Distractions abound in our technology-infused world. Whether they are supplied by our cell phones, laptop screens, or the pervasive presence of TV screens, it’s clear that the speed of modern technology has had an effect on our neurological perception. Regardless of any philosophical argument of whether this change should be embraced or resisted, its existence is undeniable. Part of what makes these distractions so challenging is that the technology is so ubiquitous that their presence is no longer anomalous. Technology, the connectivity it affords, and the distractions it enables is a normal part of life in the world today.
Successfully navigating this stimulation overload requires mindfulness. As Sharon Salzberg states in her article Three Simple Ways to Pay Attention, “mindfulness does not depend on what is happening, but is about how we relate to what is happening.” I like this description as it pertains to the distracting nature of technology because it doesn’t impart a value onto the psychological shift in how we perceive the world. It only asks that we acknowledge and accept that such a shift is taking place.
It’s especially important to incorporate this mindfulness into our pedagogy in the classroom. Doing so helps cultivate a learning environment that is aligned with the realities of the non-academic world. Enforcing policies that limit the use of technology in the classroom can be effective towards mitigating distraction, but avoiding this challenge offers little to students as far as methods of managing the distractions they encounter in other facets of their lives. A lot of what made my favorite teachers so impactful was that the lessons they taught had applications that transcended any particular field of knowledge. I believe that as a teacher in the current technological climate, I have an opportunity to instill a mindfulness in my students regarding their interaction with technology and its constant tug on their attention.
Ideological cogitations aside, I’ve found it challenging to tackle these distractions in the classroom and make no claims towards knowledge of the best practice. I don’t think prohibiting technology is the most forward-thinking policy though, since the technology is unlikely to disappear. There are also many benefits to working with technology. Clive Thompson’s account of human/computer chess teams was illuminating and exciting. We work with computers in almost every aspect of the class I currently teach. They enable us to record and edit videos and animations, manipulate digital imagery, model virtual worlds, develop custom software, program electronics, create websites, and a multitude of other things – all of which is pretty amazing given the number of times I died of cholera on the Oregon Trail in elementary school.
Yet they are also undeniably agents of distraction. Being mindful of this requires awareness and intention. I think it deserves more than just a bullet point on the course syllabus and would be more effective as a discussion that gets revisited regularly throughout the semester. Developing mindfulness towards distraction enables students to be self-aware. In turn, this awareness provides autonomy over whether or not to engage with a distraction. The trick, which I’m sure I’ll always be revising alongside my experience, is to inspire students to actively make the choice to tune out distractions for themselves.