Dear Mr. Shirky, Sorry, but you missed your chance.


Clay Shirky, a thinker, innovator, and educator that I admired a great deal shared his decision and rationale for asking students to not bring devices to his class anymore. (PLEASE READ SHIRKY’S WORK NOW) His rationale is thoughtful, intelligent, and supported by research, but he missed it. Great big swing and a miss.

First, understand that I agree with his points about multi-tasking, the distractions of social media (the love the elephant and the rider – more on this later), and second-hand distraction problem. They are real and they can seriously impact learning, but Shirky missed in his reaction to these very real problems. Don’t remove the device. Don’t avoid the problem. Be part of the solution. Engage the students about how to use devices to best support their learning.

  • The rider (rationale) and the elephant (emotional) are not the only players. There is the path (see Dan and Chip Heath). As teachers we can set the rules or the path, create opportunities to work with our students to create guidelines for behavior, and call out behavior that falls short of our standards. We need to create a path that keeps the elephant on task and assists the rider guiding the elephant. For example, direct students when they need to focus and use devices to put them in airplane mode or do not disturb mode or turn off wifi. There are little things we need to do to help our students be successful.
  • While I am a firm believer in the myth of multitasking, I do wonder about the value of searching an unfamiliar term mentioned by the instructor or briefly investigating a related topic. There are ways that minor distractions or related interruptions can add value to class. I admit this is tricky, but the answer lies with asking students to help decide when it makes sense. A conversation about their behavior will lead to an opportunity for students to be reflective about their own behavior. It will also provide insight for instructors about the value of classroom activities.
  • It is also important for learning institutions and many organizations to develop common language about using digital tools. Providence Day has create a Digital Compass to guide our behavior and with it we have developed a digital citizenship resource guide to help teachers, students, and parents improve our use of digital tools and hopefully, hold ourselves accountable. It is very concerning when I hear adults suggest that the tool is more powerful than the user. Ultimately, we use the tools, not the other way around. Organizations need to empower their members and a great starting place is a common framework for discussion based on common language.

digital citizenship compass for book

As Educators we have a vitally important responsibility to always remember the unexpressed curriculum. This is the curriculum that causes us to engage with students beyond just teaching our content. It is the curriculum that directs us to help students learn how to work collaboratively, be better members of the community, and properly use the tools as their disposal. There is no doubt that tablets, cell phones, and laptops are in work spaces, learning spaces, and more. Without intervention, without training, and without conversation about how these tools can help us improve, we as a community will fail each other.

We can solve these problems and improve the use of these tools if we engage and I can think of few people smarter and better suited to engage students on these topics than Mr. Shirky.

Please re-consider, Mr. Shirky.

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