A culture of distraction

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by bledsoe on June 2, 2012

At my school there's a "no cell phones allowed" policy.  Officially, students are not allowed to have cell phones turned on at any time from the beginning of the school day to the end of the school day, and you can probably imagine that the policy requires almost constant enforcement by teachers and administrators.  Getting young people to focus their attention on math, science, and reading has always been a challenge, but having to do so while simultaneously competing with the constant temptations and interruptions of smartphones can make a teacher feel like throwing up their hands and surrendering.

If a student is caught with a cell phone out during my class, the scenario goes something like this.

  1. I will ask them to give me the phone.
  2. If the student surrenders the phone, I will take it down to the front office by the end of the day.  Students may pick up the phone themselves after three days, or they can have one of their parents come to the school to pick it up for them at any time.
  3. If the student declines to surrender the phone, I contact an administrator, who immediately comes to my class to explain to the student that if they don't surrender their phone to me, they will receive an immediate two-day suspension.

Generally, after students have witnessed one of these exchanges the number of cell-phone related incidents in my classroom declines substantially, but they never completely go away.  The temptation for kids to check their phones to see who's texting them is just too great, and even though they get good at sneaking a quick peek without getting caught (like we got good at passing notes behind the teacher's back), occasionally they slip up and have to give up the phone.

I've become increasingly concerned with the cell phone issue since I started teaching, and not just because it's a hassle to enforce the school policy.  There are tons of ways for students to try to avoid focusing on their classwork, including those completely unrelated to smartphones, and teachers have to deal with all of them; that's just part of the job.  What bothers me is the emergence of what Joe Kraus calls a culture of distraction, fueled largely by the widespread availability of smartphones, and how this culture affects my students' abilities to use their brains to think deeply and effectively about challenging problems and ideas.  (If you haven't seen Joe's 15-minute talk on this topic, embedded here, I highly recommend it.)

More and more I'm coming to view my job as not just to teach my students about math, but to teach them how to focus their brains on a particular problem or topic and to think deeply about it for an extended period of time without interruption.  When every student has a smartphone that's constantly calling out to them to interrupt whatever they're doing to check their latest incoming text, that's becoming a tall order.  And if its true that the widespread availability of smartphones is creating a culture of distraction, then that's a good thing for teachers to be aware of, because it means that our classrooms are going to become more difficult places for our students to exist in.  Because if you're used to living in a world in which you interrupt yourself every 5 minutes to check your smartphone, but in my classroom, for the next 90 minutes, I'm not going to allow you to do that, then that's going to be a real challenge for you.

Image by Ktoine via Flickr.

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