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Digital distraction in the modern classroom

4 min read

Voice of the Educator

When discussing my classroom cell phone policy with students at the beginning of the school year, I made what proved to be a mistake. I told the students that I wouldn’t obsess over policing their phone use in class; after all, smartphones can be powerful tools for learning.

But for the majority of students, I often lost the battle of classroom management and attention despite showcasing and integrating how I — and they — could use a phone to learn, to connect curiosity with knowledge, and complete course assignments.

Here’s the bottom line: Attention and digital distraction is perhaps the most overlooked instructional issue in today’s classrooms. Changing – -or perhaps chipping away at — the entertainment and leisure paradigm for digital tools is tricky and downright frustrating at times. It doesn’t matter if you ban cell phones in the classroom or embrace usage; many students will distract themselves without thinking twice, or, given the freedom, will tweet and text away at a staggering rate.

University of Nebraska professor Barney McCoy attempted to quantify digital distraction in his college courses in a 2013 study. According to his survey, nearly 86% said they were texting, 68% reported they were checking email, 66% said they were using social networks, 38% said they were surfing the Web and 8% said they were playing a game during any given day of classes. High-school students may not be using email often, but the numbers are certainly just as high — or higher — when it comes to non-instructional distractions.

In addition, students mistakenly believe they are effective at multitasking. Annie Murphy Paul’s article “You’ll never learn! Students can’t resist multitasking, and it’s impairing their memory,” provides a solid primer on the research supporting the deleterious effects of media multitasking. She cites inefficient use of time, mental fatigue, impaired memory and more shallow information processing as some of the results of multitasking.

Despite my own drive to help students tap potential uses for digital tools in the classroom, I’m often left wondering: Can deeper learning be fostered in an environment where kids are encouraged to bounce from screen to screen, app to app? Should I meet kids “where they are” or push back and try to train them to focus on one thing at a time, sans screens?

I’ve struggled mightily at times as I now realize. I’ve perhaps been too lenient and technology-reliant during many instructional units or class periods. Admittedly, part of the issue has been poor instructional design; another part of the struggle has been simply the difficulty in breaking student habits and routines as it relates to social media and entertainment on their devices and laptops. And as somewhat of an autodidact, it has become apparent that most of my students will not unleash the power of their technology to seek out new knowledge without serious structure and direction.

It’s also easier for adults who grew up — mostly in an analog world — to extol the virtues of unbridled technology integration. Many of us have enough of a background in deep reading and the awareness of focus to overlook the simple fact that many of our students have only known one mode of being: hours upon hours of multitasking, multiple-screens, headphone and game-playing and social media connecting — all at once.

I’m not going to give up, but as I prepare for the upcoming year, I know I’m going to devote more time to technology-free lessons. If we don’t teach students — and give them practice — in sustained attention, they certainly won’t be doing it on their own time.

Paul Barnwell (@MindfulStew) teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky. Paul was a SmartBlog on Education Editor’s Choice Content Award winner in April. Listen to an interview with Paul on EduTalk Radio.