Making the Pivot Away from Tech in the Classroom

Tech has become more and more prevalent in classrooms across the world in recent years. It has become a wonderful way to connect students with others around the world, give them new avenues of creativity and access to knowledge may not have had in the past.

I personally think it has also become a way to stifle interpersonal communication and is helping contribute to the growing problems of device addiction many young children and parents are dealing with.

I’m not alone in feeling this way. Recently the French government enacted legislation that would see a nation-wide ban on students having devices in schools. The French Education Minister said, “The ban was also a “public health message to families”, adding: “It’s good that children are not too often, or even at all, in front of a screen before the age of seven.”


Tech Background

Before I was ever a teacher I was a tech developer. I embraced technology early on. I was writing blogs back in the 1990’s when I’d have to write all of my content and HTML in good ole Notepad and upload to the Internet using an FTP protocol (I liked Cute FTP in those days).

In the late 1990’s I was enrolled in an Electronic Game Design program and later went to work as a 3D modeler at a game development studio. I also worked as a freelance texture artist and 3D modeler.

I was one of the first English-speaking YouTubers in Asia soon after the platform was created and was regularly invited to the Google HQ in Tokyo before there was even a YouTube HQ (once upon a time I had a popular travel channel based out of Japan).

Now I have a successful and popular podcast about Japan which I create 100% myself.

What I am trying to say is that I am someone who personally loves technology and the wonders it can help us achieve.


The Pivot

The reason why I have decided to pivot away from using technology as much as I have in the past in my early elementary classroom is that I see children needing something else. I am starting to feel, and I have spoken to some of my fellow educators who feel the same way, that my classroom should be a break from the stress and addictive nature of modern devices and technology.

I am fully aware that most of my students, as soon as they leave school and hop in their parent’s cars, have a device thrust into their hands to get them through the ride home quietly. Once they are in the house they are playing with their iPads, phones or laptops.

When I was a child, many people complained about how our parents were using television as the babysitter. Plunk your kid in front of the TV and they will be quiet, not get into trouble and you will always know where they are. Now, devices have taken the place of the TV and they are so much more accessible!

Last year, while teaching Grade 2, I would ask my students how often they used devices after school every day. Most of them said they were constantly using them. Many told me that they would be playing with phones, tablets and gaming devices right up until bedtime each night.

I think that is way too much. That’s why I want my class to be an “Almost-tech-free Oasis.”

Last year, every Friday afternoon would be “Fantastic Friday” in Mr. O’Shea’s class. It was basically a Genious Hour or Golden Time. Students had many options of fun and creativity-building activities they could do, but none involved tech.

Students could build wonderful things using our well-stocked class Makerspace, play board games, use skill toys such as yo yo’s or the Japanese kendama, color, draw with a teaching assistant who was a fantastic artist, read, make crafts, practice dancing, etc. This was a wonderful time. Students communicated with each other, laughed, were creative, improved problem-solving skills and generally had fun.

Sometimes tech would be involved. A few iPads would be set out with strict parameters. They could use an iPad only if they were to use an app like Stop Motion to create stop motion animations and then upload them to See Saw so their classmates and parents could enjoy them.

A few times I allowed students to use our 10 class iPads and two iMacs. for tech free-time. I quickly regretted that. I saw some students who clearly displayed symptoms of device addiction get extremely aggressive in order to secure their own device. I some students suffer from great anxiety and even cry when they didn’t get a device. I saw students fight and argue with each other. Sometimes it even came to blows with some students who had trouble controlling their emotions. Sharing was a huge problem and once many students had a device, they immediately stopped communicating and seemed to become zombie-fied!

I didn’t like what I saw. This was not the Fantastic Friday I wanted. This was clearly not healthy.

I tried using a “free tech time” on a few more occasions, but I felt it created a negative and unhealthy environment.

When I went back to the original format, my students were happy again. They communicated with each other and had fun once more.


Getting Outdoors

Those who follow me on social media know that I am a passionate member of the “Children and Nature” movement. I am a nature educator. I am passionate about getting students outdoors and connected to the natural world around them.

We grownups have done a very nice job of messing up the natural world and it will be my students and their children left to fix the problems.

I am a passionate entomologist and birder. I try to walk the walk. I have created nature clubs at school, done work with local conservation groups, built learning gardens and outdoor learning spaces at previous schools and am working on that with a dedicated team at my current school.

This is also part of my pivot away from tech in the class.

Last year several students told me, “Nature is dirty!” When I would catch a beetle or other insect a few members of my very own Nature and Conservation club screamed, “Kill it!”

Creating future environmental stewards is a priority in my classroom.

My students are affluent and live in the middle of a massive city. More than anyone, they need a connection to the natural world. Most of them have parents who don’t care in any way about environmental issues such as climate change, species at risk, habitat loss or pollution, BUT…I am trying to get these kids aware of it. I’m not taking the doom and gloom approach (not the most effective strategy with young learners), but showing them that nature is amazing and cool. I’m teaching them that nature is everywhere, even in the big city if you know where to look.

Getting students outdoors and making hands-on connections is so much more meaningful than sitting inside a classroom using computers and devices to learn about the same topics. 


Tech does have a place

I’m not anti-tech, but I feel there should be less in the modern classroom. Some educators are going in the opposite direction. Many modern teachers online are “_________ ambassadors” or “____________ certified” for so many apps!

It’s wonderful to see educators being lifelong learners and embracing new ways to educate, but with young learners, should tech be a priority? It may look “cool on paper” that a student can use many innovative apps, but what if they are scared to touch dirt or can’t communicate properly on an interpersonal level? As an educator, you make look great to the school administration or future employers with your expertise in tech, but can your young students tie their own shoe? Can they deal effectively with deal with conflict amongst classmates?

I like using apps like See Saw and Book Creator. They are Fantastic ways for parents to see what their children are learning in school. It’s also a fantastic way for children to teach their parents about issues.

A few years ago, during a Sharing the Plant Unit of Inquiry I’m a PYP educator), I gave some fun homework. Go outside this weekend with family and friends and do a garbage clean up, film it and post to See Saw.

What I saw Sunday evening was wonderful. Great videos of families going to local beaches and parks to pick up trash. I witnessed real-life physical involvement; students and their parents taking action and then sharing it with the rest of the class, using tech.

This year I am teaching Grade One. I will use tech in a careful and thoughtful way, but my classroom will continue to pivot away from using it often.

My students will spend more time outdoors reading and doing numeracy and inquiry activities (when Beijing’s environment allows). There will be more focus on meaningful crafts to develop motor-skills, problem-solving skills, and perseverance.

Tech will be used in my classroom to share student learning, but it won’ t be used as a regular form of entertainment or to give myself a break as a teacher.

I do plan to investigate new forms of tech like Flipgrid this upcoming school year. I also look forward to input and ideas from our technology coaches.

It is 2018 and I am not burying my head in the sand. I simply feel that students need more than tech. They need more real-world connections.

Wish me luck as the new teaching year approaches!



About the Writer:

Kevin O’Shea is an IB/PYP educator currently based in Beijing, China. He is a father, husband, and avid conservationist. Kevin is also the host of the upcoming Making Better Teachers Podcast as well as the host of the long-running Just Japan Podcast.

Twitter: @MadForMaple

Instagram: @jlandkev @japannightscenes


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