Keeping Students Organized in Physical and Virtual Worlds
Updated: Apr 3
After more than two years of seeing students via Zoom, I was delighted when Adrianne, a sixth grade girl, arrived at my office. Her bright-eyed enthusiasm matched mine and I was thrilled when she produced her notebook. The blue binder was 2 1⁄2 inches thick and when she put it on the desk it filled most of the space. She opened it, flipped all the pages to the front and showed me, presumably in chronological order, every handout her teacher had given her so we could review the material she was learning.
I was overjoyed. We were in person. There was a binder, handouts, even a cute pencil case. All of the sudden, 6th grade math was newly animated for the first time in two years.
As Adrianne pulled out her work, I did a double take.
“Adrianne, open your binder again please before you get started.” She pulled a fresh pencil from her navy and red pencil case. She flipped it open.
“She’s a sixth grader,” I thought. “How does this not happen automatically?”
“Adrianne, will you please put your name and date at the top of your homework sheet?”
“Sure!” she said cheerfully and looked to me for guidance. The teacher had not indicated any place to put this vital information. First I pointed to the top right of the page. “Put your name there.” My index finger dragged to the top left. “Date goes here.”
“Okay!” Adrianne chirped, writing on the page.
“Adrianne, looking at your binder, none of your handouts have your name and date on them. Don’t your teachers remind you to put your name and date on your work?”
“Not really,” she said. “They go into our binders in order, so that’s ok.”
“Wait a second,” I said quickly. “I don’t agree. Heaven forbid this should ever happen, but what if your math binder fell on the floor and, as it landed, the papers flew everywhere?”
“Oh,” Adrianne paused. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“That’s why we put our names and dates on everything. It helps us keep things in order, especially if something like that happens.”
“That makes sense!” Adrianne smiled.
“Good,” I said. “Next week I’ll check to see if you're putting your name and date on things.” She nodded. “Now let’s see this homework!”
In the early years of my practice, I encountered a teacher I’ll call Ms. Order. She was not an ordinary classroom teacher. Ms. Order taught study skills, supporting students as they built their executive functions, a term describing the mental processes that affect how we plan, organize, and follow through on tasks in a timely manner. My initial impression was that Ms. Order was rigid. She had the middle school students set up their school supplies with military precision: specific colors for each subject binder, tabs uniformly labeled.Each child knew exactly where all their materials were supposed to live.
At first it seemed comical, but when I recalled my teachers offering me the same guidance years ago, Ms. Order earned newfound respect. The students I shared with Ms. Order, many of whom struggled with executive function, benefitted greatly from the structure and sequence her instruction provided. They learned they could rely on it, and by the time they entered high school, they could put these systems in place for themselves.
Around the same time, I realized that what Ms. Order taught in her classroom I needed to teach my students in a different domain. As more assignments moved into the digital world, I instructed my students on organizing their work on the computer. Not only did they need the ritual of setting up their physical binders, but also they needed to learn to set up file folders by subject and grade so they could keep digital handouts, research, notes and papers organized on their computer desktop or in their Google classroom and drive.
Adrianne’s story probably should not have surprised me, but it did. I figured that Adrianne was also being prompted by her elementary school teachers, learning at an early age that “name and date go at the top of the page.” But for whatever reason, either the pandemic or a lack of focus on such scaffolding, Adrianne had not heard it when she was taking notes in notebooks. Or on loose leaf paper. Or a test. If there had been handouts, they did not come with cues to put names and dates on the page.
As we careen into the digital age, something as simple and as useful as teaching kids the act of putting their names and dates on the page has gotten lost in the shuffle. It may seem small, but it is indicative of more fundamental things that seem to have gone by the wayside, including the many steps that help us stay organized both in physical and virtual worlds. And while it might be tempting to blame it all on the pandemic, that’s foolhardy. Teaching the basic tools of scaffolded thinking has been taking hits for a while now.
The “name and date” story raises a larger question of how technology supports or hinders the development of a student's executive function skills. When Steve Jobs designed the Apple interface with file folders, people had the lived experience of physical filing systems, and the mental frameworks and flexibility to shift what had been their old systems of organization, planning and time-management skills into this new more abstract and metaphorical landscape. Students coming of age today may be unfamiliar with a filing cabinet. As we raise new generations of digital natives, it is incumbent to take into account modern technology and curriculum that supports neurocognitive development. We need to reprioritize what is taught, both with and without technological intervention. Let’s return our focus to executive function skills so young minds gain the robust foundations they need for academic success.