Are We Adjusting?

Are we ready for the students we have?

Something funny happened to me this last week… In a B1 (more like a B2, really) group of teens I have (14-15 years-old students) group I have we are discussing language – with a closer focus on English, of course. And one of the first things we do is compare formal and informal language. I give the students some informal terms and they have to come up with formal synonyms to them.

After I had explained the activity one of the students asked (holding her smartphone on her hand – my school has wi-fi for the students) “Teacher, can I google it? Can I use the internet to find suitable terms?”

Pause. I am an enthusiast of technology and its power in learning. I tweet and I Facebook. I students come up with a term I don’t know I use an app to find out about the meaning and pronunciation or I google it (on my smartphone) right on the spot. I admit to making a longer pause, thinking whether my true opinion would be appropriate. And then I thought of my ultimate goal: getting students ready for life. Would they have their smartphones at hand when needed? Maybe. Maybe not, But most likely, the answer would be yes, especially after wi-fi has become so available – at least in Brazil and the last few countries I have visited lately.

So I thought: “In a real, authentic life situation, would this student be able to access (and use) google?”. And the answer was yes.

I believe students have to acquire the minimum skills to know what to look for and basic “get it from context” abilities (at least these ones have!). So why should I forbid? Isn’t “googling” what I do, when I come across a question I can’t answer on the spot? Why should I ask them to do it differently?

So I said “Yes…. look some of the answers up – after you have reached a dead end.” The student’s reaction?

“Teacher, you should talk to every single teacher I have. You’re the only one who understands the time we are living in. Can you talk to my math teacher and tell her we should be able to use calculators?”

Now…I think I am stepping on unsteady ground… My daughter ( a few months ago, when struggling with math, as she usually does – she seems to have a much more artistic intelligence) asked me why she couldn’t use a calculator in her math classes, since she would be able to use one when needed. I reasoned she needed to know the basic math operations, because she couldn’t depend on devices. But truth of the matter is: I use my iPhone’s calculator even when figuring out how much each person should pay after happy hour. It’s just easier.

Did my allowing the student to use her phone and google hinder learning? I don’t think so… but what do you think? What do you do when students try using internet/unplanned technology in your class? Can we just ignore the kind  of technology our students have at hand? does it prevent (or enhance??) learning?

On a last note: After that I completely established fantastic rapport to these students…they think I am cool. And they’re producing like crazy! :)

52 comments on “Are We Adjusting?

  1. mikecorea says:

    I love this topic and love how clearly you have captured the moment and the decision. Thanks so much for sharing. My decisions tend to be quite similar to yours. I am reminded of a student I had last year who always had her nose in her iPad. It was interesting that her classmates (who were also her friends) commented to me later that it was pretty rude in and out of class to constantly focus on the device and not the humans around. I suppose this is a very “real world” concern these days. Thanks again for sharing! :)

    • Hi Mike,

      I agree with the politeness issue… Students have to understand they benefit more from “live” interactions… Like you, I have (most) students with smartphones and quite a few with iPads… Can we ignore them? No, I don’t think we can. But we can guide them and remind them that many interactions will be face to face, and that they should be ready for those! Are our students becoming less “real people”aware, I wonder?

      Thanks for your comment!


  2. Julie Raikou says:

    Great post, Ceci, thought-provoking as always!

    I think you judged the moment well. In the past we encouraged students to look up a word in a dictionary, find a picture in a magazine, read a newspaper article etc etc in order to show what useful tools they were. Now the process is so much faster and the resources so diverse with smartphones, iPads etc it would be so foolish not to encourage their use.

    However, placing importance on face to face interaction is essential as you point out. To engage students I encourage them to share photos, music clips etc at the beginning and end of lessons and more face to face interaction during the lesson. As you mentioned students who like, admire a teacher produce so much more work!

    Let’s support the Learning Revolution!

    • Hear, hear, Julie!!!

      I think we have to acknowledge and accept (and why not embrace???) the new technologies, because they ARE part of our lives, as well as the students. I have several (beloved) paper dictionaries, but I have to admit that in class, when a word I am not familiar with shows up, I use a dictionary app on my iPhone to look it up. It’s faster, simpler and it gives me the audio sample of the pronunciation so I can play to the students as well.

      I think ignoring technology – or forbidding students to use it in the same PRODUCTIVE way – would be hypocritical of me. And, as we know it, using technology motivates students – especially teens, since they are so eager to use them. So why not teach them how to use the technology at hand in a productive way?

      I am very strict about technology use in the class – I do ask them to put phones away when I see them checking their phones at times that I know they’re probably not doing it for learning (my school has wi-fi for everyone, so it’s even more difficult :-P But I have shown students apps they can download to help them with their English learning process (especially the beginners) and podcasts and other things. I just think it’s silly for us to ignore it.

      But as you said it, human interaction is still a major factor – and an essential one – in learning. I am a great enthusiast of that – and I do my best to establish rapport and show the importance of it.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. Louise says:

    I fully agree – in real life you grab a (digital)dictionary, calculator, ask a friend… I have a digital dictionary in my toolbar above me as I type and I use it regularly, even simply as a thesaurus because my L1 mind can’t come up with the L1 word I mean. Invaluable. I also had my own translation agency for 10 years and wouldn’t dream of working out the finances without my calculator/phone; or at least double checking what I had calculated in my head.
    That said, the issue of smartphones in the class is just that, ‘an issue’. Many many teachers struggle with it, but I think it boils down to trust and to classroom management. Anything that’s banned becomes interesting, we all know that. And it’s sooooo tempting to reply to that Ping/Tweet during lesson time with your phone on your lap so the teacher can’t see – which is very feasible in a class of 30+. I think your moment, the honesty of the pupils simply asking if they might use the Net and you making it clear that this was one of those moments when they could perhaps also made it clear to them that it’s ok under certain circumstances and it shows that you had already built up such a rapport with them that they felt it was ok to ask rather than be sneaky about it. It says a lot, in my mind, about your interpersonal skills – so kudos to you!

    • Hi Louise :-)

      I also have a dictionary installed in my computer, one that I just have to right-click control and it gives me definition, synonyms, antonyms, anything!

      I agree that smartphones in the class (especially if your school offers wi-fi to students, like mine!) is a touchy one. And yes, the teacher has to be attentive and establish boundaries, and students have to respect it. I think (may be taking the naive route here….) it’s all about making students aware of the need for attention (which will be broken if they’re interested in what is going on on FB, Twitter or Tumbler) to the class, That using the web – and smartphones ad apps – is very welcomed during class time if it’s learning-driven, classroom-related. I think those students got it. I thought of a very cool project for them which got them super excites… maybe that’s an idea for a different post?

      Thanks for your comments :-)!

  4. This is an issue very much on my mind. My deaf students are asked to spend a lot of money to buy an electronic dictionary (which they really really need) for school. With the advent of smartphones they all have access to online translators without this special expense. better still, these online dictionaries are always available (they never forget their cell phones) and don’t seem to be out of order!
    But I cannot get around the issue of cheating (it is a phone!) and the fact that google translator translates entire texts instead of the word by word function of the regular electronic dictionary, so we are stuck with having them buy a separate device.
    Thanks for a great post!

    • Hi Naomi!

      Yes, I know the cheating feeling…. however, due to the rapport and trust bond or fear (??!?) I have established, I don’t think they’re using Google Translator in class – or out of it for that matter, they are quite fluent and see how an online translator doesn’t pick up on certain things). I am so sorry that is an issue to you, and that they have to get a separate device… But hey, let’s be positive. Hopefully that will change soon :-)

      Thanks for your 2 cents! :-)

  5. eslkathy says:

    You pose some thought-provoking questions! I don’t think there should be a blanket restriction against using any resource in the classroom, but how and when it’s used depends on the teaching intention of the activity.

    If I’m in a math class and students don’t know how to add and subtract, then while students are learning how to add and subtract, calculators are not allowed. It’s not that calculators are bad and it’s not that they’re never going to be used out there in the real world. It’s what I’m teaching: the conceptual notion of what’s happening when adding and subtracting is going on, which will be used as a foundation for understanding other conceptual notions later (multiplying, dividing, etc.).

    So, if you’re asking a student to think of a synonym because connecting a new word to words one already knows helps one learn the new word and reinforce the old words (a vocabulary exercise), then it’s the mental work of trying to remember the word that’s the purpose of the exercise — no looking stuff up! Of course, you have to have some reasonable belief that the student might know the synonym. (If they’re considering “feline”, they probably know “cat” but if they’re considering “cat” as a new word, they likely don’t know “feline”, so maybe they should try to describe the animal instead.)

    But if you’re purpose is to compare formal and informal and the student can’t think of any formal words (after at least giving it a try), then I don’t see why they can’t just look it up. They could use whatever tool they want to for that purpose, in my opinion! I think it’s appropriate that the student asked for permission. Maybe make it clear at the beginning of various exercises when it’s OK to look things up and when it’s not?

    I’ll be thinking this one over, thanks a lot for the post!

    • Hi Kathy!

      You’re right on the spot! I am with you 100% on the math issue – hence my daughter still not being able to use a calculator (she’s got to learn her basic skills). And as for the language issue, I still agree with you. And I made sure I made it clear to students it would be ok if they reached a dead end. Surprisingly (or not!) that’s exactly what they did. Maybe not as surprisingly, as what they knew was already in their minds. My point is, how is reading a definition on a smartphone or aa paper dictionary any different??

      And yes, I think you touched the key when you said it would be appropriate if the student asked for permission before doing it. I think that establishes the kind of rapport and authority you have with students…. Your comment made me happy :-)


  6. Hi Ceci!

    I totally enjoyed your post! Vividly depicts the scene you had and your doubts (like this stop-motion technique used=)))
    What I have to say about this is this: yes, I allow my students to use their smartphones and devices at anytime except for tests (though that’s really tough to control). Moreover, I believe that this skill of searching for info and finding the right thing is very hard to acquire! Then, it definitely gives a way to autonomous learning – there sometimes happen just soo silly questions from students that it’s only obvious one click “Search” in Google should be the answer. So I let them know – information is out there, not only in me (strange phrasing..)) I encourage that, I say that having a dictionary in my lesson is crucial. They agree, and it makes life easier, faster and lessons more interesting – finally we have more time to discuss things. Using the vocab or info we got from Google or a dictionary.
    Yet I have a concern. Here’s when I come to speak of maths, but that only illustrates the problem. I have a student, a teenager, she’s very intelligent, diligent, hard-working. But she can’t, almost literally, can’t count very simple things without a calculator. It was impossible (almost distressful) for her to tell the age of some writer knowing the years of his birth and death. That is a bad sign, to my mind. What I want to say is that we can use calculators to count our daily basics, but we have the skill to do it with no tech, and when necessary – we’ll do it. I make calculations both in mind and with a device, and personally I believe for simple tasks mind is the best way. We do want it to work, right?=))
    There should be a zone for each student where he/she feels comfortable without devices. And I”ve noted that my own memory has lost its sharpness, by the is the key!

    Thanks for your great post!!


    • Hi Ann,

      I completely agree with you in every single thing – including the math! I think calculators are a part of our lives, but we also have to be able to make simple operations (up to 2-digits) off the top of our heads. Not only the mind is the best way, but we have to keep it sharp, right?
      Thanks for your comment!
      Cheers, X

  7. Josette says:

    That’s the thing right? They would use it I real life. The only way they wouldn’t use such technology is if a grand catastrophe occurred and wiped out wifi :) I may be exaggerating a bit but simply to illustrate that I think this is a new way of learning. It’s possible your student won’t retain the term because of his/her crutch on Google. This is our fear. But what are they learning in this process? Maybe another word/expression catches their attention and they walk away knowing this. In the case of the calculator, maybe by using these devices we make room for learning other things that matter more to us.

    I think you pose important questions. In this age, teachers need to make sense of how technology relates to learning because it probably won’t look like the old familiar model. Thanks for this Cecilia!

    • OMG!!!!! Let us hope there is no catastrophe that wipes out wi-fi!!!!!!!

      But I agree with you, there’s a new way of learning. And I don;t think it’s about our students not retaining the term (what make it different from reading it on a paper dictionary or reading online?? Does the paper make it more “retain-able”???)

      Thanks for the comments, Josette… my intention is not giving answers, but rather posing reflections… we each know our own turf :-) Thanks for your opinion!

  8. I would be honest with your daughter and tell her that she can’t use a calculator because “school” is a very, very old (and old-fashion, and grumpy) man, from the 18th century; and that they have rules that don’t make sense anymore.

    • Hahahaha… I actually was… but I added to it the bit about not being able to rely soooo deeply in technolgy. That maybe, at some times it won’t be available and they will be expected (including youngest son here!) to perform basic tasks…. Lipe is a math wonder (kind of brilliant mind scary – “mommy, did you notice the license plate on the car of the right is the exact half of the car in the left kind of thing),, which thickens the family plot ;-)

      Loooved your comment.! X

  9. eslkathy says:

    What do you think of Howard Gardner’s “Five Minds”? He claims that, to keep up with all of the information that’s deluging our students (and us), they need to deliberately develop skills to deal with it.

    “Students should master information within the major disciplines, like History and Math (the disciplined mind). These ways of thinking are challenging to learn and require practice in school, since they are cultural inventions that the human brain is not pre-wired to understand intuitively. In this age of digital media and information overload, students with knowledge within a discipline must be able to sort out what is important and what is not from the massive amount of available information (the synthesizing mind). A student with a synthesizing mind can make sense of what she has learned, and can convey it to others when she needs to do so.”

    Of course, there are other “minds” as well (It’s not just this!).

    • Hi Kathy!

      Thank you so much for the link to Howard Gardner’s book and the article… Found it really interesting, especially how he points out the importance of creativity and ethics in the 21st century, and how we should incorporate that into our teaching practice. Developing skills to deal with (the huge amount of) information these days and know what to do with them are essential. Knowing things is no longer enough. You have to know how to use the knowledge.

      Loved it.

  10. Dear Cecilia!

    I just love your post! I believe SS should be able to use their devices whenever they render the learning process useful!!

    It’s hard to find a SS who use their smartphones for actual learning. But as with every other tool, one must know how to use it, otherwise the damage may be worse than the problem.

    Here comes the tablets!!, actually they’re alredy here on some SS laps, they present a window to a ever-growing universe of information that I like to compare to a big city, like New York. That’s when a teacher comes forward to guide SS through the alleys, neighborhoods and questionable facilities until they can reach Times Square.

    Unfortunatelly whenever they have access to these windows, the temptation of checking each other’s statuses and latest pictures supercedes their actual interests in learning anything at all.

    On the other hand, Isn’t time we started challenging our SS in a way they wouldn’t be able scape so easily by clicking their way out of a question? That would make googling really interesting!!!

    • Hi Heber!

      I think the key (and the challenge, of course!) is exactly discovering ways of engaging students and directing them towards using their devices to learning, showing ways of doing so. We have to put our creativity to work!!! I believe critical thinking may be a way of achieving what you said about the students not being able to click their way out of a question. If they have to take in and process the information they find with their clicking, to them give their own view/answer, they can’t escape. The problem is how to do this, and more importantly, how to engage them in it once we find a way ;-)

      Thanks for your comment, dear!

  11. Kathy F. says:

    Thank you all so much for comments that percolated around in my head over the last few days! Great post!!

    • Thank YOU, Kathy. The link you shared also brought some new “thinking threads” in my head :-) And I think the beauty of the blogosphere is in how some posts can get us thinking, reflecting, experimenting, and especially sharing.

      Hope you have a lovely weekend :-)

  12. Great post. I like Willy’s advice ;-) Nice to catch some CC blogging!!!!

  13. Great post Ceci :) You are definetely cool!


  14. I’m sure I can’t add anything more valuable to the conversation exactly that what has already been said, but I’m with you on this. Technology at hand is a tool to utilise, not rebel against for whatever reason. However, like to your daughter, I do think students need to understand that one skill builds to another, and there is value in learning the basic building blocks before jumping to the more difficult. With Math, it’s important to instill that there will actually be times in life where understanding the process that comes to a solution is as important as the answer itself. Problem solving comes in to play here. Similarly, with language it is also true. Students could very easily just Google a word to find its meaning, but one does not do that when reading texts, for example. Being able to use the process (i.e. guess meaning from contextual clues) is more authentic, despite access to technology to do the same thing.


  15. Kevin Stein says:

    Great post. You can line me up with the let-them-use-tech-for-learning-purposes team. My students all have bookmarked the most useful dictionary sites and I have taught them how to use google as a rough colocation tool as well. But not every student has a smart phone which results in a digital divide between students. This is a problem more difficult to solve. I wonder how other teachers who allow smart phones in class deal with this issue. Or am I overthinking?

    • Hi Kevin,

      I don’t think you’re overthinking… Getting students to share smartphones works at a superficial level. But at least in my reality (private language school students) the ones who don’t have a smartphone are a minority – keep in mind I teach students from 12 up (still too early to have a smartphone IMHO, but who am I to say anything, my daughter has an iPod Touch her dad gave her! And she’s 10!). For those who don’t have one, I say to worl with the person beside them who has one (like if they’ve forgotten their book at home – it usually works without problems). But you are right on the spot about the key issue being us teaching students that not all answers that come up on a google search are right and good. Critical literacy, eh?

      Thanks for the feedback!

  16. Hi Ty :-)

    We’re on the same page here… using new technologies, and encouraging our students to use it in favor of their learning is key. But at the same time, we cannot let students be dependent on them. Learn basic skills first, develop searching skills (critical thinking) and then move on, right?

    Mooo ;-)

  17. Rick says:

    Coming a bit late to this thread, but still… if it’s online, it’s accessible at all times, right?!

    I guess the main problem is not where they get the answer from. If all they need to do is ask almighty Google, we should seriously consider changing the question, huh?! It doesn’t get any simpler. However, how are we going to feel so at ease with something we’ve been told to be so wrong? It’s high time teachers actually started unlearning a couple of things – we just can’t swing from one extreme to another, IMHO. Teaching them how to think instead of simply having a question that relies only on information – not on knowledge – to be answered is what critics of technology integration in the classroom are dying to see millions of examples of.

    As usual, a great read, Ceci! :)

    • Very good point(s), Rick! (And btw, sorry about the delay in answering… Work, Trainings, Delta, kids, and preparing for a week off for IATEFL… phew!)

      First, we have to change the questions… but I think to a certain level we have been doing that. Technology and the availability of information (and how easy it is to find it too!) have made critical thinking THE ability to incorporate into teaching, agree? So the questions we have to ask our students have to go beyond the obvious comprehension. But for that to happen, we need to have teachers who are willing to (as you said) “unlearn” things, let go of old dogmas and thinking. And no, that is NOT easy, at all. And it should not be done instantly – instantly never works.

      However, I think we are moving towards that… we (you, I and the PLN) are evidence of that IMHO.

      Thanks for dropping by, Rick!

  18. annforeman says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    I think your experience is a lesson for all of us, so just added a link to this post on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check there for comments.

    Very best,

    • Hi Ann,

      I was taken aback at how many teachers go through the same thing – and do the same! No use in refusing to accept technology, is there? But then again, how to train students on how to keep it learning-oriented and procrastinating-free? I think that is the real issue, don’t you?

      Thanks for sharing my post.
      Warm, sunny regards,


  19. Sumaiya N. says:

    ooowW!! nice article Cecilia! :D

  20. Nice article Cecilia,,,,thnx for sharing :)

  21. Amal says:

    Hi Cecilia
    Thank you very much for this post . I definitely agree with you since our life is completely affected by technology. In fact , I very much hope that wi – fi will be available for my students at school.

  22. Hello Cecilia!
    I wanted to write when you first posted this, but never had the time! Crazy!
    Well, almost everyday I face this situation you experienced with my adult learners.. And after reading your post, whenever it happens I think of you somehow :)
    What I do is just simply letting them use their smartphones. Even the children I teach have smartphones. They love their phones and they love internet. Plus I know that they love English too! So why not putting them altogether :) If you can balance things, you will have a great lesson. They will be engaged, eager to do what you say, learn by doing, and you’ll be a cool teacher in their eyes. What can a teacher ask for more :)


    • Hi Nihal,

      So happy to hear there are others around the world that feel/think/do the same!!!!

      But being a cool teacher is not everything… being the one who teaches meaningful things is the key (IMHO) :-) Balancing is the key, right?

  23. Definitely! And that balancing key is a difficult one to get! But once you get it, it opens every door :)

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