Mindful of Distraction

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.

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13 thoughts on “Mindful of Distraction

  1. I really appreciate your perspective. Yes, ideally I want all my students to be on the edge of their seats paying the utmost attention to everything I say and not even thinking about their phones or the world outside the classroom. But let’s be real, that’s not going to happen. I also struggle with how to get students to focus on the lesson and not their email/facebook/Youtube video of cats playing the theremin. It does seem a little pointless to say students can’t have their phones out because students will still check them, just more surreptitiously and with smart watches, they don’t even need to have a phone out to get a text. Plus, college students are adults and as you say, they need to learn how to deal with distractions. I think the policy I appreciated the most was an instructor who allowed us to have phones out in class (especially in lab so we could take pictures), but she would call us out if we were obviously not paying attention or were distracting other students.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Sarah. I agree — I’ve had a few professors who have permitted students to send a text/step out to make a call if necessary so long as they weren’t disruptive in doing so. For the most part, this worked pretty well. I like the idea of making students self-accountable. It’s a skill that translates well to other aspects of life.

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    2. Thank you both of you! In addition to the blog, I like your comment as well. But I think this policy might be only effective for grad students as they’re more mature and have self-awareness. I’m not sure how we could deal with the undergrad students? Should we use the strict policy?

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  2. I loved the part where you note that, “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.” I have never really thought about the continued conversation when it comes to technology and I think you bring up a great point when it comes to student self-awareness. I really appreciate you pointing this out and I definitely plan on implementing this approach next semester!

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  3. Hi,

    I thought It’d be good to re-iterate an idea that came up a few weeks back when we were discussing engaged pedagogy. And I think it was about how difficult it is not to use the highly entertaining devices and social media, even when we are mindful about our extent of use and when we use it in the classroom. I can think of desperate situations that no matter how interesting the subject discussed the distraction is always far more luring. I think it was the NCR people that were thinking of actively training students about how to curtail their technology use in classes. Something similar to responsible drinking but for digital tools.

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    1. Yes, good point! I like that analogy. There is definitely a chemical reaction that feels good when plugging in to your device of choice. There probably is even research on how social media, etc. is actually addictive? Integrating tactics in the classroom that treat technology-use like overcoming a drug addiction (rather than something that one can simply “quit”) might lead to an enduring healthier learning environment.

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  4. I really wanted to be able to post this week (even now I’m commenting on my phone, my computer hates me) exactly for this. I like everything you brought up and I’d like to see it applied to our classroom setting. The room we’re in seems to have been built with maximizing the range of technologies in mind rather than a class. Isn’t it all rather distracting?

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  5. I hadn’t thought about our particular classroom, but now that you mention it I agree. It is definitely designed with technological maximization in mind. In fact, I would say that many of the classrooms that are featured in VT advertising are tech heavy, which makes minimizing its use seem pretty contradictory. But I also notice a vast difference in the level of technological misuse between our class (full of grad students) and the class I teach (comprised of freshmen and sophomores).

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  6. As you say, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that technology is here to stay. I keep going back and forth as an educator whether I will or will not allow computers in my classroom (obviously it’s fine if the student has a condition that requires the use of a computer), and I need to remind myself that laptops, phones and smartwatches are just going to become more pervasive. Working with technology rather than bullheadedly denying its existence is the smarter way to go. But I do have to agree with the comment above that our tech-heavy classroom is distracting and frustrating. I hate having to swivel around to look at different screens, and I find it very distracting when half the class is seemingly staring at me while watching the screen behind me. It is just easier and cleaner to have one screen and all face the same direction, my back can’t take all this leaning silliness, especially just because it seems “cool” to young tech nerds. Bean bag chairs are the devil’s work.

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  7. I have the same opinion too. Prohibiting technology is not the best choice I even believe that it is not feasible based on how the world is evolving now. All our daily activities rely on technology. With technology, the way people around the world interact and collaborate is so quick and efficient. Willing to bring old ways of interacting, communicating and doing business and so on will be painful and damaging. I remember I 2015 my one Department here at Tech asking how I was communicating with people back home in Senegal. I told him that I was using Viber or Skype as calling through regular phone is expensive. By that time there were no WhatsApp. He was so impressed and say like some years earlier (around 25-30) he use to communicate with his wife who was in a different stat here in the U.S by sending letters.

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  8. I strongly agree with your opinion about not prohibiting technology on class even though I usually distracted by them myself. My reason for supporting technology is that we are already at the age when technology really can help with the class. However, how to build up the class that allows technology, at the same time, prevent students being distracted from it is the challenge.

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  9. I’d like to emphasize the point that sshawver made that these students are adults. Too often, I’ve noticed that the stricter technology policies I have seen written out in syllabi are merely a continuation of the ones encountered in middle and high school, where the teacher was part information deliverer, part technology police. It’s not effective in that environment either, because teenagers will *always* find a way to access the things they want, regardless of whether or not they’re allowed in class. The least we can do as university faculty-to-be is avoid insulting their intelligence and give them the choice to engage or glue themselves to their screens. Granted, that incurs a risk: having a class in which a few people are physically-but-not-mentally present, but it also means that 1) those people have some agency (whether they choose to take advantage of it or not) and 2) the others who choose to engage are more enthusiastic because they actually *want* to be there.

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