From the first-hand experiences of millions of students and teachers worldwide, it’s clear that paper notebooks are a deterrent to quality education. For generations, students have used them in class to scribble or doodle, pass messages to their friends, or construct wads, planes, and spitball projectiles. Given the numerous ways students can use their notebooks to derail learning, it’s a wonder that most schools still permit them in class, right? … Hold on a sec.

Students the world over misuse notebooks to their own detriment. But when students use notebooks for their intended purposes, they are a staple of the classroom learning experience. Anyone who has earned a high school diploma knows that recording what we learn is an important way to reinforce learning. And to mitigate the distracting uses of notebooks, teachers have a simple solution: create rules, procedures, and norms that foster proper notebook use.

This discussion about proper notebook use may seem inane, but a very similar and serious conversation is happening right now around classroom devices. Last November, Education Next published an article called “Should Professors Ban Laptops?” that described a study finding that college students who were allowed to use computers in class had lower scores on their final exams than peers in classes where laptops were forbidden. Two weeks ago, the Hechinger Report published an article called “Dealing with digital distraction” that described how some teachers in both K–12 and higher education settings are banning devices from their classrooms.

Articles like these resonate with concerns I’ve heard from both teachers and parents about devices being negative influences on students and their learning. We need studies and articles like these to spur important conversations among educators, parents, and administrators about mitigating the ways devices can hamper classrooms. But I fear that in many quarters, well-intentioned people are following the same faulty reasoning laid out above in my farcical notebook example.

The false dichotomy

Framing devices as either good or bad starts the conversation on a false dichotomy that completely overlooks the truth of the matter: devices can be both good and bad for learning, depending on how they are used. Furthermore, this false dichotomy stems from a classic mistake of scientific reasoning: categorizing on the wrong variable. Allow me to explain using a non-education example.

During the Middle Ages, would-be aviators observed animals that could fly well and compared them with animals that could not. Naturally, when looking for patterns and relationships to explain flight, they focused on the variables that were easiest to observe: wings with feathers. So they fabricated wings, glued feathers on them, strapped them to their arms, and jumped off tall buildings … with unfortunately disastrous results. In their early efforts to understand what caused flight, they looked for patterns or correlations between variables that are easy to observe. But easy-to-observe variables are often not the variables that actually cause something to happen.

It wasn’t until Daniel Bernoulli discovered the properties of airfoils that flight became possible. Bernoulli’s key insight was that lift comes not from the feathers a wing is made of, but the pressure differences that exist around an airfoil as it slices through the air. These air pressure differences created by an airfoil are not as easy to see and measure as feathers, which is why aviators were fixated on the wrong variable for so long. But identifying the right variable was the key to making flight work.

Identifying the right variable

Unfortunately, this same problem—categorizing on the wrong variable—is what sometimes leads parents and teachers to call for device-free classrooms. Devices are the easy-to-observe and easy-to-regulate variable. But they are not the variable that determines whether students are learning. Learning comes from what students think about and pay attention to while in class, and devices can both focus and derail students’ attention and thinking.

Once we recognize that devices are the wrong variable to hone in on, we can start to have more productive conversations about how to make sure devices in schools effectively support learning. For example, gaming apps and social media notifications are notorious thieves of students’ attention. Thus, before bringing devices into classrooms, our administrators, teachers, parents, and students need to figure out the combination of rules, norms, filters, and device management software that will keep these distractions at bay. Additionally, as Michael Horn and Tom Vander Ark each point out, devices have the greatest net effect when schools leverage them to design new instructional models. Sadly, too many schools miss this point and just drop devices into traditional classrooms, adding more complication and frustration for teachers with little corresponding upside. The design wheel on the BLU_ website is a great starting point for schools looking for guidance on how to amplify the benefits of devices with new instructional models.

The field needs to discuss how to make devices work for learning. But for those discussions to be most productive, we need to recognize that blanket statements about devices puts the focus on the wrong variable. Devices can be both good and bad for learning. The key is to be strategic about where and how we use them to direct students’ attention.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.