In Distracted (Basic, Oct.), educator Lang examines why students lose focus and what teachers can do to get it back.
Why are human beings so drawn to distractions?
Both history and biology teach us that we have always had distractible brains. Aristotle talks about people being distracted by eating snacks in theatrical productions. Augustine talked about being distracted by flies and lizards and rabbits when he was trying to pray. We have brains that are built to be able to focus when we want them to, but those brains also are very aware of our ambient surroundings. And they have to be, because, from an evolutionary perspective, we needed to be aware of potential dangers or new food sources. But it’s even more the case for primates and humans that we’re curious as well. Our brains reward us for seeking out and finding novel information. What’s happened is that the makers of our digital devices have learned to play on that aspect of our brains. Laptops and smartphones did not create distraction for human beings, but they have intensified a pre-existing condition.
You argue in the book that teachers should focus on cultivating attention rather than walling off distractions. Why?
Even if you put students into a soundproof, walled-off room, they would still have the distractions in their heads. It’s a futile pursuit in my view. Instead, we should look to the experiences where people do pay attention over sustained periods of time and learn what we can do in order to cultivate better attention in the classroom. We can look to theater, for example. A playwright knows they have to sustain the attention of people sitting in a darkened space for two or three hours. So they provide an experience that’s in constant motion—there are acts and scenes and intermission. The action rises and falls. Teachers have a lot to learn from that. We can vary what’s happening in the classroom, mix active and passive experiences, build stories and narratives and images into our teaching.
What advice do you have for people who are now teaching and learning online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?
When teaching and learning are mediated through screens, the temptations to distraction are even stronger. We have to think even more creatively about how we are varying the experience for students. For students and those of us who are working at home, we have to be more deliberate about shutting out distractions when we are trying to accomplish something.
Do you think the debate over technology in the classroom will change?
I hope the debate will shift away from “Should there be devices in my room or not?’ towards ‘When is the right time for my students to be using devices, and when is the right time for us to be present to one another as humans having conversations and valuing each other’s ideas, without the mediation of screens?’ ”