Blog Post

To Teach or To Entertain? A 21st Century Question

I found myself overwhelmed last night as I sat in class.  While the instructor lectured, I glanced down at my notes and looked over a list of teacher resource websites.  How am I going to remember all of this, I thought.  Is all of this necessary? 

In my teacher education program, and as I imagine is true of many others, we talk a lot about how and why we should use technology and the Internet in our classrooms.  In previous posts and in my personal blog, I have written about the importance of technology in education.  But after last night’s class, I am left wondering: how can we tell when we are using technology to entertain children instead of using it to teach them? 

Some might say that all technology is entertaining for children, and some might say that all technology is educational.  I straddle the line.  However, as a teacher, I have to distinguish between entertaining and teaching and between entertainment and learning. 

I recognize the importance of technology for tactile, auditory, and visual-spatial learners.  There are websites and software that allow these students to make outlines for and graphic representations of their written work, as well as to record and play back their thoughts.*  Yet, I think teachers have to examine their motivations behind choosing a technology to teach rather than using a conventional strategy.  If teachers choose technology and Internet programs simply for fear that they will lose their students’ attention, then they are not using it effectively.  If they choose it because they think they are supposed to (which seems to be what is being suggested in my program), they are not using it effectively.  If they choose it in attempt to keep students’ behavior in line, then they are not using it effectively.  This list could go on. 

Motivation sparks another debate in education.  There are intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and people feel strongly about the type they value.  It could be argued that students are intrinsically motivated to use technology.  It has been a part of their upbringing for as long as they have been alive, and everyone is curious.  However, I have witnessed teachers posing computer usage as a reward for good behavior.  Many schools promote certain reading programs with computer usage – a good score on a computerized reading quiz and students earn stickers or points in hopes of accumulating a certain amount for yet another reward – a pizza party or a field trip. 

Maybe I have said this before, or at least alluded to it in some fashion, but as educators, it is our responsibility to inform students that although technology is something they should know how to use, it is not something they have to consume.  Consumers have choices, a fact that everyone needs to recognize.  Having a multitude of devices does not make someone especially more informed than the person without them.  Nor does having a multitude of devices make someone more qualified than someone without them.  We have to be careful in both our motivation for using technology in our classrooms and in how we convey its importance. 

In closing, but maybe meant to be discussed in greater detail in another post, it is important to consider how students feel about this debate.  Do they really care about being able to use their cell phones in the classroom or about online programs for making graphic organizers?  Not too long ago, I found a video titled Engage Me on YouTube.  Filmed by students attending the Robin Hood Primary School in Birmingham, UK, it portrays the student side of this debate.  In some cases, the students are questioning why they have to use certain types of technology, and in other cases, they are wondering why they are not allowed to use certain types of technology.  Perhaps we need to reconsider our approach to technology in education by including the students we are trying to reach in our conversations about it.


* Note: I recognize that these programs benefit all students, and I believe that each of us embodies multiple intelligences, but for the sake of argument, I am categorizing.



Teresa, I hear you about being overwhelmed! There's so much out there to read. I filter it by reading what interests me the most, what looks most comprehensive, and what absolutely has to be read. I know you might not have that luxury. Luckily I've reached the point in my schooling where I can do that.

Your thoughts about consuming technology and knowing when technology is being used as an educational tool or for entertainment, and how to know when to use analog or digital methods in the classroom, reminded me of an article I read by Paul Fyfe, called "Digital Pedagogy Unplugged," which appeared in DHQ, 5.3 (2011).

Fyfe investigates the question about whether or not digital pedagogy always has to be electronic in nature. He acknowledges that technology can limit our thinking about humanities instruction because inquiry and practice sometimes are limited to the tool. He asks: “What might an electronically-enabled pedagogy look like if we pulled the plug?” To put that another way, he asks how “‘digital pedagogy’ might be productively hacked.” I’m interested in this article because I want to keep elements of the analog in my classroom and my research. If I teach a class that falls in under the “DH” heading, I want laptopless days. I want to combine the tactile with the digital.

One way to go about it is to “reimagine analog teaching in terms of the digital.” That is, “incorporate the opportunities of digital pedagogy without presuming its discontinuity with nondigital tools and methods, or its own self-limiting status as a toolkit.”

Fyfe gives several examples of teachers who have unplugged in the digital classroom. In one example, students look at  artifacts (newspaper clippings, photos, manuscripts, personal items, etc.) and then “gather, assemble and present to the class the critical narratives they collaboratively determine and argue. Discussion could proceed about how to present, exhibit, or visualize those relations” in digital form. Another approach asks students to “imagine an archive or finding system that can accommodate deceivingly non-programmatic artifacts of all document types and materials.” Another exercise text mines Pride and Prejudice for the words pride and prejudice as a way in to close reading the novel. How often, where, and in what contexts do the two words appear? In each of these cases, as well as other examples he cites, technology is “subordinat[ed] to the pedagogical goals of the class.”

Good luck, Teresa. If you discover ways to unplug, I hope you will share them.



Thank you for taking the time to craft this response.  I will look at the article you suggested, as I think it will be extremely helpful.  As I said in my post, I feel that technology integration is being taught to pre-service teachers as a necessity and an everyday expectation in their classrooms.  However, I see the fine line between teaching 21st skills and trying to keep students entertained. 

I'm in love with the idea of mining novels for title words or other key terms.  It's a digital tool that could really help and influence a student's understanding of a text.  This activity keeps students engaged with the material at hand, whereas in another classroom  recently described to me it was suggested that students having trouble with with fractions play a math game called something like Fun with Fractions.  This game, however, fails to really explain fractions, because it was designed for students who already know how to do them.  Hence, an ineffective use of technology.

This is an area where I feel compelled to continue doing research.  I will certainly keep you posted on new ideas.