The Culture of Distraction

One of the interesting challenges involved in using technology for teaching is how to keep students holding a connective device focused on the agenda rather than going on Facebook. I maintain that this has always been a challenge, kids have always used the current technology to distract themselves (I used to “text” my friends (pass notes) rather than pay attention to a boring teacher). Is the current wave different? Perhaps. And this speech about the “Culture of Distraction” has some interesting food for thought.

I’d argue that what’s happening is that we’re becoming like the mal-formed weight lifter who trains only their upper body and has tiny little legs. We’re radically over-developing the parts of quick thinking, distractable brain and letting the long-form-thinking, creative, contemplative, solitude-seeking, thought-consolidating pieces of our brain atrophy by not using them. And, to me, that’s both sad and dangerous.

So far, my approach to the technology distraction has been to present students with the research about the human brain’s inability to successfully multitask, and to shame and berate them. I have solicited comments from friends on Facebook about what I should tell them. Students seem genuinely shocked that it is possible to be out of direct contact with one’s friends for more than one hour at a time. I tell them about my college days when our phone was on the hallway wall, shared with the 10 other rooms in that section, and our primary means of communication was the whiteboard on our dorm room door, and I might as well be telling them we used outhouses for all the resonance it has to them.

To me, this “culture of distraction” is alarming, yes, but it is also a challenge to teachers. How can we create meaningful projects, the kind that require long-form, sustained attention (Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow comes to mind)? How can the technology, the being “plugged-in,” enhance the state of flow they feel when working on a project, rather than serving as a distraction? I struggle with this myself, and I have some ideas, but I welcome your thoughts on it in the comments.


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About idactic

I am a teacher of teachers at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I am interested in learning and using technologies to enhance teaching and learning. This blog is my way of sharing the process with colleagues and students. Join me!

2 responses to “The Culture of Distraction”

  1. Matt says :

    I think it’s fair to say that there have always been *some* ways to distract yourself in class, but I don’t think those ways were nearly as powerful as the Internet. Sure, I could pass a note, but I’d have to have something to pass a note about. Or I could doodle, or whatever. But those are things you do to try to keep boredom from crushing your soul; if you’re engaged, you won’t bother. Whereas Facebook and Twitter (or, if you’re a nerd, getting into the weeds on Wikipedia or TVTropes) are interesting enough that people do them in preference to other interesting things.

    So if that’s the right way to think about things, the problem is that distractions now compete much more effectively with classroom material. There were always kids who were going to be bored and tune out in whatever way was available; what you’re worried about is that relatively focused and motivated kids are now also being very effectively distracted.

    The lifting analogy is interesting, if only because it highlights a lacuna in the reasoning. The lifter is described as “malformed,” but what if he’s in contention for the world chin-up championship? Not everyone wants to squat 300 pounds. We’d like to adapt to challenges, not to some notion of balance or virtue that might not be useful in our lives. Acknowledged: Past challenges aren’t perfect predictors of future challenges; our ability to adapt is circumscribed. But, you know, maybe we need more people with more distractible brains. I don’t think I believe it, but before you get deeply into worrying about how our brains are adapting to the environment, I think you’ve got to make the case that those adaptations are actually maladaptive. (I’m cognizant of the difference between Facebook and work, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that there are just a lot more ways to get information than there used to be, even though most of the new ones aren’t yet socially sanctioned. The first few pages of Charlie Stross’ novel ACCELERANDO are suggestive w/r/t the possibilities.)

  2. idactic says :

    Glad to get some informed commentary from the neuroscientist. Any chance you want to do a guest post, Matt?

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