Inside the Classroom

Deeper Dialogue around Digital Distractions

Since the dawn of time, students have gathered together to learn new skills from teaching figures–– and subsequently been distracted from the learning at hand. Today, technology has infiltrated our classrooms and increased the likelihood of student distraction, whether from a buzzing in a pocket or an update in a browser tab. A quick web search reveals a spectrum of responses to this challenge, ranging from free use to an outright ban of devices.

When deciding how to handle digital distractions, it’s often good to start by drafting a contract. This can outline when and where digital devices can be used in a classroom, what they can be used for, and consequences for not meeting expectations. Some elements of a contract may need to be set by a teacher based on school or district policies, particularly around safety and privacy. However, a great way to encourage student buy-in is to have them engage in creating this contract. Here are some conversation starters that can help deepen the dialogue around digital distractions:

When can digital devices help us learn more?

I want my students to do more than simply recall facts and figures. I want my students creating, investigating, collaborating, and analyzing. Technology can often help my students to do this; they may produce movies, research topics on the internet, share ideas in an online discussion board, or aggregate data using software.

When I include technology as a part of a lesson plan, I always ask myself, “Is the technology going to facilitate deeper learning?” If the answer to that question is yes, I communicate this directly with my students so they understand why the technology is being used. I encourage my students to ask themselves the same question when it comes to devices. If students want to use a device, I expect them to clearly explain how the device is going to help them learn more and then I hold them to it. We put it in our contract so that we can have conversations centered around learning, not the devices themselves.


How good are you at multitasking? Really?

There is always at least one student in my class who claims to be an “expert multitasker” who can use digital devices while they work on other classwork without distraction. I like to challenge this assumption at the outset. I plan an activity that requires multitasking, and ask students to debrief about how much they were actually able to accomplish.

This becomes great evidence to support our expectations around digital devices. In the end, we always conclude that our best work happens when we can focus. Devices can be great tools to help students stay on task, but they can easily become multitasking distractions. Differentiating this up-front helps to set classroom boundaries around when devices should be used.


Do digital devices distract everyone in the same way?

When setting expectations around devices, I always like to ask this question. As students share, they are often surprised by the number of ways that their peers are distracted; some are anxious to see texts from friends, some are eager for their next turn in a game, and others can’t miss the latest update to a blog or feed. I encourage my students to take ownership of their individual “distraction style,” and we craft expectations that take this into account.

I often find that students can take something distracting and turn it into a strength as they find ways to incorporate this into learning activities. Perhaps their interest in blogs can be used to add to our class blog, or we can make research more game-like in nature. And when the inevitable distraction happens, it’s easier for me to have a conversation when I know more about each student’s distraction profile.


Every teacher, classroom, and group of students is unique, so having a digital device contract in place at the beginning can help reduce digital distractions in your classroom. Letting students be a part of the process in drafting this contract will not only help them to take more ownership over the expectations, but also prepare them to think more critically about the role that devices play in their educational careers.

What other questions might you ask to get students thinking more deeply about the digital distractions around them?


Levy, L. (2014, November 19). 7 ways to deal with digital distractions in class. Edudemic. Retrieved from

Stansbury, M. (2017, October 23). Video of the week: Dealing with digital distraction in the classroom. eSchool News. Retrieved from

About the Author


Aaron Griffith-VanderYacht

A native of Bellingham, Washington, Aaron Griffith-VanderYacht began his career as a special education teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, and Brooklyn, New York, and is a Teach For America alumnus. Always seeking to integrate technology into the classroom, it was a natural progression to move into the world of e-learning where he has gained experience as an instructional designer, professional development consultant, and product specialist. He believes that online and blended learning can be key tools in providing an excellent education for all students.