Teaching With Tools Kids Use

When the TRS-80 desktop arrived at RadioShack the late 1970s, Susan Brooks-Young had to find a way to connect one of the first personal computers to a tape recorder.

Right away, this visionary educator knew that technology would fundamentally transform education. But now, looking back, Brooks-Young admits that she was overly optimistic about how quickly things would change.

She has spent over 30 years working to integrate emerging technologies and software into the classroom, all in an effort to make students more successful in an increasingly flat, interconnected world.

“For people to refuse to keep themselves up to date is, in my mind, a form of educational malpractice,” she says.

She has written seven books and numerous articles, all on educating teachers and administrators about instructional technology. Her most recent book, “Teaching with the Tools Kids Really Use,” has fundamentally transformed how many educators, including myself, think about inspiring young minds.


Brooks-Young speaks with infectious enthusiasm about her mission to help students succeed in the 21st-century. One of her biggest challenges remains convincing more veteran educators to join the cause.

“There still is sort of that resistance to this is not the only way to do things, this is not the way I grew up doing things, there are others ways,” Brooks-Young says. “There is still that argument about whether or not it’s okay for kids to use calculators.”

Schools cannot continue to act as safe-havens from technology. To think otherwise, Brooks Young argues, amounts to “[fighting] a losing battle.”

Naysayers can bemoan all they want, but students will continue to use devices that are readily available to them. Isn’t it our duty to ensure that kids make the most effective use of these technologies, which they will certainly continue to use throughout the day, regardless of any school policy?


Parents and educators alike often complain that smart phones contribute to insular, antisocial behavior. But Brooks-Young says that this is a highly exaggerated concern, with empirical dating pointing to the contrary.

Truth be told, even I was skeptical. I always hear from teachers, parents and coaches about how much they disdain smart phone use. At the same time, all of them own a device—as do most of their children.

Brooks-Young directed me to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a non-profit group that assists in conducting national surveys, as well as research and analysis on how the web impacts virtually every facet of life.

The site hosts an array of articles from journalists and academics. I was especially surprised upon stumbling across one particular 2009 study:

On average, internet and mobile phone users are no more likely to be socially isolated than the general population (5% of cell phone users have no core ties compared to 6% of the general population). Internet users and mobile phone users are slightly more likely to report that they have a core network of three or more ties; 56% of the general population has a core network of three or more ties compared to 59% of internet users and 57% of mobile users.

Still, I would like to see a more recent survey—especially with the explosion of popularity in Twitter and Instagram.

All the same, Brooks-Young is quick to downplay that smart phones are hurting behavioral development.

“My folks were telling me all the time get off the phone,” she says. “And maybe there were cognizant of it because I was right there in front of them. But I don’t think kids are doing anything different. We weren’t accused of being antisocial.”

Something else really irks Brooks-Young, and me as well. No matter how ubiquitous smart phones become, especially among young people, some teachers refuse to understand how these devices actually work.

Brooks-Young offers a brilliant analogy: “Would you go to a neurosurgeon and ask him to do brain surgery on you if he was not up on the latest technologies and techniques? Why would you go to someone who is forming, or helping form your thoughts, your character, your worldview and think it was okay for them to refuse to have stayed up to date with what’s going on in the world of education.”

I couldn’t agree more. Smart phones are not just phones, and as teachers we have an obligation to help students utilize these tools ethically and effectively. We can’t turn a blind eye and pretend that they don’t exist.

“I think there comes a time when it’s really difficult to believe that someone who claims to be a devoted teacher, when that person absolutely refuses to move forward and keep up to date with learning technologies,” Brooks-Young says.


I’m a big fan of iTunes, and I download all of my music legally. I’m happy to do so, if, for no other reason, that it means not breaking the law.

My students don’t see things my way.

“They’re rich enough,” one student says, as everybody else agrees. “It’s not like they really expect us to pay for their music anyway. We can get if for free.”

I deeply admire my students, and I have such tremendous respect for them. But I absolutely cringe when they freely and openly admit to committing this criminal act.

Brooks-Young comforts me with at least some solace: “Just because it’s difficult to crack that confidence that they’ve got that it’s really okay to do what they’re doing, they still need to have a model who says you know what, this is wrong. You can call it whatever you want, you can color it anyway you want, but it is in fact stealing. It’s the same as if I reached into your wallet and pulled out a 10 bill.”

For those who want more guidance, Brooks-Young recommends “The Starfish and the Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. An entire chapter deals with stealing music, and I just purchased a copy on Amazon.


Brooks-Young is a big supporter of tablets, which provides users with an increasingly simple interface.

“People who were never willing to try things like podcasting suddenly are willing to try it because the app has really reduced what needs to be done to its lowest denominator,” she says.

But for schools thinking about going one-to-one with tablets, think again.

Laptops are not ready to die out, Brooks-Young says, adding that she has worked with many schools that “plunged wholeheartedly into tablets and then have had to back off.”

As for myself, I firmly believe tablets are wonderful tools. I also agree with Brooks-Young that you don’t need more than five or six per classroom.

“The older kids are excited about using them, they’re happy to use them, but when they have to write a term paper, they want a laptop,” Brooks-Young says. “They are just one more arrow in the quiver.”


I know many teachers at many different schools. A good portion of them don’t allow students to take notes on laptops, and perhaps for a good reason. Who knows if that student is paying attention or surfing the net? What if that teenage girl is busy looking at photos of One Direction?  What if that football player is checking last night’s scores?

Brooks-Young feels that this is another over exaggerated concern, and one that is easily managed.

Both of us believe that a teacher’s best tool is her feet. If you are unsure what your students are doing on their laptops, move around. Even if you are sure, move around anyway. I am constantly walking around my classroom to engage students and keep them interested and active in whatever lesson I am conducting with them.

“Back before they had those devices, they had pieces of paper and pencils which nobody was going to take away from them, and they spent hours writing notes to one another, not paying attention to what was going on,” Brooks-Young says. “I think that the solution there is in the teacher designing activities that are engaging.”


For a long time, Brooks-Young explains, the charge of information technology (IT) was to keep the network up and running no matter what.

“For too many years now, we’ve been asking people with little or no background in education to make instructional decisions. And we need to stop that,” Brooks-Young says.

With Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), to stay relevant, the nature of IT must change. Many students tether their smart phones to laptops, providing them with unfettered web access. Easier still, more and more tablets come with built-in 4G capabilities.

It’s only a matter of time before these devices move data just as fast as if they were connected to a local network.

According to Brooks-Young, IT departments across the nation are facing a significant challenge.

“How do they create an environment where kids can be getting onto the network with a wide range of different devices and keep it stable, and keep everything up and running,” she says.

Even still, what happens if networks go the way of the TRS-80?  Just the same, what if they become entirely irrelevant? Facing this inevitable reality, schools should get ahead of the issue now, not pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Instead of blocking social networking sites, which most schools do, IT departments should redirect more effort toward educating students on how to conduct healthy, productive online lives.

“Yes, kids can get themselves into trouble on the Internet,” she says. “But I think in my book I talked about the research that showed that the kids who get themselves in trouble are the same kids who would have gotten themselves in trouble in other ways had they not had access to the Internet.”

Especially for older students, Brooks-Young favors opening up Facebook. She also isn’t a fan of Edmodo and other “walled-off, pseudo social networks,” which look and feel exactly like Facebook. I agree. Why not use the real thing?

Students have told me that they find Edmodo “creepy.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that many others have told Brooks-Young the same. Teachers have an obligation to expose students to practical tools that they will use throughout their lives, so why utilize any water-downed version of something as integral as social networking?

At the same time, Brooks-Young says that teachers need to be smart about who and how they friend online. Every school should outline a clear policy, and teachers should create a professional identity, separate from personal use.

Either way, Brooks-Young says that lawyers should never dictate school programs.

“It’s sort of like the IT guy question. If you want an IT whose going to shut down and lock down the network so nobody can do anything, but the network will run, well maybe you need a new IT guy. I think it’s the same thing with an attorney. As a former administrator, I know there are a ton of ways you can protect yourselves through appropriate use of acceptable use policies and other guidelines in school rules.”


As a journalism teacher, I know that more and more schools are placing their publications online. This has presented a whole host of privacy, legal and liability concerns.

Brooks-Young says that much of the literature on predators trolling the internet had been debunked. Regardless, she says, placing a student’s name and photograph online is not adding any measurable risk.

“Parents are mistaken if they think for a moment that they’re child is not just as susceptible walking through a mall or going to the movies, or being anywhere out in public,” she says. “Sadly, there are bad people in the world who would like to do bad things. The internet does not have a corner on the market for that.”


“What I want is what I’ve always wanted for kids. I want for them to have happy, fulfilled lives where they are able to take care of themselves, socially, emotionally, and fiscally and anything else you can think of that contributes to having a good life. I think what changes is the path you have to take to get there. Skills that might have been good enough in the past no longer are. I want kids to have access to adults in their lives who are willing to go the extra mile to ensure that kids are exposed to up to date skills, to up to date instructional materials, but who also focus more on how to be a problem solver and how to think for yourself, and recognize a problem and deal with it than to try to cram a zillion facts in their head that they can easily find using Google, or that recognizing that that’s all going to change.”

Susan Brooks Young runs her own instructional technology firm, S.J. Brooks-Young Consulting. Find out more about her by accessing sjbrooks-young.com.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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