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Texting vs. Teaching: Who Wins?

Our high schools are full of secretly texting, blithely unengaged adolescents, my colleague Dan de Vise reveals today in a story on a Montgomery County proposal to let students text during lunch. Dan’s story describes the situation well. Educators can’t keep up with the latest technocrazes. They banned cellphones for awhile, then decided they were necessary for emergencies. They figured no one would use them in class, forgetting that the text function allows a flurry of conversations without the miscreants making a discernible sound.

No one in the story asks my question: What do good teachers do about this? The best classes, in my experience, are the ones in which the teacher is holding a conversation with the entire class. Nobody is allowed to sit in a corner and dream about the prom, or text their dress choices to friends. The teacher has her eyes on the entire class, and is calling on everybody. If you are not paying attention, you are going to get caught. If the instructor is particularly good, the frequent texter decides what the class is doing is more interesting than sending another message.

But since such classes are relatively rare, and teaching often involves the instructor talking and students listening, it is relatively easy for texters to avoid detection, and relatively common for them to be so bored they prefer to tune out and send messages. The standard adminstrative response is to try a new rule--like texting only during lunch--that might or might not alleviate the problem, when the answer to almost every educational mishap or distraction is not more rules, but more good teaching.

By Washington Post editors  | June 1, 2009; 6:21 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  cellphone texting  
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"...the answer to almost every educational mishap or distraction is not more rules, but more good teaching."

This statement reveals a good bit of naivete. There is a hint of unreflective consumerism - if the teacher captures the student's attention and holds it they won't have to worry about inappropriate, rude and anti-social behaviors. So where is the duty of the student to engage a process that can only work when engaged?

Ironically, it's precisely the context of mindless consumerism in which this problem arises. Our television ads suggest that unless one is constantly "in contact" with others, there is something wrong with them. It doesn't matter if they have anything of value to say or hear, they must be technologically connected at all times, if one is to believe the consumer advertising.

What about our lives is so dreadful that we must constantly remain distracted from them?

Posted by: frharry | June 1, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

How about this novel approach? The student is held responsible for what he/she knows. You want to spend time texting in class, then when you fail the assignment, you don't get 50%, you don't get another chance to do the assignment, you don't pass, and mommy and daddy don't come in to bail you and say how unfair the teacher is. That would do more to improve schools then any other single revolutionary change that is being proposed. Want to know why other countries kick our butts in the classroom? It's because the student is held accountable, not the teacher, mommy or daddy, or the school system. By 15, the student either sets a goal to be academic and do well enough to get a spot in college, or the student determines to learn a trade, do well enough and get a job. Meanwhile, we are asking our teachers to play phone cop. This is a losing proposition for all involved.

Posted by: lk11 | June 1, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse

lk11 - HEAR! HEAR!

Meanwhile, I love it when people who aren't in the classroom, and perhaps couldn't cut it in the classroom (read: newspaper reporters and administrators) tell teachers that if they were "more entertaining" all their problems would disappear and all their students would be overachievers....

Posted by: HSTchr | June 1, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps teachers should embrace the medium. Send questions via text. Send reminders on homework assignments. Engage the students where they are and you have an opportunity to teach them.
I realize it is hard for some teachers to study and learn to be proficient in the newest technology but isn't that what you are suppose to be modeling for the children? Learning is a life-long skill and some studies require incredible perserverance. Teachers should show that by striving to becoming proficient texters even though it will seem impossible for older teachers.

Posted by: EdwardMyers | June 1, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

"Send questions via text:"
Nice idea. Schools are late to adopt good technology and late to address new methods of communicating.

But it's a student's responsibilty to be engaged, just as much as it is an instructor's responsibility to be alert to the class.

Sure, good teachers find ways to engage the class. But good teachers also have the authority to...well, force engagement. Plenty of students will happily attempt to ignore even the most engaging lesson if it means that they can communicate with friends. Good teachers wear the moral authority to distinguish between texting time, and time with a textbook.

Posted by: ddaudelin | June 1, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I am a teacher and also have major problems with students texting during class. I resent the comment that good teachers don't have problems with this. Teachers are evaluated on our ability to both deliver direct instruction and provide guided and independent instruction activities within every lesson. You can be putting on a minstrel show with loud bells a whistles everyday and you will still find students texting. Part of the problem is that half the time they are communicating with their parents. I have even resorted to taking points off for bringing their phones into class. For some this has worked, others just don't care. At some point we MUST hold the student and the parent responsible because the truth is that when they make it out of school, those at the next level will not put up with such nonsense. If we put up with it now we are doing students a disservice.

Posted by: natnat202 | June 1, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

IMHO texting during class is just a high-tech version of notepassing.

I didn't pass notes myself, but I used to surreptitiously do creative writing when bored in class (which sadly was a frequent occurrence). The solution would've been simple- put me in an intellectually challenging course, even if that meant putting me in with kids a couple grade levels up.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | June 1, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I didn't say that teachers should be "more entertaining." I said they should be more challenging. The teachers I have learned from have explained to me that their direct instruction doesn't work very well unless they ask questions of students to make sure they are getting it. What's wrong with that?

Posted by: Jay_Mathews | June 1, 2009 4:10 PM | Report abuse

"I said they should be more challenging"

Sure Jay. Why don't you come out to a classroom and demonstrate, er, "model", this behavior for us.

"More challenging", to many students, means "requires too much thought for me to redirect my attention from texting"

The only thing that will improve our schools is to hold students accountable for their choices, not everyone else.

If more students faced the possibility of not graduating, repeating another year of high school, or spending an entire summer in school, you'd see all these problems dwindle to nothing. I don't understand why people like you keep refusing to accept this.

Posted by: physicsteacher | June 2, 2009 6:23 AM | Report abuse

Obviously the main cachet in doing these sorts of things in class is the simple fact that one IS in class. The kid is getting away with it, thumbing his Nokia and his nose at the boob instructor. Cool! I say, jam the works and tell them, students and parents both, where they can put their thumbs.

Posted by: orthotox | June 3, 2009 1:56 AM | Report abuse

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