Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

“The classroom is an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness”

Ohio State communications professor Jesse Fox, whose work I talk about in my book, explains “Why I don’t allow devices in my classes.” If you’re a teacher, you should read the piece now.

Fox offers some of the same arguments as Clay Shirky— multitasking is an ineffective way to learn, there’s value to taking notes by hand, and device use has a social contagion aspect— but she offers some additional ones as well:

  • The classroom is “a place for important dialogue. To participate in the conversation, you need to be attentive. Further, to have a cohesive discussion, students need to listen not just to the instructor, but to each other.” It’s not about putting away computers because the professor doesn’t want competition for your attention; it’s about making it possible for students to focus on the subject, and on each other.
  • Especially in a class whose subject is information technology, the policy lets you teach bigger lessons about technology use, and learn to use them more thoughtfully. As Fox puts it, “The classroom is an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness and to also train oneself to have a more healthful relationship with their devices in general.”
  • “I care about my job, and I care about doing it well, and I can’t do my job effectively when I’m distracted. I have the right to insist that students allow me to do my job without disruption.” This runs counter to the assumption that instructors have to adapt to whatever level students are at when they enter the classroom, rather than push them to become smarter. Good.
  • Students are more positive than you expect. This doesn’t surprise me at all, after talking to students and faculty elsewhere. We assume that anyone under 25 is a dopamine-addled click monkey, incapable of paying attention to anything for longer than 45 seconds, and too dumb to realize that they live in a world that’s making money off their distraction. Not true. There are high schools where the students have led no-technology movements, and as Fox makes clear, plenty of her students come to appreciate the no-device policy.

It’s no surprise that the most eloquent and reasonable advocates of a more focused classroom are scholars who do research on the social dimensions of virtual reality, and the emergence and impacts of digital media. Like the Digital Sabbath, this is a practice that isn’t being advocated mainly by Luddites. Almost 15 years ago, the first people who started talking seriously about turning off devices on a regular basis were super-connected people here in Silicon Valley. 

The other critical thing happening here is that Shirky and Fox, and just about everybody else who makes a case for no devices in the classroom, are not just trying to ban distracting technologies because they don’t like the competition, or because they dislike technology. Rather, they’re trying to create an environment in which students are able to learn to focus. Consider the questions Fox suggests teachers ask themselves when developing a policy:

Is this a good practice for your class? Is it enriching the experience in your class, or is it creating more distractions? Is it helping foster a constructive learning environment for your students? And is it making your experience as an instructor more or less enjoyable?

If you’d have no problem telling students not to play Frisbee in class, or having a “no kegs in the lecture hall” rule, then why allow Zappos or Snapchat?

1 Comment

  1. Alex, this is something I think about a lot, too. As a teacher though, I do not believe in banning or forcing. Moreover, I teach courses where we need to use computers during class for projects.
    I advocate teaching students about their attention, productivity and multitasking and then empowering them to make their own decisions. I will sometimes remind them by asking them to check in with their attention and see whether it is where they want it to be. But, from there on, I believe in their agency to make decisions as the (young) adults they are. Because, after they leave class and they go home to work on homework, I won’t be there to ban Facebook or Reddit. So they need to learn how to make their own decisions about their computing environments and attention hygiene.

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