The Importance of Understanding Today’s Digitally Driven Music Students

In many ways, the music students educators encounter in their classrooms today are a universe away from the peers they went to school with. Whether you’ve been teaching for five years or half a century, today’s music students are learning in a world that is in many ways unrecognizable from the one you grew up in. By far, one of the biggest drivers of change in modern society is technology, a force that shapes the world of your students in both visible and unpredictable ways. While tech’s inescapable presence certainly brings a great deal of good into our schools, it’s also impacting modern classrooms in a myriad of negative ways. 

But rather than begrudge technology and long for simpler days, it’s crucial for music educators to make a concerted effort to understand the role technology plays in their student’s lives. Everything from a student’s inattentiveness to the way they engage with music today can and often is influenced by technology in some way. This issue is important for older generations of music educators who most likely didn’t grow up with the internet or a computer in their home. But it’s also crucial for younger teachers to realize that while they might be more familiar with smartphones and social media than their older colleagues, there is an ever-widening technological and cultural gap between them and their students.

Distraction and technology go hand-in-hand

Smartphones are making today’s music students more distractible and harder to teach. You most likely already hold this belief, but it’s important to consider the scope of the issue. In 2012, the New York Times published an article that detailed the emerging challenge of technology’s impact on education. A study referenced in the article from a non-profit research organization called Common Sense Media found that, on average, a child’s screen time doubles each year they’re in school. The article went on to profile an informal teacher survey that found the overwhelming number of educators studied believed that emerging technology was responsible for shortening the attention spans of their students. An astounding 60% of the 685 educators surveyed held the belief that technology “hindered students’ ability to write and communicate face to face,” while nearly 50% said it hurt critical thinking skills and an ability to do homework.

It’s been eight years since that teacher survey was conducted, and technology’s profound impacts on education and the world continue to grow. A recent article published by the The National Center for Biotechnology Information titled “The Role of Attention in Learning in the Digital Age” argues that while it’s too early to determine the precise physical changes social media and smartphones are having on children’s brains, there is clear evidence showing that technology has a powerful potential for involuntarily diminishing a student’s attentiveness. “If a learner is using the internet to search for information about a given topic, they will be exposed to elements within that environment that will capture attention involuntarily. Pop-up elements of webpages are an obvious example of this. The voluntary engagement with material can be interrupted by elements in the environment that have been specifically designed to capture involuntary attentional processes. Herein lies one of the key areas in which technology has been deliberately created to exploit these processes.” According to the article, the business models of social media platforms are especially harmful because they’re designed to capture and keep a person’s attention for as long as possible in order to sell ads.

Why technology distracts music students

  • According to a recent technology report published by NPR, more than half of American children aged 11 and older now own a smartphone
  • Social media platforms, websites, tablets, and smartphones are designed to capture and keep a user’s attention
  • Children are especially prone to tech-driven distraction because they haven’t fully developed the cognitive skills needed for focusing and listening
  • Music students who conduct research online or use smartphones or tablets for their classroom work can fall into distraction because of the digital tools they rely on

Why digitally driven music students must be approached with empathy

teen playing guitar with mom

When you survey your classroom and see your music students staring at their phones, how do you feel? It’s only natural to be resentful when you’re trying to teach something you feel is important to seemingly distracted, uninterested students. While that frustration is valid, it’s crucial to embrace empathy and patience when it comes to teaching modern digitally driven students. If you’ve ever caught yourself compulsively checking emails, texting, or perusing digital articles during class, you can see why. 

Most modern music educators grew up in a time before digital technology grew to dominate most facets of conventional daily life. Like students of every generation, you faced challenges in your education, but older generations can’t fully understand what it’s like to learn music in today’s tech-obsessed world. Your music students have similar challenges to the ones you grew up with in addition to a myriad of new ones that you never had to face. So much of today’s digital technology is designed to be addictive and time-consuming, which means that most of your music students aren’t intentionally being rude or aloof in the classroom when they’re glued to their smartphones. As a society, we’re just beginning to reckon with the impacts that internet and device addiction are having on children. In other words, digital distraction isn’t something you should take personally as an educator. The cards are stacked against the digitally intertwined kids you interact with in your music classes, and there’s science to prove it. 

It’s also important to remember that the culture your music students are most likely immersed in today is literally inseparable from the technology they use. Tech is now integral for how modern kids bond with one another, seek out entertainment, and stay in touch with parents. And, frustratingly, the devices you find your music students enamored with in the classroom are very much tools that kids use to deepen their relationships with music. Whether it’s an app designed to mimic the steady sound of a physical metronome or a platform built to enhance a student’s understanding of music theory, there’s a positive side to consider when teaching a classroom filled with kids who rely on modern digital technology. There are clear times when music students use smartphones and tablets for non-music related, distracting tasks, but there are others when they’re used to engage with and understand educational material. Make sure you know the entire story before you rush to judgement, and in times when your kids are off task because of tech, consider acting with a sense of compassion. 

Things to remember while teaching digitally driven music classrooms

girl playing piano
  • Modern music students face an uphill battle when it comes to being able to focus and engage in class because of digital tech
  • Culture and technology and deeply intertwined in the lives of your music students
  • While smartphones, tablets, and social media are proven to be harmful to education, music students often rely on tech to engage with and better understand music. Don’t discipline your students for using technology until you know the whole story
  • Establishing rules for how and when tech can be used in the classroom is crucial. Your students will most likely immediately fall into bad habits if clear rules aren’t announced early in the year. If needed, have your kids sign a “tech contract” that states the tech rules of your classroom. 
  • Lead by example. If you demand that your students leave smartphones and tablets out of site other than at specific times you approve them, you’ll need to do the same yourself. Children are more prone to tech-driven distraction than adults, but we’re still susceptible to it as well.

Tech’s impact on modern education isn’t entirely negative

According to Purdue University, technology has had a positive impact on education for as long as education has existed. “Technology has greatly expanded access to education. In medieval times, books were rare and only an elite few had access to educational opportunities. Individuals had to travel to centers of learning to get an education. Today, massive amounts of information (books, audio, images, videos) are available at one’s fingertips through the internet.” The complicated truth about tech’s impact on modern music education is that it’s a double-edged sword. The internet has demolished the barriers keeping people from accessing vast educational resources, but it’s also distracting students in unprecedented ways. 

There are no easy answers when it comes to understanding your digitally driven music students, but timeless educator advice applies: kindness, understanding, patience, and not taking yourself too seriously goes a long way in the classroom.

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