Teaching Productivity to Students

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: April 8, 2015

Productivity information abounds on the Internet. There are systems like Getting Things Done and 43 Folders, and blogs like Lifehacker are loaded with tips and tricks for increasing productivity and managing workflow.

Why should our students be left to discover these things on their own?

A common complaint about putting a device in every student’s hand is distraction. In fact, I would argue this is the number one argument against going 1:1 or BYOD, ahead of things like cost or issues of breakage and theft. People feel students will spend all their time watching YouTube and playing video games rather than getting their work done.

I’m not going to say it’s an invalid complaint, but I think it’s one that can be addressed with education. If we just put a device in a child’s hand and turn them loose, education is not going to be the first thing on their mind. That’s just nature. Educators need to guide and develop students’ device usage just as they help guide and develop any other skill or social behavior.

For in-class work, this isn’t too difficult. Part of it is keeping them busy on the device, and part of it is classroom management. There are tools to make the teacher’s job easier in the classroom, but in this article I’d like to address student device usage during their personal time. We need to teach students to stay organized and on-task during class work time, study halls, and at home while working on homework.

Let’s start with music. Most students—and adults—like to listen to music while they work. Music provides enough distraction for the idle part of our minds while we concentrate on homework or work tasks. Where do most students turn for their music these days? YouTube.

YouTube presents a dual problem. For schools, one problem is bandwidth. Audio takes much less bandwidth, so as a school tech I would rather students (and teachers) turn to streaming audio like Slacker Radio or Pandora. There is still, however, a greater problem of distraction. Students will end up watching the videos, or they will spend several minutes looking for a song they want to hear or building playlists during valuable work time. Or worse, they see another interesting video in the recommended list, and “just this one video” becomes one more, and one more, and one more… You get the idea. Heck, it’s probably happened to you.

Streaming audio can help us here, too: Slacker and Pandora build playlists automatically, and now the student is back to, for the most part, passively listening rather than actively managing their music selections. Once they choose their first song or genre, they’re off and running, maybe clicking over for an occasional skip or to change their lineup. Even a picky and fidgety listener is not going to be clicking and fiddling as much on Slacker as they would in YouTube.

Then we take it to the next level. Today, I introduced my 5th graders to the Pomodoro Technique for time management. It works for any task, but I have personally found it useful for managing computer-related tasks.

The concept is simple: focus on work for a given time period, then take a short break. A student following the Pomodoro Technique would work on their homework for a 25-minute period, then take five or ten minutes to stretch, play a video game, or surf idly. After the break, they return to another 25-minute round of work, repeating breaks and work periods as needed. In any given hour, they would perform 50 minutes of productive, homework-related work.

To get started, today I had my 5th graders install the Moosti Pomodoro timer as an app from the Chrome Web Store. This gives them timers for their focus time and their long or short breaks. They agreed they should be able to work on their math or English assignments for 25 minutes. At that point, an alarm would go off and they would start a five- or ten-minute timer and go do something else (stand up and stretch, go outside, shoot a few hoops, or play Minecraft were the suggestions they came up with). Then the break alarm would go off and they get back to work.

By the end of that hour, their homework is done.

This, I feel, is a more than acceptable trade-off for teachers and parents. How many of us can concentrate on an intense work task for an hour straight? How many teachers can actually sit and grade papers for an hour straight? (Yes, sometimes we do it for hours at a time, but be honest: do we do it without short breaks?) Why should we expect any more from our students? Some teachers envision this utopia of a class full of students with pencils crawling across paper for a full hour straight, but that’s just not the reality we live in.

In time, maybe students won’t need a timer and will build up a habit of working. Or, maybe some students will find they need a more intense option, like Freedom or StayFocusd, to manage their self control. Either way we are training students’ behavior and work habits for today’s classroom, and we are ensuring that the majority of our students are getting their work done rather than wasting time.

When students are getting their work done, a 1:1 or BYOD school is a far happier place.

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