In-Class Distractions Are Nothing New

Or, why you should allow your students to have their phones, laptops, and whatever else they want in class.
(This post originally appeared on So Educated.)

A student who is unengaged will find something better to do if they have technology in front of them or not. When I was in school, I wrote. I wrote notes to my friends, I wrote poetry, I wrote love letters to the object of my affection that I never gave them, I wrote short stories, I wrote anything and everything except what the teacher was saying. I had other friends who drew. Still others stared out the window and daydreamed.

We all clearly recognize that banning pens, pencils, and paper in the classroom isn’t a good idea (or, maybe it is – what if the students couldn’t do anything except sit and listen, or the teacher couldn’t just rely on the students to “take notes” in order to learn). And yet, just because a student is writing (or looks like they are writing) doesn’t mean they are paying attention. In the same way, just because the student doesn’t look like they’re taking notes doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention.

Read this about Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd College in California:
If one walked by an all-day meeting in progress and just spotted Klawe, it might appear to be a class in watercolor painting. Only a closer room scan would reveal that Klawe is the lone paintbrush-in-hand participant. Besides any meeting notes, surrounding her are some brushes, paint tubes, a small mixing tray, and a watercolor block.
“I’m a better participant when I’m painting,” she contends. “I’m listening to everything but it keeps me quieter. Usually in a meeting I want to say something about everything. If I’m painting, it brings me down to a much more normal level.” Those who have been in both types of meetings with her have agreed. 
What if the student who doesn’t appear to be paying attention is actually listening more effectively because they are also doing something with their hands?

There is something to be said about quiet, intense focus on one single task. But is sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture the best way to encourage this type of engagement in students? There has been a great deal of work done recently showing that cell phones can be a very effective tool in actively engaging students in the classroom, helping them stay focused. In the writing classes that I teach, it would be ideal (both financially and environmentally) for all of my students to have their laptops or netbooks in order to be able to immediately and actively edit their writing, share their work, and engage in research activities. And for me, the benefit of these devices in the classroom far outweigh the reality that the students will probably also be doing something else instead.

It’s the same reason I don’t ban pens and paper in my classroom, either.

Postscript: There are some legitimate arguments against laptops in the classroom (see here), but I think, especially as I read Cathy Davidson’s new book, that the trick is to actively engage students using their laptops. 

4 Comments on In-Class Distractions Are Nothing New

  1. Right on! I actually don't prefer to bring my laptop and will give it about 2 weeks without the laptop. If I'm not engaged enough after that point, that's when I start bringing it. If I were engaged more and felt like what I was learning was relevant to me, I actually wouldn't bring it. But it is true – sometimes I just need something to do with my hands. Or to have quick Facebook breaks every half hour in a 3 hour lecture. I have a hard time focusing on one subject for 3 hours, especially if it's not something that I am interested in.

  2. Amy says:

    Great, great points! In a Universal Design workshop last year, I remember Therese Wilkhomm said many students just need to do something with their hands. She gave us some kind of Play-Doh to use while she was presenting. Somehow, it helped us focus on her, too! But this seems like it could backfire if you have an incredibly artistic student…

    I've never had many problems with laptops, since only a few of my students bring them. I do remember my first semester teaching: A student would announce during break that he was posting class updates to his social media accounts. A little awkward, although his comments actually made my class sound much more interesting than it really was. 🙂

  3. As an inveterate doodler, I mostly agree, though I have begun asking students in small discussion-based seminars to close laptops if I feel they are sheltering behind them or note-taking, and thus not joining in discussion. I think attitudes to laptops are based on prejudices to some extent. At a conference not long ago I was using my laptop to take notes during a session and at the end of it a woman said to me quite snidely that she had found my typing (on a very quiet keyboard) distracting. Yet this same woman had left a banana peel on the chair next to her that not only smelled increasingly ripe but had kept me from using that seat, so I had to perch at a corner of the table, and she flipped her papers loudly and often. Another person came in late and had to be admitted to the room by the panel chair. And yet I was the rude one for using my computer quietly?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Doodling and writing notes, looking off into the distance, etc. does not bother the people around you. But your Facebook page flickering in their face does. This is why technology is more distracting than the "old" examples stated.