How we really teach with tech in 21st century classrooms

How we really teach with tech in 21st century classrooms

Summary: An irreverent guide to using technology in your class.

TOPICS: iPad, United Kingdom

For the teacher who went out drinking on a school night, or has a severe coffee deficiency -- here are some tips for using technology and keeping the little 'ones' happy in class.

I've taught in a number of places and countries. From a typical, run-down west London high school, a VIP college in Azerbaijan, a private school in Rome, to a graffiti-covered basement 'classroom' in Austria. However, out of the 25 or so countries I have graced with my presence, I have found a universal rule useful in making lessons 'work' -- whether you've spent all night on a plan, or more likely have thought it up in five minutes on your cigarette break. (It's okay, I know.)

The golden rule is -- anything visual, audio, or remotely funny, students love you for it. Whoever you are teaching, from future shopkeepers to juvenile jailbirds, anything that makes a student watch but not think too hard will be popular. The ones that want to work will take something away from it, the ones that don't are at least occupied and not prolonging the mental torture of a particularly brutish class.

After all, what does it matter in the educational assembly line of babysitting and daily abuse? Would-be teachers barely have a chance to use their degree knowledge. If a teaching qualification suddenly offers hand-to-hand combat, crowd control methods, sexual counselling and how to attain the holy patience of a saint, I'm all ears. Keep them in class, keep them occupied. That's what we're paid for.

There are a number of tools that can make the world of education a little easier on the time-pressured and tired teacher. So, without further ado, here are your tips for getting away with the dreaded morning classes or coping with pupils who you harbor a suspicion of troll-descendancy:

Video clips

Ah, the DVD player. For the less fortunate, a dusty VCR which requires a monthly sacrificial goat and prayer in order to not chew up the only video of Romeo and Juliet your school owns.

How many times have you sat with your colleagues in the staff room and heard someone say, with a grunt, 'just show them a video'? There is wisdom in this. Listen to your older colleagues, mild smell of bourbon or not.

Don't just use this for one class, use it for all of them. Preferably on a Friday, as the pupils (as well as yourself) were no doubt up all night playing Skyrim or Halo, and can't be bothered anyway. In addition, make sure you get your own back on the educational system's monthly paperwork requirements that could sink a small ship, and sit at the back smugly writing while they are glued to the screen.

If a senior teacher catches on, make an emergency timetable shifting the class periods you show movies. Keep it unpredictable; victory is yours.

Mediocrity achieved -- go back to writing your shopping list.

Interactive white boards

You only use it for 'Powerpointlessness', and the school only installed them to impress parents who are paying thousands of pounds a year for education that would be free elsewhere. The school forgets, of course, that as they rarely show a teacher how to use a cassette player or VCR, it's unlikely they will know how to operate something more advanced.

Putting 'the cart before the horse' is common practice in schools -- buy the equipment but forget about the operator. Training workshops generally focus on the same, tired discussions of classroom setups (the horseshoe or traditional?) which make you want to bludgeon the too-enthusiastic speaker to death. We need to go over this again, but showing you how to use your shiny new board is not a priority for professional development.

Within days, some particularly obnoxious child will cover the board in permanent marker when you're on a break anyway, so it's best not to worry.


While you let the swarm descend to find the exact video you simply can't find as a technologically-illiterate soul, steal the chance to pop down to the staff room (oh, I forgot extra paper) for a coffee and the chance to get away from the stink of teenage stale sweat and the rustle of smuggled crisp packets.

Class projects

I always let my students listen to music as they work on projects. It's amazing how even the class clown can be completely fixed on their work if they are equipped with a pair of headphones. Or, at the least, they remain present in body and don't attempt to flee the class on the pretext of yet another bathroom break.

Most teenagers love music, and the majority are familiar with software such as iTunes. Use this to your advantage. If they are physically present but not in spirit, you have the chance to turn a blind eye and carry on with reports or texting under your desk.

Now, let them get on with it, and only glance up if one of them is insistent on your presence. Drink coffee, pretend to mark papers when you are actually finishing off the paperwork you promised the principal you would hand in over a week ago, and wait for the clock to finally reach the exact contractual moment of escape.

After all, why not take a few liberties? You're 'overpaid part-timers with summers off' as it is.

Presentation software

Yes, we all hate innovation. More than that, making our own resources just takes up valuable time that is needed for paperwork deadlines that haunt us in our dreams more than the dull, repetitive pain of parents evening. However, consider the benefits. Consider updating your old transparencies to Powerpoint, or failing that, download some 'relevant' syllabus quizzes online.

A quiz can make an hour fly by -- and you can use it again and again. Make it lengthy, include some 'discussion questions', make the students guess and mark each other's work. An entire lesson can be crossed off the list this way. Even more so, you may be able to burn more time by getting the students to make up their own and save you having to do it yourself.

Naturally, its not exactly educational malpractice to use this method -- we're too busy to update our material anyway. Instead of clinging to yellowing lecture notes, just make sure your presentations are backed up on USB drives.

Just think of all the resentful looks you will receive in the staff room when the customary five-minutes-before-the-bell scramble to the photocopier hits. A queue of your colleagues fume and hiss at each other, on occasion the photocopier breaks down in rebellion, and you are sitting there smugly with a newspaper.

No need for photocopies -- make the students write everything down instead.

Work with the tech-gap. Feign ignorance. Burn time.

Considering the general 'tech-gap' between educators and children today, accepting that you don't know everything does have its benefits. There's no point hunching over a video player that belongs in a museum for 40 minutes, cursing under your breath as it chews up a tape -- ask one of your students to lend a hand.

If you're one of the lucky souls with access to a computer or interactive whiteboard in class, why not let them use it? If the students know of a good YouTube video that demonstrates what 'satire' is, if your explanation doesn't cut it, let them give it a go.

Use their mobile devices and Internet bandwidth, not your own.

Students have moved on, and so we have to. Instead of pulling pigtails, throwing paper planes and entering chalk combat, now teachers are attacked with iPhones and Blackberrys. A pox on pedagogy, how can we compete with keeping a students' attention against texting, apps and YouTube? Ignore the buzzing ringtones in your ears after you explain the main point of a lecture, and take a hammer to the offending device.

So we wish. Failing this, make it a competition. First person to find this obscure article online receives a sweet from the magical bag of bribery you buy every week at the store.

For the lazy teacher, working with their devices may be the better option. I found that in the classroom, outright banning of mobile devices meant that I ended up with a large collection of iPhones by the end of the week, and a lot of angry parents who couldn't understand why ringtones and continual text vibrations disrupt lessons. Trying to change tack, I let my students use devices when it was relevant.

Strangely enough, offering some leeway here did make an overall improvement to distractions in the classroom -- they could use it when I said so, or lose it for a week.

Don't forget, fellow education professionals, that technology is there for a reason. From 'Powerpointlessness' to an interactive board covered in permanent graffiti tags, technology use for the sake of looking modern and up-to-date can mean distracting students in a way that gives you ample time to catch up on paperwork and ignore the fact you're 'in control' of these kids.

Write a few more generic, false reports for the 'little darlings' while they watch the latest meme on YouTube, and save a few valuable hours better spent on a social life.


Topics: iPad, United Kingdom

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  • RE: How we really teach with tech in 21st century classrooms

    I see schools as the perfect place for Microsoft Surface/ Kinect systems in the classrooms. Forget about the iJunk pad, Microsoft surface is more visually appealing. Also using the Kinect can deter bad behavior, as the teacher can capture the student's behavior using the Kinect sensor. For the schools, this is a win/win/win. First it reduces costs as no need to spend millions on MAC Ios products, The children get to learn with tools that they will see in the workplace (Windows). And finally, the teachers can gain control over their classrooms again.
    I think that anyone that can't see this as the perfect solution, needs to sit through one of my PowerPoint Presentations
    • RE: How we really teach with tech in 21st century classrooms



      "Also using the Kinect can deter bad behavior, as the teacher can capture the student's behavior using the Kinect sensor."

      And then what? Taze them? You could have a video on the students (as in the above YouTube video) and it doesn't change their behavior. Oh, and name-calling a technology just makes you look as narrow minded as the instructor in the YouTube video.

      And if the schools were truly into a cost-savings mode, they'd use a Linux distro because they'd only have to obtain ONE DVD download and install it on all computers - servers and desktops. Cross platform apps in KDE aren't much different than those same apps in Windows.

      And I've sat through several hundred Powerpoint presentations making the same claims you do; I don't need to sit through yours, thank you very much.
      • OS?

        [quote]And if the schools were truly into a cost-savings mode, they'd use a Linux distro because they'd only have to obtain ONE DVD download and install it on all computers - servers and desktops. Cross platform apps in KDE aren't much different than those same apps in Windows.
        Cheap? Sure but..... it is the cost of hardware maintenance and upkeep that schools have difficulty with, not the OS.
  • Yep. Trash PowerPoint.

    Use as much singing and dancing and bouncy graphics as possible to present material. Remember: this is the Sesame Street generation, which makes learning anything by plain vanilla lectures or reading totally impossible. And texting them their course material would, of course, be the ultimate means to get them to pay attention to it.
  • So sad but true

    This article reads so like public schools here in Southern California - just change some of the words.

    Sadly :(
  • Is this for real?

    I am not a teacher and it has been a long time since I was in a classroom, so I find this article bloody awful. Is it supposed to be humorous? Is it really the teacher's job nowadays to "burn time"? If so, doesn't that just encourage the students to do the same instead of actually learning something? Teachers, if that is what you are reduced to doing, please quit and stop inflicting harm on your students.
  • RE: How we really teach with tech in 21st century classrooms

    My wife is a 3rd grade teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and one of the things that fires me up is how much technology they are offered, but no one knows how to use it effectively.

    The schools are given money specifically for certain initiatives - like they decided every school needed a server, but didn't really give a reason. I mean, it's a great idea, and I could get that place humming doing all kinds of client/server stuff. But to ask the teachers to know how to work on a server is not going to happen. Schools almost need a dedicated (or roaming) IT person at the campuses now to deal with the technology they are given, instead of making that duty fall on the shoulders of the most tech savy person there. But, of course, there is no money for that kind of position. So, they spend tens of thousands of dollars at each school for new programs that revolve around technology, but no one knows how to use it. Oh sure, they get trained on it to some degree. But a one day course doesn't teach you how to deal with issues when the stuff stops working. And the tech person (who is usually a teacher) can't do the things required during the day to make it work, like basic troubleshooting or calling support.

    My favorite thing is this $20k e-document center they have that does faxing, printing, copying, collating, binding, etc and all they use if for is to make copies. It's because it got delivered, no one was there to set it up, and no one knows what all it can do.

    It just gets me irate thinking of all that money wasted and things not getting used.
  • In the 21st Century we don't need to think - do we?

    If we don't think then we most certainly need technology. It remembers things that I have long since forgotten. I must admit to enjoying elements of the humor here - reality of course blurs those boundaries and amidst the smoke there are mirrors to enhance the experience. For all that we have I still ponder the changes that technology has brought to education. The act of writing on paper uses more brain functions collaboratively than typing or tapping on a screen .... according to that train of thought ... so are we dumbing them down ... And is the social component the most useful?...
    Is it all really genetic ?.... (read that as generic) Skepticism and cynicism I guess from someone who used a slide rule ... and now runs a school network.
  • At the 'chalkface' not behind the computer

    Is it wrong to feel shocked when there are so many teachers out there who are similarily so pressured by time and overburdened with administration? I do feel sympathy for your desire to 'multitask' using technology to keep them busy while you mark, or escape for a coffee.
    However, I do feel shocked. Sure, we could all use technology better - our interactive whiteboards, the vast wealth of stimulus on the net and the prospect of virtual online classrooms to name a few. in my humble view, that is part of our continuing professional development, to be continually learning about how technology can benefit our pupils.
    I use technology in my lessons as a way to stimulate pupils as part of a lesson. I watch it with them, we discuss and share ideas, and move on to other written or oral or reading tasks. I do not use technology as a babysitter.
    Example: last day of term with a group of 30 fourteen years olds we used you tube and search engines to find what they considered to be the best and most beautiful lyrics ever made. Every pupil had their own powerpoint page with their lyrics and why they liked them, with a link to a video of the song. It was an English lesson and we got to discuss imagery and rhyme among other poetic techniques as well as discussing music and culture. It was a lovely way to end the year, and we all had fun.
    I still have a way to go before becoming any sort of technology expert. But I talk to my colleagues. I see what is possible. during the summer it's great to blog with other educators, and this will help me prepare for august when i start to trial use of moodle and work with a kindle reading group for vulnerable readers.
    Many many of my colleagues will be doing the same around the world, as well as recharging the batteries for giving those pupils the one to one attention that they so need, and so deserve.