Dealing With Student Distraction

Like a lot of professors, James M. Lang long sympathized with the frequently voiced view that phones, laptops and other devices are like the biblical serpent, distracting students and enticing them away from the learning that instructors earnestly plied in the classroom.

“We have only to put away our phones, sit on our meditation cushions, focus our brains really hard, and we will eventually get back the minds we have lost,” he sums that argument up in his new book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It (Basic Books). “Attention is our state of grace, distraction the original sin. Get rid of the distractions, and attention will naturally return.”

But as Lang, an English professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University, began exploring the academic literature on attention and distraction, he reached the conclusion “the human brain is” and always has been “an eminently distractable organ,” and that trying to eliminate distractions is a “losing battle.”

The alternative to preventing distraction, Lang argues, is “cultivating attention,” which requires instructors to deliberately establish “paying attention” as a classroom value and to help students cultivate and sustain the kinds of attention that can help them succeed academically.

Lang answered questions about Distracted via email. The exchange follows.

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Q: A lot of the discussion surrounding distracted students these days tends to focus on the “laptops in the classroom” debate — which we at Inside Higher Ed both love (because readers pay attention to those stories) and hate (because it is so tiring and divisive). Can you help us understand why it’s the wrong way to frame the conversation?

A: As you point out, we have been debating the use of devices in the classroom for a long time now without much insight. Of course the global switch to remote learning in the spring rendered that debate pointless for at least a while, since we were all teaching and learning at least partially through our devices. I hope that when we get to the other side of the pandemic and once again have the opportunity to consider the role of devices in the face-to-face classroom, we can approach the issue in a more productive way.

In my view asking whether devices belong in the classroom in a general way doesn’t make sense. The real question we want to ask about any course or classroom is: What learning do I want my students to achieve? Once we answer that question, then we can ask the secondary question: What tools will help them achieve that learning? In some cases, the best tools to achieve that goal will be digital ones. In other cases, digital devices might interfere with those goals. And in still other cases, there won’t be a single answer for every student: devices might help some students and not help, or even hurt, the learning of others.

For that reason I favor a context-specific approach to the use of devices in the classroom. Whether devices are used depends upon what’s happening. In my own classes in British literature, when I am lecturing on historical context or giving a sample close reading, students are free to use their laptops or notebook as they see fit. But when I am reading a poem aloud because I want students to hear its rhythms, I want devices put away so everyone can focus and listen. And at the end of a class period, when I want to spend 10 or 15 minutes discussing why we should still care about some older work of literature today, then we don’t need laptops or notebooks or anything other than our attention to one another’s ideas.

It’s striking to me to contrast the way we have this debate with the way we deal with difficult problems in our disciplines. Most of us counsel students to be wary of simple, black-and-white solutions to the complex problems and questions we teach. We therefore shouldn’t expect a simple, black-and-white solution to this very complex issue.

Q: We tend to believe that this is a new (or worsening) problem or that today’s students are somehow more distracted than their predecessors. As you dug into this, you found a long history of concern about human distractedness. Is today’s problem different/worse?

A: The answer here lies in the middle. In the book I give a quick history of philosophers and writers complaining about the distractibility of their minds going back at least as far as Aristotle. And I also consider the work of biologists and psychologists who explain why we have our distractible minds. They have been useful to us in some important ways. So our devices did not create our distractible brains; our brains have always been distractible.James Lang

What’s changed is that our devices have become especially effective at drawing our attention away from work or learning or whatever else we are trying to accomplish. Our brains are very attentive to novelty, and your phone offers you an endless buffet of novelty, everything from the weather and directions to your social media accounts and email. When I was growing up, my parents’ generation worried about the ways in which the television could distract me from my studies. But the television has an off switch. We are so connected these days to so many devices, and our phones sing to us so sweetly with their notifications, that it’s much more difficult now to just turn off the distractions in your life.

Q: The way I read your analysis, it sounds like our brains always have been/are increasingly wired for distraction and drawn to things that capture our attention (and that rather than view that as a negative, the search for the “bright shiny object,” it isn’t all negative, since it sometimes provides useful information). And that rather than trying to take away potential distractions, the job for instructors is to make their teaching (and the learning process) attractive enough to draw or keep the students’ attention. How differently does that require professors to think about the teaching portion of their jobs?

A: It doesn’t require anything radical. The primary idea I want people to take away from the book is a simple one: instead of worrying about the distractions that interfere with learning, we should be focused on how we can help cultivate and sustain attention in the classroom. Attention is an achievement, not something we should take for granted. Since learning depends upon attention, it should have a prominent place in the way in which we think about our courses and classrooms.

I suspect most teachers know or have intuited that learning won’t happen in their classrooms without attention, so they have developed their own particular set of strategies for cultivating and sustaining attention in the classroom. What I am trying to do is offer them a more systematic view of that challenge. If you understand what causes people to sit up and pay attention, you can become more deliberate about the cultivation of attention in the classroom. And I don’t just mean attention to the teacher at the front of the room. Teachers should push beyond thinking about attention as a one-way street from student to teacher. Attention is a gift we can all give one another in the classroom: teacher to student, student to teacher and student to student.

Q: What are the most promising strategies you encountered for making teaching enticing in that way?

A: The two easiest takeaways from the book are handy little slogans: teach like a playwright, teach like a poet.

Playwrights have long faced the challenge of holding the attention of humans over an extended period of time. They addressed the problem by putting structure on that experience, in the form of acts and scenes and intermissions. They provide variety in terms of scene changes and rising and falling action, characters coming and going and so forth. To teach like a playwright means being very explicit about the structure of your classroom experience. Think about your teaching as modular, like acts or scenes in a play, and build up the modules of any classroom session with both attention and learning in mind. In the book I cite an article on this site by Christine Tulley, who used the term “pattern teaching” for this approach; I think she gets it exactly right.

As for teaching like a poet, I count Mary Oliver as the book’s muse, because I think she’s the premier poet of attention. Like a lot of poets, Oliver points us toward the everyday objects, experiences and routines in our lives and asks us to step back and see them with wondering eyes. I think great teachers do the same thing. They help students see the core ideas and texts and problems of our discipline as sites of mystery and beauty and importance. I devote one chapter to describing instructors who are creating what I call Signature Attention Activities, which are creative pedagogical techniques that awaken or reawaken students to the wonders of their course content. My favorite is the art history instructor who sent her students to the local art museum to view the same painting every week for the entire semester and write a new short essay about it after each viewing. Thirteen essays about the same painting! That’s poetry in pedagogy.

Q: The book focuses mostly on how professors and students can and should behave in the face-to-face (or mask-to-mask) classroom. In this era when (at least temporarily but probably permanently, too) more instruction is delivered virtually or in a hybrid format, how different are the problems and the possible solutions?

A: No question fighting distraction can be more difficult when all of your learning comes mediated through screens. The core challenges are the same — brains are brains, and they like their distractions. But when you are learning on your device, especially when you are learning something difficult or challenging for you, the path to escape from your work is just a finger click away. There are simple solutions to this problem that people can put in place if they want, or that we can recommend to our students. When I am answering emails, it doesn’t bother me to have multiple tabs or programs open on my laptop. But when I want to engage in thoughtful, productive writing, I close down everything except for my word program. I commit to writing without distraction for 30 or 45 or 60 minutes, and then give myself 10 minutes after to look at Twitter or respond to texts.

What I say to instructors teaching online courses is the same thing I would say to instructors of face-to-face courses. Pay attention to your own experiences in online environments. When you’re on the departmental Zoom meeting, how attentive are you? What draws you in? What sends you to your email? What can you learn from those experiences that will translate into creating a more attention-filled environment for your students?

Q: You close with a vision of the classroom as an “attention retreat.” What does that look like, and what might doing so accomplish?

A: What I meant by that was we are so inundated with potential distractions in our everyday lives — from digital devices to political happenings to our own worries and anxieties — that the classroom offers a welcome opportunity for us to push as much of that aside as we can and focus on something fascinating. The gradual mastery of a skill or body of knowledge, the pursuit of an answer to a challenging question, the search for solutions to difficult problems — these can all be joyful activities that give our minds a temporary respite from distraction.

If teachers can make attention a value in their courses, they offer to students the prospect of an experience that has become increasingly difficult for us to achieve in our everyday lives. Just as a retreat or sabbatical can enable us to pause in our lives, refresh and reset, so too can the classroom become a place where students can pause from their usual routines and settle into the joys of learning.

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