It’s a Pedagogical Problem. . .

I’ve got this wicked mashup blog post brewing in my mind right now that has been burbling ever since I stumbled across a conversation that Scott McLeod started over on his blog after sharing this slide with his readers:

While reading through the comments, I was relatively blown away by the number of readers who were like a thousand-percent opposed to the idea that cell phones could be used as an instructional tool.

Some were concerned about the potential for students to take inappropriate pictures of peers without their knowledge, but most were just plain peeved because students were spending more time texting friends in class than paying attention to the teacher.

Barry probably expressed these concerns best when he wrote:

Scott- I know what you are trying to say with the slide and in theory, I agree agree with you. The practical reality of high school (and even grad school) is that most student use their cell phones to text their friends or to make phone calls. From anecdotal observation, I see very few kids using phones for academic research, academic photography, or academic messaging for collaboration on a topic…

Adults and students alike becoming to the point of rude where they refuse to engage with a teacher or instructor because they are too focused on their handheld….the list goes on.

I may be naive, but aren’t distracted students texting from the back of the classroom pretty convincing evidence of poor teaching?

Here’s what I mean:  Most classrooms that I’ve been in lately are miserably disconnected, slow places where learning is limited times ten! We expect kids who were born in the “multi-generation”—multi-tasking, multimedia—to sit quietly and absorb information for 90 minutes at a crack, and—-as this student made video so clearly shows—to use old-school learning tools when they know that there are more efficient ways to interact with content.

No wonder they’re texting one another all class period long!

All that I know is when I teach a killer lesson on content that is motivating to my kids, NOTHING distracts them—and those are my favorite moments.

You know what I’m talking about:  The days when the kids groan when the bell rings because they were completely engaged in something that turned on their minds.  The days when kids ask to stay in from lunch because they want to get one more thing done.  The days when you’re surrounded by kids with questions at the end of the period.

Now, I won’t lie:  It takes serious effort to craft lessons that resonate.  With middle schoolers, there has to be opportunities for interaction, opportunities to compete, and opportunities to wrestle with issues of justice and injustice before you’re guaranteed to hit the intellectual funny bones of an entire class.

But that’s our job, isn’t it?  Aren’t we supposed to be able to put together learning experiences that matter?  And if we can’t shouldn’t we be ready for distracted students?

The way I see it, cell phones aren’t causing distracted students in our schools.

Boring lessons are.

My buddy Dina Strasser says it this way:

(download and view original image credit on Flickr here)


I’d take it one step farther, Di:  I’d say when you’re working with people who don’t even know how to craft a lesson to motivate their students—and then blame “management” failures on anything and everything other than their own actions and decisions—the pedagogical problem has nothing to do with technology.

It has to do with teachers.

Waiting to be torched,


17 thoughts on “It’s a Pedagogical Problem. . .

  1. caverta

    A word of appreciation for you.The art of doing of writing things is excellent.Keep posting articles like these.A very good article post.I must appreciate you knowledge about the subject.Thanks for sharing the relevant stuff, I was searching since a very long time.

  2. PC tech support

    Teenagers today are too often addicted to text messaging. It is relatively phenomenal. The school day is often disrupted due to malicious gossip spreading via text messaging.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Dave wrote:
    But computers have larger screens, better input devices, better software.
    The word “better” is one I’d disagree with as a classroom teacher, Dave, because to me, “better” means widely available—which classroom computers aren’t (I’ve got two in my wealthy suburban school).
    “Better” also means quick to access—information can be retrieved immediately. Also not a characteristic of my classroom computers, which require a lengthy login process.
    Dave also wrote:
    Computers provided by the school will be supported….and are more likely to be customized (or customizable) to your goals as an educator.
    I struggle here, too. Computer support in our school is almost non-existent. If I have a tech issue, I have to submit a request to our building tech contact, who submits a request to our district tech contact, who then sets a “priority” for the problem and comes when he gets a chance.
    It can take weeks before a machine is fixed.
    What’s more, our machines can’t be customized without working through a lengthy application/request process. I’ve spent hours and hours filling out the right forms to get something added to our network only to have a tech guy tell me that it’s not possible.
    I’d say 3 out of 5 requests that I make for customization are denied. Everything from adding additional memory to make my machine run faster to installing applications for instruction.
    Finally, Dave wrote:
    Classroom computers…won’t highlight the digital and financial gaps between students
    Now, I get this—and I can understand how using cellphones in the classroom might create an atmosphere of social competition over who’s got the best new phone.
    But I honestly believe that teachers who build positive classroom environments where students respect and value their peers won’t struggle with these issues.
    And I also honestly believe that the impact of up to 20 additional devices in the classroom outweighs the risks of highlighting the tech divide.
    Does any of this make sense?

  4. Dave

    Banning phones is silly, but it doesn’t make any more sense to shoe-horn them into a class lesson (unless that’s your gimmick for keeping student attention). As a tool, they aren’t a good match for learning.
    You liken them to computers in the slide, and technically, you’re right. They’re computers. But computers have larger screens, better input devices, better software. Computers provided by the school will be supported, won’t highlight the digital and financial gaps between students, and are more likely to be customized (or customizable) to your goals as an educator.
    Sure, if it makes sense to use cellphones, by all means use them, but that don’t de-value better tools for the job.

  5. Sarah

    It’s a little too easy to say that a great lesson will override inappropriate texting. Have you forgotten the intensity of adolescence? A text from one’s true love with whom one had a big fight at lunch is going to override any lesson you or I can come up with. HOWEVER, so be it.
    I’d rather use the tools, challenge myself to keep the kids engaged to the limits of my capabilities and let the chips fall where they may. Why? Because that’s the real world now and the benefits of genuine connection and real time information outweigh the negatives of inattentiveness or distractions any day of the week (they’ll be there anyway).

  6. sweber

    Cell phones are not the problem. If we are encouraging students to use technology, then we should capitalize on an item that the average sixth grader is carrying to school. Creative lesson plans could make this idea a reality. Schools are already beginning to utilize the Apple iPod Touch with students.
    From an administrator’s perspective: Students ofteen use phones to cheat on tests and take pictures of the test. Students can also text the answer to test questions to their peers. Students can use their cell phones to sell drugs and send threatening messages within the school. Students can play on the Internet, chat with friends and ignore the classroom teacher while playing video games on their phone. Can these student behaviors be changed? Sure. Can students learn the norms for behaving if educators outline when it is appropriate to use the cell phone and when the cell phone needs to be placed on vibrate or mute? I don’t know.
    Currently, cell phones are viewed as a Budweiser t-shirt, a bandana, a mini-skirt, and excessive talking. In other words, a cell phone is considered a ‘disruption to the learning environment.’ I do not know any school districts that encourage the use of cell phones during school hours. I have heard about one teacher being reprimanded for encouraging students to use cell phones during class. In defense of the administrator, he/she was enforcing the Borad Policy (and I would expect no less from an administrator).
    What can be done? What content areas/lessons go well with cell phones? I would ask educators who are currently using cell phones for classroom use.

  7. Angela Stockman

    This post is spot-on, as far as I’m concerned. No amount of shift is going to pretty-up bad practice, and I’ll go one better (or worse) and suggest that without an understanding of assessment (as practice, not product)determining the value of anything we do in classrooms becomes impossible. That said, I do wonder if texting in class is *only* about boring lessons. I can think of a few thousand moments that found my own daughter enraptured, and despite how engaged she was with what she was doing…she was still motivated to do a bit of texting as well. Is it possible that texting happens BECAUSE we’re engaged?

  8. Bri Brewer

    To Barry’s point, I think we can use personal devices to supplement what the schools can’t financially afford to provide the students right now. To Bill’s point, we have a responsibility to teach students how and when it is appropriate to use any mobile devices. These are lessons they may not be getting in the home, or from their peers, and it’s time for student to learn that these devices are capable of more than just social interaction.

  9. Barry

    Thanks for my quote. (I blogged further on this at
    I’m an administrator now after years in a high school and middle school classroom. I miss teaching, but I still stay in the trenches by teaching grad school. From my anecdotal observation sin my class: I consider myself an effective teacher. I plan using backwards design/UbD, a ask engaging essential questions, I give problem-based learning scenarios that are applicable to their lives, a use technologisy as an engaging tool to both watch and use….yet between 30-50% of my students routinely are viewed texting, checking email, scores, etc on their phones (and laptops) during class. These are adults. I’d guess that high school students would be worse in terms of attentiveness.
    In my class I allow laptops and phones to be used and I tell them that I won;t be offended if they use them; but I won’t repeat myself or give them a second chance if by their choice they weren’t attentive.
    I also think the bigger issue is digital divide. Schools won’t pay for a $30 data plan for kid’s phones. Only those with the bucks can afford it…so we are making a big leap here to assume that all 30 kids in a high school class have a data plan in the first place, a capable phone, and then and only then can we begin to teach them how to effectively use (and not use) them.

  10. Matt Johnston

    I think your diagnosis of texting as a symptom of bad teaching is right on. Want to engage students, see what they do when they aren’t paying attention to you.
    There are, as I am sure you know, lots of technological tools available to make use of cell phones, particuarly with the massive capabilities of current phones (like the Sprint guy on TV ads says, it’s hard to believe we still call them phones). With the ability to send text, video, audio and photos, why not use them to do so if it engages the students.
    Part of the problem that I see with technology and the classroom is not the willingness to use technology by teachers, but a lack of knowledge of how to use the technology most effectively.
    I don’t think it is Ms. Moore’s intention, but the concept of haveing unteach or deprogram students from bad habits can’t happen by making them go cold turkey. Instead of unteaching or deprogramming, how about co-opting? Instead of blaming parents, why not tell them, “we are going to be sending text messages, video clips and photos to your kids via their cell phones. If they spend so much time with them, we are going to use the device.” I think you would probably find that most parents would be willing to accept that notion.
    Does it take work to develop and manage lessons int that regard? Yep and those skills have to be developed early in teachers.
    Here is what I find ironic. Future teachers currently in school at our Ed schools use this technology everyday, right now, in their daily lives, from cell phones and texting, to social networking sites, video, audio, etc. But ed schools are training them to completely ignore that aspect of their personal life in their professional development and revert to 19th century era dynamics in the classroom. Seriously, look at any ed school cirriculum and I would be willing to be large sums of money that there is not one class on using technology to develop, present and implement technology in lesson plans.
    Case in point, my daughters, ages 7 and 4, know how to operate computers and to a certain extent my blackberry. They are comfortable and use technology. My oldest (in first grade) wondered why they don’t use the computer so much in school since she sees me use my blackberry for all sorts of things, both professional and personal. If a first grader is perceptive about the disconnect between school and the real world, how much more do you think a 6th grader or 8th grader or 11th grader sees?
    Talk about about a disconnect.

  11. Damian

    I wrote about this very issue a while ago here: and got some good pushback in the comments.
    While my scenarios were overly simplistic for the sake of the blog post, my feelings are similar to yours. Inappropriate use of cell phones in class is a symptom, not a disease.

  12. mrkimmi

    Lack of respect, engagement, and good behavior is directly related to poor teaching. This was the case when cell phones looked like bricks and it is the case now. Essentially, we end up punishing many kids because they don’t think we are amazing (and we still do).

  13. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    That student video is a hoot! I was waiting for him to flip pages and find a mouse, then it struck me how old school my thinking was, he was thinking touch screen.
    If torches blaze your way break out the fire hose, play the video.
    The cotton ball landed on India last week and after a few moments of panic momentarily daunted by the prospect of attempting to teach India to a 5th grader, I gathered myself with a cup of decaf. I decided to have her fill in a chart the next day sharing what she knows, wants to know and what tools she might use to learn about what she wants to know and I gave her an atlas that gives a brief blurb with a few pullouts.
    Wow! The next night I was reviewing her returned to me work in her folder. She wanted to know more about Bollywood (and how you find the movies made there), who the president or ruler was, what government, did Budha originate there, are there animals unique to India, what is the food like and more about the Himalayas. Under possible sources she listed: atlas, internet, World Book, Dad’s PDA, the library and elders.
    I share this because, it illustrates your point that children want to learn and they know the resources for doing so are multifaceted, vast and relevant in different ways. She largely wrote our lesson plan for me. I added to it watching the movie Gandhi, the caste system, Mother Teresa and tied in some science, math and language arts subunits. I went to her and explained with all she wanted to learn more about and all I wanted to share with her, India could take a bit longer. Her response, “Mom, it will be fun.” It will be fun and she will learn from it.
    Cell phones, laptops, crayons, books, knex sets, maps, globes, protractors, recorders… they are all tools in the teaching and learning exchange. It was a bit reassuring to me that elders continued to make the list. Maybe as long as elders keep it relevant they will continue to do so.

  14. Christine

    Great post. It takes time and effort to really create engaging learning experiences. And, the planning of those types of lessons don’t come from the teacher’s guide sold with the textbook. We are doing a disservice to our children to put teachers in classrooms that don’t understand this concept, or who aren’t willing to give that type of effort. We settle for too little, too much of the time. I had not seen that student made video clip – thank you for including it.

  15. Renee Moore

    Well, if they torch you they’d better save a match for me. It’s adults who’ve made the rude use of devices so prevalent and socially tolerated. Like anything else. we often have to unteach inappropriate behaviors or teach them for the first time to those who don’t know. But I view the texting in class the same way I used to view drawing pictures, sleeping, flinging spitballs. All of those behaviors are much more likely in a room where there is little real teaching and the emphasis is more on “watch me speak.”

Comments are closed.