Like many educators, I am constantly pondering the distracted demeanor of my students. It’s not just the ones texting under their desks (yes, I can see what you are doing from the front of the room), it is the preoccupied look in their eyes and the difficulty one has fully capturing their attention. I’ve had trouble putting this phenomenon into words, until I stumbled across a book called Hamlet’s Blackberry.
Author William Powers talks about how the “call of the crowd” is, in fact, crowding out our need for time and space to think and reflect. With no room between the many messages streamed at us from all our “screens” we just cannot have depth of thought. He put his finger on it—when I am in front of a class, I feel the competition from the “crowd” outside my classroom—all the digital sources tapping the shoulders (or minds) of my students. Perhaps they are thinking about or anticipating for a text message from a friend, a call from their mother, an email message from a team member, a stream of information from the BlackBoard site or the latest Facebook updates.
To be truthful, as I enter my class, I am subject to the same phenomenon. Because I often feel very distracted ahead of class I started a practice of putting a sign on my door and meditating for about 10 minutes before class. Obviously, that’s not an option for my students, so when we are together they are still suffering from the hangover effect of being over-connected.
The cost of these constant interruptions is staggering. Powers says “recovering focus can take ten to twenty times the length of the interruption. So a one-minute interruption could require fifteen minutes of recovery time.” * Consider what this means in class. If a student’s attention is distracted for a minute while texting or checking email, it will take half the class period to recapture attention.
Our job as educators is to take our students into the depths of thought and discovery. To do that, we have to find ways counteract their constant division of attention and the tug of the crowd. I’m hoping that Powers will have a good answer. But I’m only on page 67, so I’ll get back to you on that.
*Ironically, I experienced constant interruption while writing this blog. I received a text from my daughter, who is travelling cross country, sending me a wonderful picture of her campsite in Colorado. A few seconds later, the car dealership called to let me know about the new Priuses that are in stock in case I wanted to consider a lease or purchase. Because I left Skype open by mistake, I got an instant message from a co-worker asking me an urgent question. Then a Twitter message came flying in (nothing urgent). Coming back to a blank page I had completely lost my train of thought!