Shut Off Those Laptops When You Don’t Need Them!

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

 Elleke van den Burg Poortvliet interviewed Paul for a magazine called ‘Beter Begeleiden’ [Better Guidance] van de Landelijke Beroepsgroep voor Begeleiders in het Onderwijs. The topic was (in Elleke’s words): ‘Screens in the classroom’. This blog is based on the interview. The headings are the interview questions that Elleke asked him.

The question whether screens in the classroom are good or bad is definitely good for lots of emotion and contradictory opinions. Paul’s answer to the question isn’t an opinion, but is rather a rational one based on scientific research, so keep reading!

As most of us might know by now, Paul isn’t scared to make bold statements. He writes multiple blogs (our collaborative blog is one of them) and columns. He never shies away from expressing that he finds the various nonsensical ideas in education that are alive and kicking today horrendous. For example, in this blog we wrote about the terror of famous and shameless eduquacks. One famous, or rather notorious, myth, that he rails against is learning styles theory. It’s one of the most toxic myths ever and unfortunately still has its believers.

Paul also has a strong view on ICT in education. Last spring, he was interviewed for the Dutch TV program Zembla on so-called Steve Jobs schools. In these supposedly ‘innovative’ schools, children only learn through using tablets with the idea that kids decide what to learn and what not to learn. The ideas behind this school are nothing but opinion, anecdote, nonsense, and quackery, as Paul explained in that interview. Does this mean that using digital devices is a no go? You might think so, but Paul’s view is really way more nuanced.

How big should the role of ICT be in education?

A laptop or tablet is nothing but a tool. How, when, and for what you use these tools depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to bake bread, you don’t need a frying pan. The same goes for ICT in education. You can use digital tools when you need them. This means that you should use them if they help to make learning more effective, efficient, and enjoyable. Effective means that learners learn more or more deeply within the same timeframe. Efficient refers to learning something with less effort of just quicker. Enjoyable means that a learner experiences a feeling of success. An ‘I can do it’ feeling. It’s about effort leading to a sense of achievement and it’s definitely not about ‘fun’.


The thing is, you use whatever tool is required as long as you make sure it leads to improvement of one of those three elements. If ICT doesn’t lead to improvement of at least one of the three (the best is naturally all three) or if it leads to improvement of one or two of the elements at the expense of the other(s), then you DON’T use it. Using ICT to make something more effective but less efficient than in the original situation will most probably not lead to its use, and so forth. It’s as simple as that. Some teachers struggle with this. They find it difficult to judge if, for example, it’s better to learn with a physical book or through a screen (see our blog here for the answer) while the research gives an answer.

How can teachers know if learning becomes more effective, efficient, and enjoyable by using ICT in the classroom?

Well, there’s a lot of information on how you can use ICT effectively in education. Unfortunately, this information also includes a lot of nonsense. It’s not like a cookbook with recipes; it’s just not that simple. There are all kinds of factors that play a role. For example, you need to take the learners into account. You need to think about their specific needs within the learning context. This is no different than for doctors and the tools and techniques that they have. They also have many different tools and techniques that they can use, and they need to decide which ones work best on a case by case basis. It’s important that teachers always ask themselves: What am I trying to achieve? Why do I want to achieve it? What tools can I use, and which ones are most suitable? If you don’t take that approach, you’re like a fish and chips stand or a junk food restaurant, using one technique and one tool and all food is prepared in the deep fryer.


Luckily, there are some general guidelines. For example, if the intent is to automate something, such as multiplication tables, repetition is critical. That kind of stuff comes down to practice, practice, and … exactly, practice. Digital programs can be great for this type of learning. What you need to keep in mind in that context is that the computer programmes that are used in schools and homes usually aren’t able to recognise the ‘why’ behind mistakes that a learner makes and remediate where necessary. Most of the programmes are just dumb drill-and-practice. So, for that you still need a teacher.

During their studies, teachers learn little around how to use ICT effectively, which is insane. It is unthinkable that a medical school would not teach a future doctor about how to use the tools and techniques that (s)he as at her/his disposal. And since many teachers also don’t read scientific articles or books on this topic, it’s very hard for them to figure out when to use what kind of digital tools and why. When you hire a plumber, you also want her or him to know if (s)he needs to weld or solder. And when you go to a restaurant, you want the chef to know which tools, techniques, and ingredients are required to prepare a well-tasting, good-looking and healthy meal. So why should we expect less from teachers, who are a big part of our children’s’ and our society’s future?

Therefore, Paul recommends further, or continuous education. Also: Read about the topic! Buy or borrow, for example, the Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning by Richard Mayer which is an excellent book with very practical guidelines on using multimedia for teaching and learning. Paul is also ‘for hire’ as well (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?)! He can teach you how to use ICT and why that way 😊. Also, teacher education needs to be better equipped so that we can have better teachers. Of course, that’s all about policy and a single person can’t influence that. To paint the (grim) picture: Currently people are happy in the Netherlands if a parent shows up to teach children / manage the classroom when the teacher has the flu and they’re now implementing 11-day curricula to fast-track parents and people from other professions into schools. These are very pressing problems that we’re dealing with today.

What would Paul teach teachers?

On one hand, teachers must know the possibilities of the various tools and they must have the skills to use them. On the other hand, they must have a deep understanding of pedagogical and didactic[1] techniques available to them so that they can make an informed choice when it comes to choosing and using the tools. This is what teachers need to learn on a deep, conceptual level; a long, complicated and intensive process.

Despite all this, Paul’s message also is that the role of ICT shouldn’t be huge in the classroom. For example, he has called laptops in class ‘second-hand smoke’ (see our blog here). He explains that, when learners have their laptop open in class, 30-50% of them is doing something different than listening to the teacher. Research clearly shows that. It’s just because distractions are too tempting to ignore. It might be a Facebook or Instagram notification, who knows… This means that this 30 -50% of learners is ‘gone’.

The remaining learners using their laptops may take notes on it, but they also often type so fast that whatever they hear doesn’t ‘land’ in their brain. That’s because they just type what they hear without first processing. This is kind of like what a court stenographer does. The information goes into their ears and comes out through their fingers. That doesn’t happen when you take notes using pen and paper. In that case, since you can’t write as fast as the teacher speaks (unless you’ve taken a steno course) you summarise, paraphrase, focus on key words leaving the embellishments out. You cognitively process what you hear right away and therefore, you remember that information better.

Finally, there’s also a group of learners who choose to not use their laptop. However, if their neighbour is using a laptop, they still get distracted. The ‘no laptop’ learners don’t want to get distracted, they have consciously switched off their phones and left their tablet or laptop in their bags, but they’re surrounded by the distracting screens from their peers. The screen flickers, their attention is drawn to it like a moth to a flame, they watch what their peers are doing, no matter if they want to or not. 25 – 45% of learners say that they’re distracted by other people’s devices. And that’s where the parallel with smoking comes in. If you sit on a terrace where other people smoke, you second-hand smoke. There’s no way to avoid it.


What this means for all levels of education is that we must accept that it doesn’t matter how old or well-intentioned you are; if someone next to you is using some kind of digital device, you’re going to be distracted and learn less. Period. So, shut down those laptops when they’re not used as a tool to support learning. As a teacher, you can integrate this knowledge in your lessons. Put it on a slide: “Switch off your device, please!” and stick to your guns.


At this moment, some secondary schools have mobile phone bags (shoe bags for phones) or boxes with pigeon holes for a mobile phone. Learners put their phones in those bags or pigeon holes before the lesson starts. That’s a good idea. Why wouldn’t you? You can give learners their phones at the point of need. The biggest threat of digital devices is that you DON’T learn. And after all, we’re going to school to learn! France has gone even further, banning phones in the class by law.

What about digital literacy?

Paul is also critical when it comes to 21st century skills (also see our blog here) and digital literacy (things like ICT basic skills, media skills, information skills and computational thinking) is part of those. According to Paul it’s plain nonsense to teach digital skills in isolation. The only way to learn stuff like that is in a specific context (also, see our blog here on domain-specific versus domain-independent skills). You also don’t teach learners in a separate subject how to write a summary or how to search for information in a library. You teach them how to make a summary in various subjects that are part of the curriculum. How to search for information is taught in, for example, a history or biology context. The same goes for digital skills. All subjects in a curriculum can integrate digital means and therefore, these skills need to be part of all subjects.

For example, computational thinking refers to dividing a main problem into sub problems[2]. This isn’t possible without domain-specific knowledge. For example, if I don’t know anything about biology, there’s no way I’d be able to analyse a problem or the data coming out of a problem solution. You might have some procedural knowledge on problem-solving steps but won’t be able to apply those if you don’t understand the problem in the specific domain. Similarly, you need foundational knowledge on a topic before you can apply any digital literacy skill.

Do we need programming in our curriculum?

Latin used to be the holy grail in education (the claim was that it improves logical reasoning) and now it’s programming. The expectation isn’t necessarily that many of the current learners will need programming skills in the future. IT professionals need to be able to program (and not even all of them need to or can). And if we listen to machine learning experts, then machines will be able to take over most programming in the future.


People who advocate for programming in the curriculum, usually claim that it helps to increase logical reasoning and that it improves maths skills. However, there’s no evidence that learning how to program does anything more than learning how to program in the programming language itself. In other words, we don’t know if there’s any transfer to other areas, like logical reasoning. Something else to consider: If we teach children to program now and they don’t do it daily, then they will lose the skill over time. And this is forgetting that a programming language you teach a child in elementary school will probably not be relevant 16 years later when (s)he leaves college and enters the work force and which op the 80 or so languages do you choose?

How to determine what’s true about ICT in education?

When you read scientific research, you need to be able to determine if what the researchers claim can really be claimed based on their methodology. To be able to do this, you need knowledge of scientific methodologies and techniques. The question you need to ask is: Can you really draw these conclusions based on the actual research? If the researchers didn’t actually measure anything or if the study participants didn’t learn anything, we can throw the research in the bin. And this includes research reporting what learners say that they learned! For example, if the result of a study on a learning intervention is based on the participants saying that they learned something, well, that’s pretty useless. Sometimes, studies also claim that teachers state that learners have learned stuff effectively. Again, useless.

Second, the control condition is essential. Did the researchers test the exact same intervention with a comparable control group? If not, there’s no way to conclude anything. If you use a medicine for your cold and the cold disappears after eight days, you know nothing about the influence of the medicine on the ‘healing process’. You’d need to compare a group who takes the medicine as soon as they get a cold with another group who doesn’t use the medicine or who receives a placebo. Then you need to compare how long it took before the cold passed.

Last but not least, you need to ask yourself if the control condition really is a control condition. Are the two groups really comparable? Are all circumstances exactly the same, apart from the intervention? These are simple rules of thumbs that all teachers should be able to apply!

Must-Reads: Research on ICT and Education

Paul’s Tips

  • Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 46(2), 75-86. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1
    This article discusses why discovery learning doesn’t work and why explicit instruction does. This article is perceived by many as being the most important article of this century in the field of educational psychology.
  • Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 1-15. doi:10.1080/00461520.2013.804395
    This article discusses various educational myths, like ‘digital natives/de homo zappiens, learning styles and self-directed learning.
  • Mayer, R. (1995). Multimedia Learning: Are We Asking the Right Questions? Educational Psychologist, 32(1), 1-19.
    This article is the foundation of Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning and is, in that light a must read for those who want to understand how they should deal with multimedia in education.


[1] A didactic method (Greek: διδάσκειν didáskein, “to teach”) is a teaching method that follows a consistent scientific approach or educational style to present information to learners.

[2] Computational thinking is a problem-solving process that includes a number of characteristics, such as logically ordering and analysing data and creating solutions using a series of ordered steps (or algorithms), and dispositions. (