It’s always interesting to sit in an audience full of teachers. You learn a lot about what it feels like to be a student–and you see exactly the same sorts of attentional and behavioral issues that you see in any classroom. You don’t see completely uniform note-taking and rapt attention. Instead, people are checking email, taking notes, riffling through their bags, ripping open bags of chips, chatting with their neighbors, or playing games on their phones.
Though I was a good student, I’m also an extremely distractible student. I always sit in the front in lectures–both because it gives me the best chance to interact with the teacher but also because I’m an incorrigible people-watcher. I have a very hard time focusing on a lecture when the people around me are doing interesting things like texting or talking or otherwise engaging in something other than listening. This audience has been particularly bad; I have had to move twice to avoid especially chatty neighbors, and I’ve seen some really bizarre note-taking styles. I was inspired to start writing this by the gentleman sitting in front of me whose notes are very, very strange. He keeps writing down unconnected phrases on the pages of a spiral-bound notebook in HUGE letters and then furiously drawing bubbly clouds around each term. So far, his assessment of the first speaker this morning involved “21st century SKILLS!!!”, “FITNESS? YES.”, and “BRAIN.” In addition to writing so enormously that I can read his writing from three rows away, I can’t imagine that these notes are going to helpful to their author if he reviews them later. At best, they’re a sort of strange laundry list of vocabulary words for the morning’s event, but they don’t capture any meaning or really characterize what took place.
In addition to my people-watching problem, I’m terribly distractible when I have Internet access available in class. I’m most likely to flip back and forth between my email and the New York Times homepage and Facebook while taking notes. I’ve convinced myself that this is somehow okay, but I know that, really, dividing my attention like that in the middle of a class isn’t actually helping me take in information. It’s been interesting: there has been no wifi access at either of the two conference sites (the Masonic Theatre and the Fairmont Hotel), and I think that’s actually been a huge boon to me. Without wifi, I have had no choice but to devote my iPad completely to taking notes. I can’t check my email or Facebook or the Muni schedule or Yelp for a lunch spot–I’m stuck simply taking notes. Should I be exercising wise freedom and not feel tempted to multi-task like that? Absolutely. Am I having a hard time concentrating in the absence of my usual connectedness? Absolutely.
I think this means two interesting insights for classroom teaching. First of all, few students come to the classroom totally ready to focus on the task at hand because there are so many things that can potentially distract them. It’s our role as teachers to do what we can to minimize those distractions–and to help people find strategies to minimize the impact of the distractions around them on their learning. Secondly, there’s a lot to be said for limiting access to certain tools at certain times. I’m starting to wonder what our best practices will be for the iPads on campus in the future. Will we ask girls to turn off the wifi? Will we restrict their app-switching to once every 15 minutes, as one presenter suggested for “tech breaks” in the classroom. What will be the best way to combine the obvious strengths of the iPad with more traditional classroom teaching and learning practices?
So far, one speaker mentioned, there are no “best practices” yet in technology in education because the field is relatively new. Instead, there is lots of anecdotal evidence that might suggest helpful outcomes about the nature of technology-enhanced classrooms.
Think on that a while–and do use the comments below to let me know what you think. I’d love to chat with you and get a sense of your thoughts.