As I sit down in an 11th-grade American history classroom for an observation, a student two rows away nudges their friend and points at my bird’s-eye view of their laptop screen. The friend is watching an episode of a popular television show with subtitles and quickly minimizes the window. These days, noticing students who are electronically off task is a familiar occurrence to administrators and teachers in any high school. This past year, I have noted that student laptop use during classroom observations has sharply increased to the point of being the norm. Of course, technology (laptops in particular) is not necessarily an evil in the classroom. Studies have shown that 1:1 programs give a platform for teaching 21st-century skills and positively impact many subjects in schools.

However, laptops also present a number of challenges. They are the source of distraction even when the “multitasking” that takes place during classes is on-task behavior (e.g., searching the internet for more information on a topic). Studies have shown that note-taking via a laptop leads to lower retention and understanding of the material compared to traditional note-taking. When we offload tasks to technology, the technical skills our brains use to accomplish these tasks atrophy and are lost. A recent article in The New York Times by a law professor lamented the loss of communication skills in his classroom due to laptop use (see “To Learn More …” below). We are firmly ensconced in this new reality of student technology use, and we need to actively deal with the situation as it relates to the high school classroom.

Atrophying skills and a lack of critical thinking for our high school students are a shared issue. It is a concern for students, teachers, and administrators, and therefore necessitates a three-pronged approach that includes all groups. Students need to be educated about the research on the potential pitfalls of laptop use. For teachers, classroom time needs to be planned effectively to include non-laptop time, when appropriate. Finally, the administration needs to lead a careful examination of our pedagogy and educational goals as they relate to these issues.

Assess How Technology Affects Skills

The reality of increased technology needs to be a part of our constant examination and re-examination of the target skills we set for our graduates. Concern about atrophying skills is only warranted if they are necessary skills. For example, if we are losing the ability to remember maps, directions, and phone numbers, this may not bother us. However, if we no longer have enough practice at spatial awareness or committing information to long-term memory, then we need to craft areas of curriculum that reinforce these skills.

The administration, together with teachers, needs to assess whether the nature of instruction matches the current realities and our objectives for students. There has been much debate among college professors regarding the strength of lecture as a form of pedagogy and its applicability to the newest generation. Some suggest that perhaps it is not technology that needs to change to match our instruction, but rather antiquated instructional techniques that need to be updated.

Teachers, Pedagogy, and Planning

There are two observations I can make as a principal in terms of laptop use in classrooms. Teachers who are considered to be more rigorous by the students have far less off-task laptop usage in their classes. When classroom time is used effectively and students recognize their accountability, they are more focused. Second, even teachers who have significant laptop use when they lecture have far less laptop use when they are facilitating an engaging classroom activity or group work.

When it comes to the high school classroom, the debate should not be whether we are to ban laptops in our classrooms or not. The more critical question is: What pedagogy is best employed given our goals and the instructional task at hand? Banning laptops from the classroom ignores the reality of the workforce our graduates will enter. We need to consider what techniques best prepare students for their future.

Students must be able to discern when technology is a help and when it is a hindrance—this is a critical skill they must master. Teachers can model this skill by carefully planning their classes to help students engage productively in technology and by knowing when to pull back. Classes can be structured so that the first few minutes are tech-free, and the class engages in recalling what was previously taught without the aid of technology. A similar scene could take place when a class is ending and the goal is to wrap up and bring learning to a clear outcome. Discussion time or group work could be closed-laptop time, while annotating text or taking notes on a lecture might be good times for laptops to be in play.

By being deliberate in their decisions regarding technology use in their classroom, teachers will help students learn when technology assists them and when it impedes their goals. The exact setup will be class-specific, but teachers need to carefully match expectations for technology use to their student-learning goals.

Educating on Issues

If our goal is to make sure students are able to make informed choices about how they use technology in the classroom and the workplace, then we need to educate them about the possible pitfalls and how to avoid them. Taking notes with a laptop is not necessarily worse than taking notes by hand, as much as it is different. Studies that show poorer retention for those who take notes on laptops may be a product of students lacking the skills to properly take notes on a laptop. We need to consider that taking notes via a laptop or other electronic device may well be a necessary skill that we need to add into the curriculum.

This approach also dovetails nicely with having teachers vary when technology is used in the classroom. Discussing with students their own use of technology will facilitate their skill at recognizing when technology is not helping them. Recently, I engaged a class in a discussion of the pros and cons of using laptops during class. Students explained why they liked having their laptops open and usable, even during discussions, to have access to resources and take down information at a quicker pace. I shared some of the research into the potential issues related to taking notes in that manner. The exercise helped me to understand their position while simultaneously making them conscious of the fact that using a laptop is a choice, and there are other options. As we closed the conversation and went back to the subject matter at hand, I noticed one girl, who had generally used a laptop, using a pen and notebook for the remainder of the class.

Teacher approaches to technology span the spectrum from entrenched Luddites to technophiles. Some choose to ban technology hoping to fight the shrinking attention spans of students. Others look to technology as a way to engage students hoping to compete for their attention with social media and online entertainment. Regardless of where on this spectrum you lie, an informed approach designed to teach specific skills firmly based in proven pedagogy is a must. In a vacuum caused by a lack of thoughtful preparation and planning, a patchwork of haphazard classroom practice will grow.

School leaders need to engage both teachers and students in the process of identifying skills to be cultivated through high school and exploring the best pedagogical practices to reach these goals. Laptops are merely a current challenge that will no doubt be followed by many others. Approaching the challenges created by new technology by thoughtfully involving the three stakeholder groups of students, teachers, and administrators is the most holistic way to meet these challenges.

Maury Grebenau is principal at Yavneh Academy of Dallas in Texas.

To Learn More …

Check out this article:

“Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom,” by Darren Rosenblum, The New York Times.