Distraction in the Classroom – What? Me Distracted?

by Dr. Luanne Fose - The Tweed Geek on May 6, 2015

apple watchWith the introduction of the Apple Watch, many of you have approached me and inquired about why I don’t have that marvelous digital device on my wrist yet. After all, one would think that I, being one of the biggest Apple lovers ever, would immediately jump onto that bandwagon. Well, I have to admit it has been very tempting. (After all, if you’re from my generation, you were probably a fan of the Dick Tracy watch like I was, and truth be told, the Apple watch is all that and more!)  I actually have the money set aside in my piggy bank to purchase an Apple Watch; however, something is holding me back. That “something” is this ever-pressing question I am asking myself: “Am I focused enough to not be distracted by such a device, which would be right there in plain sight on my wrist?” How much will such a watch tempt me in boring meetings? In tedious conversations? In unimaginative workshops?

Of course, all of our meetings, conversations and workshops at Cal Poly are enthralling, captivating, mesmerizing, compelling, and spellbinding, so that wouldn’t be a problem, right? Seriously, how will such a device change our attention levels and those of our students – the generation who has often been deemed the “distracted generation?”

Many of us have already become irritated by push notifications – those notifications on our digital devices that were explicitly designed to pull us away from whatever we’re doing for the purpose of marketing: “Did you forget to buy this after you looked at our website?” “Buy this!” “Your friend just posted blah, blah, blah on Facebook,” etc. It is interesting to note that soon after notifications started to get a bit out of hand on Apple devices that Apple provided the option to turn off notifications for selected periods of time at the user’s request. The Apple Watch may be even more of a nag in this regard (although again you can choose when to have notifications tapping you). What do I mean by “tapping you?” The Apple Watch is more than just a beautiful digital trinket – it incorporates what Apple refers to as the “taptic engine.” Instead of a vibration in your pocket or an annoying audio signal to quickly dive toward to turn off in public venues, the taptic engine gives you a subtle touch on the wrist like an endearing grandmother. These alerts are not only social location reminders (e.g., a friend of yours is having lunch in the restaurant next door, would you like to meet them?) and weather reminders (e.g., you need to take your umbrella because there is a 90% likelihood it is going to rain today), but also important health alerts (e.g., your heart rate is abnormally fast right now, you’ve been stagnant too long as a couch potato and you need to GET UP, or your blood sugar level is getting dangerously low so you better eat something quick). If you are focusing on a difficult task when your Apple Watch is tapping you, all these distractions may be enough to drive you right over the edge or at the very least, have you screaming out loud, “ENOUGH!”

Now let’s move this to the daily world of a university instructor, shall we? Imagine trying to engage your students in a lecture period and there is tap, tap, tapping going on all around you. Students are texting on their watches, sending love messages with a quick tap to their latest heart throb, checking how many steps they have walked today, tweeting, perusing emails, reading snippets from shopping web sites that tempt them to purchase more stuff, responding to Facebook & YouTube notifications, reviewing changes in LinkedIn profiles, uploading or reviewing photo uploads from friends on Instagram or Flickr, reading Reddit, Flipboard, or StumbleUpon, checking the charts in iTunes for the latest new release of Mumford and Sons. AUGH! It’s enough to make an instructor want to just walk out of the classroom as some have threatened to do and others have actually done.

Probably the biggest myth that the distracted generation has swallowed is the concept that they can multitask – do two things (or more) at once without it affecting their concentration. We’re all guilty of believing this myth when it serves our purposes, but the truth is, most of us are not capable of doing two tasks at once WELL. This is clearly shown by the number of automobile accidents in this country while texting – 1.6 million per year. I once saw my 19-year old nephew sitting with his Mac laptop open, his iPhone sitting on the desk next to him and his iPod next to that (a chip off the old block, you say?) Considering himself the master of multitasking, he was writing a paper for a college course, bidding on the last 10 minutes of a product on eBay, texting his girlfriend, holding chats with 4 people simultaneously in iChat, listening to music from his iPod, glancing at a TV that was blaring within view in the next room, and writing an email – all while holding a “live” conversation with me. He was under the impression that he was handling it all well, but from my point of view the conversation was going nowhere because he couldn’t focus due to all the distractions.

A Stanford study in 2009 found that “heavy media multitaskers had more trouble filtering out irrelevant information from their environment. In others words, they were more prone to distraction than their low-use counterparts. The heavy users were also less able to focus and had more difficulty switching tasks.” Even more disturbing is the possibilities of what may lie ahead for this distracted generation in the future, since, although the jury is still out on what this generation will be like in later years, many scientists believe that this attention deficit will manifest itself as Alzheimer’s in elderly adults.

At a recent educational technology conference I attended, we were asked to estimate how many hours a day the typical tween or teen (8-18 years old) spends looking at media. We tweeted in our responses to the conference presenter and we were dismally low on our estimations. According to a report by Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “teens and tweens (8- to 12-year-olds), on average, spend more than 7.5 hours a day with various forms of media, but they manage to squeeze 10 hours and 45 minutes of media exposure into that time because they use two or more forms of media concurrently.” That’s 10.75 hours of media exposure seven days a week! Does that statistic scare you about your students’ ability to focus? It should! The really scary fact is that this report by the Kaiser Family Foundation was written over five years ago in January 2010. Imagine how those statistics have most likely grown from five years ago! Oh my… we’re in trouble.

Distraction is a real problem in all our lives – it’s not just our students, it’s also us. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I am trying to become more cognizant of my own issues with distraction and what buttons I have that push me further into the abyss of multitasking. What are you doing to try to address distractions in your classroom? What have you successfully done to curtail distractions in your own day-to-day habits? I’d love to know! Please share with us some of your ideas in the comment box below (and try to avoid multitasking while you do it).  ;-)

~ Luanne Fose (The Tweed Geek)











Hi Luanne,

I had a chance to read your article and I wanted to let you know that I loved it.

There was an article I once read that talks about how multi-tasking isn’t really multi-tasking. It’s essentially doing one thing at a time and switching to another very rapidly. This article talked about how we are actually more effective if we just focus on one thing at a time and then move on to another task once we are finished.

In reading your article, I was reminded of something Joel Podolny, Dean of Apple University said when he came to Cal Poly last summer. He talked about how sometimes teachers tend to teach with antiquated methods. Perhaps a better approach would be to teach students in ways that they learn. He talked about finding effective teaching strategies that lead to quality learning. Knowing that students respond well to media, visual cues and discussions can lead to more effective teaching practices, which in turn will lead to their improved learning. In talking about all of this, Joel also cautioned in not using media ineffectively. He talked about finding an appropriate balance to ensure that the overall goal is effective teaching and learning.

Thank you again for posting a thought-provoking article. I too am also vacillating on getting an Apple watch. The hefty price tag doesn’t help!

Have a great day!


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