Earbuds in the Classroom: Blessing or Burden?

This year my school district has issued devices to all students in grades 6-12.  Middle school students do not bring their computers home, so they have a check-out process they follow.  High school students, which is the level I teach, get to bring their laptops home and are fully responsible for it.  In the past, laptops have been fairly accessible in my school; we have been fortunate to have a fairly high saturation rate.  With each student now having his or her own to be responsible for, the opportunities to embed technology have been exciting to say the least.

One of the ethical debates we’ve had as a staff relates to whether students should be able to listen to music while they work.  Right now, our administrative team has told us students are not allowed to use earbuds to listen to music.  The audio must pertain to the lesson.  I support whatever policy they choose to implement, but I do wonder if we are missing out on an opportunity to improve student focus and achievement.  This is a more complex issue than I realized.

I know this much: five years ago if my students were using computers and I let them listen to music, it was amazing how on task they were.  The quality and reliability of the work they completed rose significantly.  I have to consider that it may be due to the actual technology rather than the music, so I tried both ways and found student work to be of higher quality when they listened to music.  About two years ago, I noticed this pattern starting to change a bit.  Then again, I also noticed students’ listening habits changing as well.  Instead of signing onto Pandora or some other service and working away, my students were not combing YouTube in search of songs.  Rather than make a playlist they can stream, the focus shifted to YouTube and away from the work.  When the district blocked Pandora and YouTube from student use, it became pointless to allow music because all they wanted to focus on was finding the way around the firewall.

Now that each student has their own device, some of the filters have softened a bit.  Students can access YouTube now, and need to for technology such as EdPuzzle, but the Pandora’s of the world are still blocked (I would assume it eats up a ton of bandwidth).  So, they have access to music, and the opportunity to create playlists, but I have yet to see a student take advantage of that.  I certainly understand why my school has the policy that it does.

I wonder, though, if there is a compromise; a middle-ground for students to use a strategy that is proven to work, but does not distract from the focus of the lesson.  If the Mozart Effect is a real thing (although not everyone is in agreement there), how can we tap into that in a responsible way?

I know what you are thinking right now.  Sure, there are plenty of “compromises”, such as playing background music while students work.  If you teach teenagers today, you’ll probably agree that most would not find that as a compromise.  And really, we are discussing their perceptions and outcomes, so it does matter.

Ultimately, I have come to form these generalizations from my experience:

1.      Listening to music helps some, maybe most, but not all students focus

2.      The type of music may have more to do with its impact than anything else

3.      Research points in both directions, so if I wanted to use it as leverage in conversations with my principal, he could easily find research that argues the opposite

4.      Listening to music while working pretty much mirrors appropriate technology use: you can utilize it as a positive or allow it to become a negative

I still wonder, though.  If it does significantly help students (and that is a big if), what is the solution?  Why doesn’t Pandora or Spotify create a school-specific platform for high school students?  How hard could it be to come up with a solution and partner with schools to offer a fun resource that has limited customization to distract students?

Does your school have a specific policy you’d like to share?  Perhaps you are aware of some program I don’t know about.  I’d love to connect with those who have any insight on this topic.