Don’t Talk Restrictions. Let’s Talk About Distraction.

Earlier this week, I was in conversation with an administrator in the district where I work.  She was asking some really good questions around some of the cultural issues she’s been seeing in her middle school which, like all of our middle schools, has just gone 1:1 iPad. At her school, she observed, many of the problems that have emerged as “iPad problems” are ultimately larger issues about behavior.  One stuck with me.

Lunch, it seems, is taking too long at the school.  A parent, too, had complained that their child hadn’t had an opportunity to eat at all one day.  The administrator has been investigating to see what’s going on.

Turns out a couple of things.  For one, some students are grabbing their lunches, taking trays to table, and then pushing food aside to focus on whatever they had on their iPad screen.  She didn’t elaborate, but I guess that sometimes that’s a game, other times a book or piece of reading.  But the iPad’s getting in the way of the meal, in a sense.

Another thing that’s happening is that some folks in the lunch lines are moving slowly, faces down on screens, and perhaps not paying attention to the questions from the staff serving food.  It takes longer to get through the lunch line, so lunch takes longer.1

She asked a colleague and I what she could do about that.  What, she wondered, might the consequences for this be?  How could we fix it?

I pushed a bit.  Because I don’t think distraction is necessarily a middle school problem.  Or an iPad problem.  Distraction, I think, is a culture problem.  Everybody’s distracted lately.  And there’s plenty of shiny, important stuff to be distracted by.  So possibly, instead of needing to develop consequences for behaviors resulting from distraction, her school needs to think about how to collectively discuss what to do about attention and a lack thereof.  She agreed.  I’m looking forward to seeing how she tackles the conversation.

Other middle schools in our system have decided that lunchtime isn’t device time, because the staff there wanted to value the role of face to face talk around a table with friends.  And recess.  Running around is pretty important sometimes, too.  Our district doesn’t have one answer for places like these, because school culture decisions should be made, appropriately, at the school level.

It’s not just middle schoolers who have problems managing their devices and attentions.  I’ve worked with, for, and in meetings with folks who aren’t there with us, but are somewhere else, checking email and other things.  In my home and work, sometimes, I’m present but absent, too.2

Howard Rheingold has been arguing for a while now that attention might be one of our most precious nonrenewable resources.  And he’s developed some good tools for helping folks to think through attention.  Focus will become more important as we continue to have more and more opportunities to learn about/from/through/with more and more things.  Our students, and the rest of us, need to be able to focus on the right stuff at the right time.3

Rather than label behaviors as “bad,” and attempting to correct them through punitive measures, shouldn’t we instead engage the cultures and deeper issues that these behaviors manifest?

I wonder how you’re helping to create conversation and attention to culture building in your schools and classrooms, and how we can all do a better job of managing our attention.

  1. This isn’t just an issue at her school.  I saw this post a little while back and was reminded of it.  Our devices and connections are sometimes getting in the way of, well, pretty much everything else. []
  2. A colleague this morning told me another story about a student who was waiting for class to begin at a different school.  The teacher hadn’t yet arrived and the student took a moment, while waiting in the hallway, to play a game.  A passing teacher, see the violation of the “Don’t use your iPad in the hallway” rule, confiscated the student’s iPad.  I wasn’t impressed with that response.  If that teacher has Candy Crush or Words with Friends on his or her phone, and has ever launched it between 8 and 5, well, I guess that a bit hypocritical. []
  3. And to be able to decide what counts as “the right stuff.” Teachers shouldn’t always be the people deciding what’s right for their students. []

19 thoughts on “Don’t Talk Restrictions. Let’s Talk About Distraction.

  1. I am guilty of being distracted by devices. I find myself turning to my phone when I am bored. Instead of striking up a conversation it is sometimes easier to see whats going on in social media. The school I work at allows students to have devices at recess and at dismissal. Students can of course use them for research and project work.

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