Emphasizing the Gift of Attention

Like most teachers, I’m a few weeks into the school year.   I’ve dealt with shifting rosters, a classroom change, opening-school paperwork, and trying to establish a positive, productive classroom culture. Though my classroom actions and procedures, I’ve implicitly and explicitly emphasized certain behaviors and values, like collaboration, being on time, and organization.

What’s new this year is an emphasis on attention.

Image from http://mikefalick.blogs.com
Image from http://mikefalick.blogs.com

Without teaching ourselves–and students–how to sustain thought and practice concentration, I’m wary all of our innovative technology applications in the classroom can become merely engagement gimmicks, distracting us and students from deeper thought needed to make meaningful connections and compose or read longer texts. I’ve previously written about the phenomenon in the context of digital versus “old-school” reading.

Can students learn effectively–and deeply–without being trained—or practicing—the art of sustained focus and thought?  Do we want classrooms to be places where digital tools and use are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult not to distract one’s self? It seems to be a disappearing skill for our young people, and while they might be clicking on hyperlinks left and right, Tweeting their friends, and completing a math assignment—all at the same time—I wonder how a generation of learners seemingly unable to pay attention will function.

But I’m not about to completely ban cell phones and discourage connectivity. Far from it.

I do allow students to use phones to access Schoology.com for classroom assignments and discussion boards. I do allow them to use the camera to take pictures for notes.  They may use dictionary and thesaurus apps, and they do have ample access to laptops and desktops.

It takes self-discipline–especially for struggling high school students, to avoid the constant pull of social media, music videos on YouTube, Twitter feeds, and other information streams.

However, we’re doing a disservice if we don’t teach students how to use the amazing technology tools out there.  In fact, to my amazement, only 4-5 out of my 80 students use Google Drive during an informal poll today.  Tomorrow’s lesson?  Explain how Google Drive helps my efficiency, productivity, and collaborative ability, then get them signed up, and share a document with a classmate.

Last year, I wrote about mindful use of technology, sharing these tips with the blogosphere.  I’ll do the same with students.

I’ll explain that I can’t write this blog post very well, for example, with 13 windows open while checking my phone for texts every two minutes. I’ll explain that while it’s great to compose 140 character messages in thirty seconds, it’s even better to write a 500-word blog post. I’ll  also admit that I feel the pull of digital distraction too, explaining that 20-25 minute focused bursts without multitasking is my preferred strategy for reading and writing.

It’s all the rage to supply all students with iPads or laptops, unleashing the power of technology tools for learning. We can’t forget what deeper learning entails, however, and whether or not our digital habits benefit academic growth.

So, can students learn effectively without disconnecting for meaningful periods of time?  How do you handle digital distraction in your own life?  Do you struggle staying productive?  If you are a teacher, do you allow cell phone use in the classroom?  Do you have a policy when and where phones are off-limits?  How do you enforce it?


  1. My prof in Creative Writing said he had been facing the same problem. He said that the pomodoro timer was effective (I think it’s really a kitchen thing) Distractions are everywhere and we feel the need to reward ourselves every now and then. It’s natural, and maybe right. Like for example, 15 minutes of doing something productive followed by a 5-min fb or twitter break. It’s actually good. However what happens is that the 5-min break turns out to be an hour!!! According to him, the pomodoro timer kinda helped him stick to the original plan 🙂

  2. Thanks Dave!
    Are you truly going detox? No smart phone, laptop, or tablet?
    We did have it easier, I think. If class was boring, sure, we might write notes or talk to our friends too much, but we didn’t feel phantom and real vibrations of our phones going off, didn’t have a digital text and Twitter-speak to contend with as far as learning more formal English, and when we made plans, we had to stick with them!

  3. Robin,
    Good point about the balanced community. I grew up in NH and went to college in Middlebury, Vermont, so I’m certainly aware of the wonderful pockets of local culture/agriculture, in addition to the absence of a major bustling city in Vermont. Does Burlington count?:)
    What is Minecraft? I’ve heard about it but have no idea.
    Despite those who say video games are great for learning, in some contexts, it’s too sedentary for my liking.
    Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Phil,
    I completely agree. As I’ll hopefully be a parent someday, it’s crazy and scary to think about the possibility for a cradle-to-grave life of hyper stimulation, which seems to be what some technozealots advocate for in placing iPads in toddler’s hands.
    I’m a big fan of yoga, but don’t know much about Tai Chi…do you practice?

  5. I used it today, and the majority did a great job. The students were complete beginners, so they didn’t find the tools to make emoticons. I don’t know where they are, either:)

  6. Ritual and routine, definitely healthy when it’s so easy to be helter-skelter regarding connectivity and “getting things” done digitally anytime, any place.

  7. Haven’t read the book, but I’ll add it to my list, if I can get away from all this digital tech:)
    Being a writer, I’m guessing you spend more time looking at screens than I do…even though I am pretty saturated.

  8. To be quite honest, I think that I had it easier as a child in the classroom than students of today do. We didn’t have a choice. There was no digital component to our learning plan. With the digital distractions of today, students need to manage this new component very carefully. If and when they choose to manage it effectively, I think they will come out on the other side much more disciplined and educated, not in the facts, but in the ability to manage time and learn how to learn effectively.

    I am personally going through a digital detox over the next two weeks as we take a family vacation to the Smoky Mountains. Although it is going to be “different”, I think it will be different in a good and therapeutic way.

    Great post, thanks for sharing!

  9. I struggle w/this all the time but find it’s easier to have a balance when you live in a more-balanced community. I live in Vermont. It’s rural. It’s not as cool to be so connected, at least for adults, 24/7. If you aren’t out taking a hike or doing something more useful w/your time, like enjoying it, then what’s the point? I know that’s not the culture in big cities at all–I’m thankful to have that here. About school–I have a now 3rd grader as of a few days ago and have been having trouble w/balancing him technologically. He used to be a nature boy until discovering Minecraft–so now it’s a struggle to keep him from wanting to do that 100% of the time. But we love the computer/ipad/phones to look up creatures we find outside and watch videos. It’s a fantastic tool, as you said, so it would be silly to avoid them and go back to old ways of research. As for my own attention w/gadgets? I use my old black and white kindle–love the ebook but if other programs are on it, my attention is lost….also, I have to put my laptop away and out of sight at certain times otherwise I’ll keep checking it and my son will too…out of sight, out of mind. We have bad cell service in our rural area so we are often not able to text or look things up when we aren’t supposed to; so that’s sometimes good for us.

  10. I had to type a 3< – still not sure? Anyway Paul, I feel that all students from the elementary grades onward should be taught some form of mindfulness (meditation) technique as a means to both slow down and focus the mind. It should be practiced daily in school, along with a dance training session (I would have put yoga or Tai Chi but too many folks think they are a form of religion) to both limber and strengthen the body to provide students that mind and body connection many desperately need.

  11. Used G Docs with students yesterday. They got distracted with the cool new animated emoticons in the chat function. All was well, they were talking analyzing collaborating and then someone had to type a 3 and a less than. Grrrrr.

  12. I love that comic. I find my workstation settling into a similar situation if I am not careful. I find ritual and routine to be invaluable to have sustained bursts of concentration and productivity. Things like having a specific time, boiling water for tea, and sitting down at a special spot for writing all help to channel my focus.

  13. Have you read Maggie Jackson’s brilliant book “Distracted”?

    It’s now (!!) 5 years old, but she was one of the first to discuss this issue.

    I am now finding my eyes sore and watery and my focus weakened. I may start avoiding all technology on weekends. I miss reading books. I miss reading magazines.

    I often “forget” my phone at home or let the battery die. I don’t want to be “in touch” all the time. I need time to think!

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