question with another question, then so be it. One thing’s for sure, it will be a stretch for everyone including you.

Me: Here’s your chance to discover something that you’ve always wanted to know more about. What do you think it should be? What did you discover when you were doing your research? Have you considered…?

Then there’s the momentarily unsure. Occasionally, there are students who are really stuck when given so much latitude in the classroom. It might be a good idea to have the class share some general ideas that can be used in the case of Genius Hour Learner’s Block. Keep in mind this is new for some students as they have been conditioned to learn what is being taught without ever having time to scratch their own intellectual itches. If a learner is still stuck, keep directing them back to what they are passionate about in their lives. Feel free to share what you might study if given a chance. My students always love when I share my own passion projects in learning. Here is my latest one about the Psychology of Accents.

Handing over the learning to students is a struggle for some educators. We are so used to having everything organized, on time, and in its place. If this is you? Don’t panic. Please keep in mind that it will be messy at times. Some educators will feel compelled to assess this somehow. I get it. Perhaps for the first time, you consider only assessing the presentation skills rather than the content. If this is truly to resemble self-driven inquiry in learning, students should not be afraid to take chances because a mark is hanging over their heads.

Take it as opportunity to construct the success criteria with your students. They will not let you down. Consider having students assess one another’s work for the purposes of learning. Maybe you can make it like a gallery walk where half of the class shares and the other goes from one presentation to the next. You can also model and post some guiding questions as prompts.

One more rule

8. Have fun and celebrate all of the new learning that your students have discovered.

Movers and shakers

I might catch a little fire for this title.
And thank you in advance for reading.

Every classroom has them- fidgety student(s). You know the ones who cannot get comfortable to sit still, are unable to focus for longer than 8 seconds (there are statistics for that), and are constantly in motion. Some days you see your classroom is more like a garden filled with hummingbirds flitting, buzzing, and appearing to faff about even when totally engrossed in a task.

Are they learning? Can students learn when their distractedness is a distraction? You’re thinking about your students right now(past and present) aren’t you? I am, and yes like yours are incredible capable learners, each of whom possess a curiosity and creativity that we allow to flourish.

So, how do(did) we manage to harness a student’s abundance of energy without blowing a fuse or short circuiting the individual? For me, working with* a ‘busy’ student, whether officially identified with ADHD or not, requires a deft balance of patience, structure, and at the same time flexibility. Inside of this is an expectation of great things that is mapped out and shared with the help of the individual learner. It is not my agenda that gets carried out. Student voice is crucial in this process. Negotiation skills training is included in the deal.

Do you allow students to doodle? This simple artistic expression allows students a place to focus the fidgety moments onto the paper while freeing their attention to concentrate on the lesson. How about a soft foam squeeze toy? In my class we have several available that are specifically dedicated to any students who might feel a bit of stress or the need to keep their hands occupied. Plus they’re fun to throw around the class as a kinaesthetic activity and to practice Math facts or French verb conjugation.IMG_0164

Doodling and fidget toys seem counter-intuitive to many teachers who were educated annually in the art of rote in row after boring row, but can be great ways to support your busy students. Sadly, the education from the good old days doesn’t always honour the progress of humanity in the 21st Century. Especially, when it keeps referring to what worked or is rooted(stuck) in the last one as the only path to knowledge. In my opinion this is antithetical to the needs of modern learners who, as a result of innovation, technology, and pedagogy find themselves barely coping in some classes while thriving in others. 

My teachers had a kid like that, me. My mom shared, that after some tests and upon the school’s urging our family doctor prescribed some meds which were intended to help channel my “energetic” demeanour. My parents refused. Thanks mom and dad!

Although some of my colleagues might volunteer to renew the prescription for me, I am glad my parents decided not to take the pharmaceutical option. Instead they chose to work with my teachers on implementing strategies which would keep me busy, moving, and engaged.

Do you know how many notes I delivered around the school, erasers I cleaned, or how many times I helped the caretaker sweep? And that was during instructional time. Every recess(2 x 15 mins + 60 mins lunch) was spent running, jumping, climbing, and playing. It was the time outside, in motion, that made the time inside learning tolerable. So it makes me wonder how many others went through, or are going through the same thing as I did?

Without apologies I wish to proclaim and thus forever own my ADHD. In fact I wear it like a badge knowing it was a blessing in my life as a learner and is a gift in my life as an educator. The challenge for learners and educators comes in finding that Goldilocks Zone between perpetual motion and learning progress each year that is just right.

As the researchers note, “in the school setting, the challenge becomes how to create an environment in which creativity is emphasized as a pathway to learning as well as an outcome of learning.” from The Creative Gifts of ADHD by Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American

And therein lies one of many Catch-22s in our profession. We have some who have blessed their classrooms for  35 years or more, and others who are just being hired. The gap between youth and experience is not going anywhere? How do we re-invigorate mindsets, open ourselves to greater collaboration, and sharing the wisdom gathered from experience. There is much to gain from having both. Now the challenge is preparing, pairing, and finding some playtime between the two sides.

* I had originally considered using the word ‘handle’ instead of ‘work with’ as I wrote this post. Upon reflection it was wiser to be considerate of the fact that handling a student conjures negative thoughts, whereas working with a student evokes a working opportunity.