Back when I was in school, I remember the teacher telling us to take out a note book and a pen, and face forward and pay attention. There we were, twitchy teenagers, forced to have laser-like focus on every word the teacher said (or read). There was time for questions at the end.

Inevitably, my mind would wander. I’d be thinking about everything but what the teacher was droning on about. I’d doodle instead of paying attention. I’d pass secret notes to my friends. I’d glance frequently at the clock, impatiently waiting for the bell to ring. When it did…freedom!

This was my experience at school about 90% of the time.

Flash forward to 2012, and now, most students no longer take notes on paper…they use tablets, laptops and even smart phones.

Except we still, for the most part, don’t allow these devices in class.

Yesterday, I was pleased to be sharing the bill with my pal Dave Hale, one of the brightest young guys I know. We were speaking to the 2012 graduating class in the Business Marketing program at Algonquin College about social media strategy. When Dave took the stage after my talk, the first thing he asked the students was why they didn’t have their devices out on the desk. “You should be taking notes on your laptops”, he said, “You could be tweeting this session to your friends! You can look up some of the sites I’m going to talk about!”

I could feel the teachers in the room shifting in their seats uncomfortably. Did he just tell them to use their phones? Go on their laptops? But…we spend so much time telling students NOT to use these devices in class! They are too distracting. If they are on their iPad they won’t be paying attention to my lecture! And I HAVE to cover this material with them! It’s on the final exam!

Distraction-free learning is a myth.

Often people of my generation and older will make the assumption that young people these days are too distracted. They are constantly texting, emailing, and surfing Facebook while watching TV and talking on the phone and playing video games, all at the same time. They have an inability to focus on a single task and as a result, they are failing to learn. Grades are suffering and attendance is at an all time low, and many teachers are blaming text messages and Facebook.

But students’ failure to learn isn’t about distraction at all. Unlike us, their brains are wired for the connected world. Whereas old folks like us have had to learn how to cope with new technology, these young people have been exposed to it their whole Iives. They are conditioned for connection.

Distraction isn’t the problem.

The problem is that kids these days are wired differently, and we are still trying to teach them using old methods. Three hour lectures are no longer effective (I’d argue they never were that effective). You can’t force someone to sit perfectly still and listen while you PowerPoint them half to death. Nobody is learning with that method.

We can’t just “cover material” anymore. Shoving bullet points and monotone monologues and book chapters at students results in a classroom of disengaged, bored, and ultimately failing and non-attending students. Asking them to regurgitate material they have supposedly “learned” through this method only teaches them how to regurgitate information.

Give them an experience, not a lecture.

We have to take a good hard look at how students these days are learning. In order to be successful, we must stop teaching retention of facts, and start focusing on mastery.

This means embracing the way students’ brains are now conditioned, and accepting that their brains are different from ours. It means using that very technology you think they are so distracted by to show them ways to use it to learn, and not just learn, but do and try and experiment and explore with it. It means no longer building lesson plans around “covering material”, and instead developing creative ways to give students a positive, supportive environment in which to learn.

Distraction isn’t the enemy of the classroom. Irrelevance is.


3 Responses

  1. Lots of research out there to back you up on lecture being one of the most ineffective teaching methoda out there. Yet its still prevalent. Same reason teaching a language by piling on grammar rules is alive and well despite gobs of research showing how ineffective it is. Reason for both still be around- tradition and its b easy for the teacher. Interactive, participatory classes require a lot more effort and the flexibility to let go of some of the control.

  2. Susan says: “accepting that their brains are different from ours”. No.

    In my psychology courses, one of the things we learned was how brains moved stuff from short-term memory into long-term memory. There aren’t a huge number of ways to do this, and given the basic brain chemistry involved surely “young people brains” don’t do it any differently today.

    We learned how cognition seems to have two parts – grossly identified as left and right – and how things that occupy the one – such as doodling – don’t shut down the other: the verbal half that’s listening to the words coming from the front of the room. You can doodle and listen at the same time. You can’t text message and listen at the same time – they use the same brain half (unless, as Dave Hale suggested in Susan’s article, you are text messaging *about the lecture itself* – but how many of your students are tweeting about the lecture you’re *giving*? I wish!).

    Student brains are not different; they still can’t do texting of one thing and listening to another at the same time.

    We learned about how distracting stimuli – interruptions and multi-tasking – can blast things out of short-term memory so that they aren’t remembered. My students can get through an assignment, multi-tasking it with a dozen other things, and at the end of the night it will be done and they won’t remember anything about what they did. All the interruptions and task-switching ensure that nothing ever makes the trip from short-term memory to long-term memory where it might re-appear at a job interview.

    Student brains are not different; they still can’t interleave a whole bunch of things and remember any one of them well.

    In short: I don’t think modern brains are any different. What is different is how people are using their brains, for what, and what assistance there is for people who don’t want to remember things.

    In the pre-device days, looking something up in real time was either impossible or such a pain that it was necessary to remember it just to function in the world. At school, you were definitely not going to make trip to the library to research an answer for an assignment, so you attended lectures and/or read the notes – they were all you had. There was no Google in your hand.

    Now, with Google and a device, you don’t need to attend lectures or read the lecture notes. The in-hand device gives you most of the answers you need. As a result, students depend much, much more on their in-hand devices for things people used to just “know”.

    Devices have led to a culture of “I don’t need to remember anything – when I need to know something I’ll look it up”. With a device in-hand, this is a perfectly reasonable way to operate from day-to-day. It’s not a reasonable way to, say, run a nuclear plant or program an accounting package, and schools are having difficulty retaining students in disciplines that can’t be “looked up” on the fly as you learn them.

    When faced with the “I don’t need to remember” culture, academics usually try various kinds of “I will force you to remember” strategies. I think this will fail. Banning devices in the classroom will not magically make students want to remember things; you can’t forcibly change a paradigm that students use so pervasively and that works so well in the rest of their lives.

    Some disciplines still do require people to really know things “right now”, not merely to know how to look them up. (The nuclear plant isn’t going to play an engaging, interactive video tutorial when the reactor goes critical.) Disciplines that require the old skill of “remembering” are going to attract students who still have that skill – and that may mean students who aren’t so dependent on their devices. The device-dependent, just-in-time-learning crowd will naturally migrate to the disciplines that their in-hand devices help them understand.

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