Using Classroom Technology Less so Students Interact More

Building new pedagogical habits can help teachers move away from screens and toward other ways of teaching and learning.

Many teachers depend on technology to deliver instruction, made apparent by the ubiquitous presence of laptops and tablets in the classroom. They say old habits die hard, and so do new ones—overreliance on technology when it is not serving a pedagogical purpose places limits on how teachers create environments that nurture communication skills and relationships. Teachers can break this cycle by building habits that foster interaction without technology.

The first step when we partially jettison technology is to think about the practice of “habit stacking,” which involves implementing tiny changes on top of one another over time rather than making sudden, seismic shifts in practice. One basic but effective strategy is to create “friction” by curtailing access to devices during class time, which makes it physically difficult for anyone to get to a laptop or tablet.

Building tech-free habits in the classroom

Go old school. Not long ago, teachers believed that overhead projectors were indispensable to instruction. Now, we may have similar feelings about web access, but it’s not impossible to leave technology behind now and then. To experiment with “old school” instruction, dedicating a few days to device-free learning can build habits that help students (not to mention adults) take a break from screens.
On old school days, any devices should be completely locked up and put away. This technical fix offers a Band-Aid solution to a problem of practice that can then be approached with another set of new, more profound habits. This doesn’t mean we avoid technology entirely, but we put a barrier between the class and web access.
For example, one small but effective way to explore a life without technology is to present instruction in a variety of modalities, perhaps by using a station rotation or any other hands-on method that lends itself to more active learning. Whatever the specifics of any lesson look like, the vital component of old school learning is that students adjust to a higher level of interaction away from screens that results in more cognitive engagement.
Flip the learning. Flipped instruction—where students teach themselves at home and then engage in hands-on application of the material in class—leads to greater levels of engagement. Flipped learning can limit the habit of leaning too heavily on technology because when students are expected to access most of their online resources outside of school walls, class time can then be devoted to letting students make meaning of what they learned with one another, not with a device.
Suppose students are given time in class to work on an upcoming project. All the materials they need are embedded within an online document their teacher shares, from slide show templates to database links. In a traditional classroom, students might complete this assignment online independently. In a flipped classroom, students would do that work outside of class, and instructional time would be devoted to doing something more interactive, like engaging in peer review or getting teacher feedback.
What are the benefits of providing class time to working on these projects? Clearly, giving kids time helps to alleviate stress, so that might be a reason to devote class to an assignment that can also be completed at home. There could be a lack of faith that students would do their projects if no adult were holding them directly accountable. In that case, placing students on laptops is not about their academic achievement so much as it is about controlling behavior.
In a flipped classroom, students should be visibly engaging with others with tasks that are cognitively rich. Suppose students have watched a video for homework that shows them how to complete a type of math problem. In class the next day, the teacher can group students and provide them with a related activity, from solving a narrative exemplification of the problem together to writing a problem of their own collaboratively. Ensuring that students have opportunities to engage with one another at least once or a twice a week will help to pull them away from the habit of coming to class, sitting down, and logging on without further interaction or dialogue.
Get kids moving. Remember that challenge to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time? Teachers can use that concept to their advantage to increase engagement by incorporating movement into instruction. If kids are in motion, they probably aren’t glued to technology. Even better, they are working with one another. When we think about how students are directed to use their devices in class, the same instructional goals can often be accomplished with a more physically and mentally active process that makes it easier to maintain focus for longer periods of time.
To successfully achieve a lesson makeover, start by thinking about how a quiet activity that students do on their computers can be upgraded for interaction. Suppose students are typing a “discussion” question response into an online module. While this format has definite benefits when everyone is not physically near one another, there is no reason to engage this way in a classroom. Instead, ask students to get up, find a partner across the room, discuss the question, and then jot down some ideas together.
To increase the level of collaboration across the room, pre-alert students in a “warm call” by letting them know that some partners will be asked to share their thoughts with the class after a few minutes of preparatory conversation. If the teacher wishes to formatively assess the responses, students can write their thoughts onto a sheet of paper as a summarizer, but they will first have had the benefit of moving around the room and talking to one another, which bolsters cognitive processes and provides time away from screens.
In essence, stacking habits that move everyone in a classroom community away from devices and back toward a more interactive learning space is about looking for missed opportunities. Whenever a student opens a laptop, we must be asking ourselves this question: Is this device really necessary, and is it the best possible way to achieve today’s learning goal? If the answer is anything but a definitive yes, it might be time to find another way to implement instruction.
Being more aware of how this dependency manifests in a classroom environment is the first step toward removing some of the barriers in relationships between people that technology creates and to providing habitual opportunities for students to engage away from their devices.