Is technology or teaching the problem?

This month I’ll be continuing the theme of technology in education and thinking about the impact of technology on young people – our learners and future learners!

In 2010 there was an article in the New York Times Magazine called Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction.  The title of the article gives you a clue as to the content – in it the writer contends (with the help of a teacher called Ms Blondel and a young student called Vishal) that “… computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.”  Ms Blondel says that “students now lack the attention span to read the assignments on their own.” And she insists that “You can’t become a good writer by watching YouTube, texting and e-mailing a bunch of abbreviations.”  In the meantime, Vishal spends over 16 hours during the weekend making a three minute music video (his passion) instead of doing his homework, nicely proving Richtel’s point.

It’s certainly a strong argument that kids today are not able to focus because of technology, but is it really cell phones, video games and software that are the problem or is it more about the mismatch between what we do in the classroom and how kids want to and like to learn?  Don Tapscott contends in his reply to Matt Richtel that “ …the real issue is the gap between how Net Geners think and how most teachers teach.”  Tapscott argues that young people who’ve grown up with the internet want their education to relate more to their world and that they want more of a say in what and how they learn.

So, which analysis is the best one?  Is it hard to get learners to focus because they are so busy working on something technological?  Or should we be looking at how we can relate what we do in the classroom to our learners’ increasingly technological lives?  What if Vishal’s homework had been to make a music video?


Richtel, M (2010) Growing up digital, wired for distraction

Tapscott, D (2010) New York Times Cover Story on “Growing Up Digital” Misses the Mark

Carol Lethaby

Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, who has been in the field of language teaching since 1986. She is part-time Assistant Professor on the New School, New York online MA TESOL as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension where she teaches on the TESL/TEFL Certificate program. She has also worked on several textbook series for learners of English, including Awesome, Next Step, The Big Picture and English ID, all published by Richmond ELT. Carol is a frequent presenter at international conferences.

  • Patricia
    Posted at 18:56h, 07 maio Responder

    Hi Carol
    It strikes me that learner distraction isn’t a new problem. School children have often been less than enthusiastic about learning in classrooms. Remember Shakespeare’s schoolboy ‘creeping…unwillingly to school’ in ‘All the world’s a stage’ and the students referred to by Romeo heading towards school with ‘heavy looks’. These days students are luckier. Teachers have been trained to look for ways to make lesson content more personally relevant for their learners and to link what students are learning with their everyday experiences. It’s just that now learners’ interests and experiences happen to include technology and its use. As you say, Vishal didn’t have a problem focusing on creating that music video!

    • Carol Lethaby
      Carol Lethaby
      Posted at 00:30h, 08 maio Responder

      Hello Patricia,
      Thanks for your nice reminder that students being distracted is nothing new. Richtel in the same article quoted above says, “Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.” He’s suggesting that this new type of distraction (technology) is somehow different in nature. Do you think it is?

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