Attention, Multitasking, and the What a Classroom is For

Scholars Turn their Attention to Attention

by David Glenn

I’ll admit that, sometimes, I like to play the Neil Postman conservative.  I could point to students in nearly every class that I’ve ever taught and attribute their lack of attention, their cynicism towards pursuits of truth, and all sorts of other twenty-first-century vices to the devices in their pockets that allow them to be the centers of small universes, speaking in digital clarity with any human being they’ve ever known instantly without having to walk to a payphone or, more often during classes that I teach, “texting” (what a barbaric participle!) their acquaintances in all parts of the developed world (but most often in the towns where they attended high school) about how much my class bores them.

What worries the folks that David Glenn interviewed for a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education is that these students insist, like the drunk drivers that have become as much legend as experience, that they’re perfectly capable of doing all of the things that college requires without turning their devices off and devoting undivided attention to the class at hand:

That illusion of competence is one of the things that worry scholars who study attention, cognition, and the classroom. Students’ minds have been wandering since the dawn of education. But until recently—so the worry goes—students at least knew when they had checked out. A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has.

As someone who has thought about and experimented with several sorts of digital media in the college classroom, the first thing I wonder is why the folks in the interview are still lecturing to students in a classroom at all.

Now I don’t mean to denigrate the academic lecture as a form: if anything, I owe much of my own background in theology, philosophy, visual arts, and music history to Milligan College’s humanities lectures.  But those sessions, when I remember in some detail, were not afraid of the changes that digital technology brought about: in some lectures we listened to recordings of symphonies and chants over magnetic speakers, and in others we saw video footage of World War II.  At times a teacher would even project key phrases and categories onto a screen with that still-new toy that Microsoft called PowerPoint.  And in some of my classes during those years, professors would not hesitate to send us to “listening booths” (the term sounds archaic even as I remember hearing it) wherein we would take in recorded lectures from teachers, watch videos featuring Huston Smith about the world’s religions, and instructed to make photocopies of articles at the library’s photocopy machine.

I could go on, of course: technology, after all, is not only digital.  I would never have attended college in Tennessee, Hoosier that I am, had not somebody built Interstate highways between the two places and manufactured vehicles for traveling along those highways.  And lectures in the winter would have been much more unpleasant without thermostats and central heat and air.  The point here is that there is no such thing as a classroom without technology; the questions at hand are which technologies to use and how to use them.

When I teach classes roughly between 10 students (where the setting really can be conversational) and 40 (at which point even guided discussion becomes quite difficult), I’ve gotten in the practice not only of allowing laptops in class but finding out from my students who has laptops and mandating that at least one student per four-student discussion group have one available for classroom activities.  I acknowledge at the outset that I know what tabbed browsing means (that’s how I’m writing this while appearing to work on what I should be working on when a colleague comes to the door), and I know that some of my students will be “Facebooking” (another barbaric participle) while classroom exercises are going on.  I also grant that such distractions are, in terms of what classrooms are for, bad things.  But on balance, I think that the goods that come from introducing and directing computer use outweigh those setbacks.

The ease with which even an English teacher can produce video now (I just uploaded a series of clips yesterday for my students when I couldn’t come to campus due to my son’s being sick) means that whatever content simply must come from the teacher’s mouth in an uninterrupted stream can now happen in a browser window, subject to quizzes, leaving class time open for the teacher to design learning environments (themselves involving the Internet) and to conduct dialectic inquiry (which itself might incorporate browser-based chat rooms, as it does in my classes) rather than to stand up and hold forth.  Whereas before it was silly for professors to spend most of a class period repeating what the students were supposed to acquire in the day’s required reading, now it’s even a bit less excusable.  And when a room full of students who think they’ve got the professor by the beard when it comes to computers walks into a new semester, a teacher who invests even a little effort will quickly enough reveal that the new media (a plural word, I should note) are also media that reward real education.

By making the computer and the Internet part of instruction, I am conceding that most folks in the age of netbooks and smart phones are going to spend most of their time connected to data networks, and I am insisting that what we do in the classroom ought to inform that wired (and WIRED) reality.  While I can make aesthetic appeals for an occasional disconnect from those networks, I know that if I use the coercive power of the gradebook to enforce that unplugging, I’m only establishing myself as tyrant of a very small polis, one that students will be ready to escape for a larger world.  By requiring my students to expand their digital connections beyond their usual Facebook fare (many of them have never read a post from even a marginally challenging blogger, much less taken advantage of the wealth that is Project Gutenberg), and by directing them to “places” on the Web that interact with the literate traditions, I’m making an argument that their digital worlds are not worlds at all but playpens over whose walls they could climb at any moment, if only they mustered the will to do so.

That distinction between the playpen and the wonder-filled world, of course, leads me to institute certain practices against which my students often grumble.  They insist that their phone-based browsers weren’t actually sending text messages to their high school buddies as I dock their participation points, and many times they’d rather fiddle about with their Facebook games than explore the more demanding (and dangerous) world of Internet intellectualism.  In that respect the folks that David Glenn cites are right: whether the teacher bars access to the Web or encourages it, students unprovoked will flee to sites of laziness.  But with the texts of Plato available on the Internet Classics Archive, with Open Source Shakespeare waiting for explorers, with educated and interesting bloggers pressing on the commonplaces to seek more authentic understanding every day, I’d hate to use that flight to distraction as an excuse to appear afraid of a world that we professors should be engaging for the better.

6 thoughts on “Attention, Multitasking, and the What a Classroom is For

  1. Nate,
    Your points about embracing technology in the classroom are well-taken. But I’m not sure they speak to the actual concern of the article which seems to be more that the constant multi-tasking may be rewiring or even short-circuiting the brains of students and hampering their ability to focus and even reason. I vaguely remember a post on the old blog in which you expressed concerns very similar to those of this Chronicle article.

  2. I still hold those concerns, Robert, and you’re right to note them. I suppose my point is that the same technologies that give us text-messages and Facebook (whose main functions seem to be the perpetual extension of one’s comfortable circle of acquaintances and shutting out the genuinely novel contact) can, if we teachers grab on to ’em, move in precisely the opposite direction.

    So to agree with you (and the article’s theorists) and to take things a step further, laptops in class do threaten to magnify and intensify human beings’ resistance to effort and to formation, but as far as I’m concerned, banning them merely holds off the negative for a moment, while co-opting them stands to educate a larger integrated reality for my students.

    BTW, thanks for jumping ship and coming over to CHB. I hope a goodly number of HLW readers do likewise.

  3. I’m sure all five us will make the jump! 😉

    RE: “the perpetual extension of one’s comfortable circle,” I was on a high school campus recently. I expected to find the same noisy hallways and rambunctious interaction I’d known, but instead when the bell rang and the students spilled out of their classes each placed his earbuds and powered up his ipod and pulled out a cell to begin texting. And it was silent. Creeped me out. Give me the old cliques any day. Coming from one who was a band nerd back in the day, that’s saying a lot.

    To the actual point, excluding the technologies from the classroom is certainly a fool’s errand and working to civilize/baptize the gadgets/media and their use to at least some degree is good and necessary work. But if there is a fundamental change underway in how young people think and process the world (that’s still arguable, I know, but research is pointing in that direction and it’s the working assumption in my neighborhood at least) don’t the changes in pedagogy required in response go well beyond just technology? What more fundamental changes do you see as needed to teach to this new wired world?

  4. Michial,

    I’ll agree without hesitation that Powerpoint is boring. I’d go further to say that, poorly done, computer-assisted instruction can be boring. I’d take one more step and say that a poorly led discussion without technological mediation can be boring. (Certainly you’ve been a part of some of those in all the grad courses you’ve taken, Michial.)

    I was more of a curmudgeon about computers in the classroom before this school year, when I decided to take a run at it myself and actually plan the sequence of my courses around instruction using computers instead of planning it around computers and hoping that instruction happens. I think that when one get’s one’s Aristotelian “for-the-sake-of” chain in the right order, one can bring to bear the technologies of textbooks, notebooks and pens, and laptop computers in fruitful manners.

    Now I’ll grant that each of those technologies calls for different sorts of thinking, but I don’t think that any of them in its own right negates the possibility for engaging classroom experiences.

  5. Robert,

    The main “revolution” with which I’m experimenting this semester is abandoning the idea that classroom time is for content delivery. I’ve tried as much as I can (I’m still doing more lecturing than I’d like) to make the classroom hour a time when students are investigating in small groups and integrating what they’ve found with what they already knew, setting myself up as an authoritative and reticent teacher, one who insists upon their digging into the questions at hand rather than waiting for me to do so.

    In other words, I think that one should use the tools that have passed from the hands of specialists and into the hands of English teachers to become more, not less, Socratic.

    Just to give an example from what I’m doing with my class today, I’ve had my students read (review for folks who had me last semester) a section of their comp textbooks on clause structure and common clause-combination errors (comma splices, sentence fragments, and such). During our class time, they already know by this point that I assume they’ve done the reading and will come to class ready to try out the material on scenarios I’ve created. So using laptops connected to a dedicated class chatroom (available for free on the Web), my students, in small groups, will take miscombined clauses that I’ve generated, combine them in two or three conventionally appropriate and thought-out manners, and post the results on the class chat room, which also appears on the smartboard in front of the classroom. As they appear, I use our class time to commend those combinations that are especially good, to call on groups who don’t yet get it to try again and post the revised sentences, and as a whole to use their texts as the sites for instruction.

    When my department chair observed this sort of lesson last semester as part of my new-faculty evaluation, she was quite impressed, and several of my students, in their semester-end evaluations, noted that those lessons helped them actually internalize the structures of English prose in ways that lectures in high school hadn’t.

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