Can We Help Our Students and Ourselves Avoid Distraction?

say no to distractionMany of us as faculty members contend with distraction.

Our own and that of our students.

Some of it occurs in our offices.  Or at home, trying to do homework (whether that is writing a paper or grading one).  During reading.

And, of course, during class.

While not all distraction comes from technological devices (children, cats, dogs, friends, a boiling tea kettle can all provide plenty of distraction!), most of us have experienced our lighted screens and chiming alert signals as distractions.

This excellent article entitled “The Distracted Classroom” by James M. Lang in The Chronicle of Higher Education begins a series in which Lang will distill for his readers information he is gleaning from his reading of the book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT, 2016) by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen.

Lang likes this book so much he writes that “it should be required reading for every teacher today — and probably all humans.”

Of particular interest, I thought, is the focus beyond the well-known point that technological devices can cause devastating distraction to learning.  Instead, Lang draws our attention to the book’s proposal that distraction occurs when  “we are pursuing a goal that really matters and something blocks our efforts to achieve it.”  That something is an obstacle that our ability to control our minds runs right up against.  We want to focus on our goals, but our mind directs its attention to something else and we can’t seem to stop it.

However, as Lang points out, “The more powerful the goals we establish for ourselves, and the more we feel ownership over those goals, the more we are able to pursue them in the face of both internal and external distractions.”

This has significant implications for how we shape what occurs in our classrooms both online and on the ground, and how we shape “homework,” or flipped classroom work, so that students are able to fight distracting influences.

I have always done a lot of meta-teaching in my career.  I spend time in every class, almost every week, teaching students how and why I have designed the class the way I have.  I think this helps them experience the lessons as something designed and purposeful, not just as random busy work.

But could I do more to support their motivation to achieve learning goals? To help them fight distraction?

I’m going to think more about that, especially as I begin writing my syllabi for the Fall semester.

I look forward to the rest of Lang’s series.

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