How I get my pupils off screens and into books

Students can learn to concentrate and research better away from the ‘comfort blanket of Google’, says Matthew Marr

Matthew Marr

How I get my pupils off screens and into books

I have a confession, which may seem strange for someone who uses websites and social media with my pupils: I really don’t like too much screen time.

One of my goals for teaching history this year is to get pupils off screens. Let’s face it, they already get too much and online learning only worsened this.

Fortunately, history is a great subject to be taught without always using screens.

Quick read: We audited our pupils' screen time  and were shocked

Screen time: 5 tips to help reduce student screen

Long read: Should we call time on screen time?

Opinion: Why every school should embrace public speaking

More by Matthew Marr: 3 ways we can improve teaching about the slave trade

One simple activity – especially for older pupils – makes them use books, even if some pupils initially react as though this is a form of torture.

My Higher history pupils (broadly aged 16-18) get a chapter and, at first, are told to simply read it, even if this takes the full period.

Some are put off by reading for that long. Others cannot understand why reading without necessarily writing anything is useful.

After this, they get different tasks or challenges, such as identifying historian arguments, or finding evidence to support or oppose an opinion.

As well as taking them off screens – away from the comfort blanket of Google – this teaches valuable concentration skills and how to research.

Other helpful activities for pupils to try are debates and public speaking.

Spending time at home during the Covid pandemic has isolated many young people – the more they can directly engage with fellow pupils, the better this will be.

A class debate or speech is only ever the end of a series of lessons. Pupils first need to research or discuss initial thoughts with other pupils before they prepare their arguments.

Of course, many young people don’t like speaking in class – and months of home learning may have hardened these attitudes.

But these are useful life skills, and often crucial to helping pupils gets jobs or places in further and higher education, so different approaches can be used to try to fix this. This can include whole-class speeches as part of a team or organising debates within small groups of pupils.

And getting back to normal in education isn’t just limited to the pupils – staff need time and support to do this, too.

One of my own priorities this year – which has actually been a plan for a while – is to try to do more to engage with university academics.

There is so much new research available about various important historical topics. I have looked for and found different chances to engage with this in the coming weeks and months, which includes online teaching conferences and webinars that examine topics including Scotland’s relationship with slavery.

Given that my target for pupils was less screen time, I suppose I should have the same aim, and look to visit some book shops visits and do some fresh subject reading in the year ahead.

It’s great to be back to what feels like a normal school experience, where screens are a helpful tool but not as all-consuming as they were during the Covid lockdowns. Let’s hope that continues all year.

Matthew Marr is a teacher of history in Ayrshire. He tweets at @mrmarrhistory

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