Ban Devices from the Class or Help Learners Develop Self-Regulation?

In this recent Washington Post article, the journalist tells the story of Clay Shirky’s decision to ban devices from his NYU class. Shirky explains that he previously left the choice up to students. He considered it a challenge to be more interesting than the devices, and thought it appropriate to leave the responsibility of managing the devices to the students. The following quote introduces part of his reason for the change.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

The article continues by pointing to research about the negative effects of multi-tasking and Shirky’s conclusion that there was more at play than a simple student choice. Instead, he argued that the presence of the devices forced students to struggle between paying attention in class and an “involuntary and emotional reaction.” He goes on to explain that he sees “teaching as a shared struggle…working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.” 

Reading the article, there is plenty with which I can wholeheartedly agree. The growing research about multi-tasking, for example, is increasingly convincing. Multi-tasking has many downsides, including decreasing attention and focus, something that could certainly decrease learning as students grapple with new and complex ideas. More broadly, I welcome the wonderfully critical and reflective thinking about the nature and impact of technology in our lives. This is an important part of learning to thrive and survive in an increasingly technological age. Without taking time to consider the affordances and limitations, we easily succumb to mindless acceptance.

Yet, these very areas of agreement also lead me to think about alternatives to Shirky’s decision. If he held to an educational philosophy like educational essentialism, I would get it. He is the parent/teacher and his students/children need him to set most of the rules in lieu of their underdeveloped frontal lobes. Daddy knows best. Yet, in the article, Shirky points out that he does not hold to such a parent/child philosophy, but instead sees teaching as more of a shared experience, a “shared struggle”, an adventure (at least in part) in co-learning. Given such a philosophy, I wonder about alternative solutions. Consider the following five alternatives:

1. Provide students with access to some of the readings that led to his discovery/epiphany. Set aside some time in class for a robust discussion and exploration of the topic together. It may be that he did this, but it went beyond the scope of the article.

2. Set up a media journal assignment for students, where they logged their use of the devices during class. This would invite students to become more conscious about how the technology is impacting their experience in the class, also potentially leading to self-discoveries and robust c0-learning. It would also provide opportunity to compare different methods and strategies employed by students to leverage the devices in helpful ways.

3. Establish tech-less days and other days that are open. Or, based upon the planned activities for a given class, have students collectively vote on the “class rules”, learning to think through the issues together and make informed decisions.

4. Turn this into a class experiment with four groups. Group 1 uses devices when and however they want. Group 2 uses devices, but specifically focused upon learning strategies and supporting apps (note-taking, etc.). Group 3 uses devices, but they are charged to focus upon identifying strategies that best help them learn and focus, sharing their finding with others in the group (similar to group 2 but less prescribed). Group 4 refrains from any use of the devices in class. See if you can’t discover some patterns. Use the different group experiments to help students think through the issues more fully, and to discover the impact of different practices upon their learning.

5. Have students individually or collectively find existing research about the impact of devices in the classroom, using it to make informed decisions about their own usage.

Each of these five seem to align with Shirky’s stated philosophy of a teaching and learning as a “shared struggle” , and they do so by not banning the use of devices, but inviting students into the exploration and decision-making process. After all, these students will not have a parent to set these rules throughout their lives. Why not use this as a chance to help them learn to self-regulate? I understand that one argument against these might be that such exercises will detract from the main content and purpose of the class, but I contend that it can be done without having any effect on the overall student learning. In fact, by adding these elements of thinking about thinking and learning about learning, he is likely helping them think even more deeply about the course content.

Shirky is a brilliant thinker about new media. I value and learned a great deal from two of his books (Cognitive Surplus, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations). In fact, it would seem to me that his work around collaboration in the digital age might provide alternate insights into how to address the identified problem of attention-distracting practices in the classroom, insights like one or more of the ideas listed above. However, I do not write this as a criticism of the decision in his class. I don’t have all the facts nor do I fully understand the context in which he made this decision. Nonetheless, the article provides me with an opportunity to reflect on the broader conversation about the role of devices in the classroom, considering some of the options available to educators. In doing so, I am compelled to frame the discussion around a question that is larger than how to get students more fully attentive in a single class. Instead, I am asking, “How can we best help prepare young people to thrive as discerning consumers of devices in a digital age?”

Questions to Challenge Our Thinking About Young People & Attention Spans

at·ten·tion span – the length of time during which someone is able to think about or remain interested in something

“Kids today have such a short attention span.” Have you heard that before? Have you said it? While there are ample studies that one can point to in support of such claims, I offer the following questions as part of the larger conversation about young people and attention spans.

Has the capacity for attention changed?

I’ve yet to see research showing that the human brain’s capacity for deep, focused attention has diminished. The research about attention spans among youth is not a claim to a sudden evolutionary change in young people’s brains. In fact, the growing literature around neuroplasticity would seem to indicate the attention span of young and old can be lengthened with practice. This has huge implications for education. So, there is no need for a fatalistic response.

In my early years of teaching, I remember being told that we should chunk lessons into fifteen minute segments because young people today can’t attend to anything longer than that. Of course, we already tend to force breaks in student attention every 45-50 minutes in most schools. Then some thought of this idea called block-scheduling. The problem is that the length of time changed, but it didn’t seem like the practices changed enough to effectively leverage the benefits of larger blocks of time.

Have you visited a Montessori or project-based learning school lately?

This would actually be a helpful study, looking at the attention span of young people in these schools compared to more traditional schools. I’ve been to many such schools, and I consistently see students who get immersed in projects and explorations for extended periods…sometimes hour at a time. This seems to indicate that the environments where young people spend their time can have a huge impact on attention span. So, instead of breaking up lessons into 15-minute segments to address the supposedly inevitable declining attention span young people, perhaps we could consider how we might design learning environments that engage, invite and cultivate the joy of getting lost in a project or idea.

Attention to what and for what purpose?

Behind the statements about declining attention spans, it often seems to be more a commentary on young people’s difficulty paying attention to the way schools has been done in the past: difficulty paying attention to a talking head, difficulty paying attention while reading a certain text, etc. I happen to think that cultivating an attention span for such activities remains valuable. If we want to empower students to be self-directed learners who are capable of learning from a variety of experiences and people, that means learning to learn from things that are boring.

The problem is that some seem to suggest that the solution is forcing them to sit through lots of boring things. What if we instead helped students discover and tap into strategies to be motivated? That comes from having genuine interest or perceiving meaning and value in something. When student perceives something as meaningful, their attention span extends significantly. So, what we might sometimes view as decreased attention span might actually be a shift in perceived meaning and value.

How is it that video games manage to keep the attention of some people for hours without a bathroom break?

That is an impressive attention span. Of course, it is different from much of school because there is near constant change and feedback. It also has all those game features that manage to cultivate attention. One argument is that we should study these game design principles and use them to engage learners in school. I don’t think that a terrible idea sometimes, but I contend that it is even more exciting to think of what would happen if we helped students exegete the principles of engagement in game design and learn to leverage those principles to maintain attention for themselves.

What does attention look like? What does inattention look like?

Is it possible that attention and inattention looks different for different students? If so, perhaps there is also the risk of misinterpreting certain student actions and behaviors. I’m not denying that students are indeed inattentive at time, only that our subjective measure may need revisiting.

Why not teaching attention?

If there is concern about attention spans, why not invite students into a challenge to address it. Why does attention matter? What happens when it is present? What happens when it is absent? What is the global implications of inattention and short attention spans? What are the benefits? What good can be done in the world by people who cultivate attention spans? This could be a rich and rewarding exploration with the students. I suspect that they could come up with answers that would amaze many of us.

Given the diminishing attention span for reading lengthy blog posts, I suppose that I should stop here.