Decreasing Distractions

I wrote this piece for another audience a couple of years back… it still seems quite relevant given the observation I made this year in middle schools.

It was with horror that I walked up and down the boardwalk of the mid-Atlantic beach I visited for the first time with my family this summer. Every beach store had piles of “spinners” for sale. I dreaded the return of students with those ever-present distractions.

Now, I understand they can be useful for some students, but they were largely a distraction to classroom full of students when the fad raged in early 2017. The rule of thumb I use is simple, students who look at the fidget toy while they use it are distracted by them, those who fidget while looking elsewhere– and you must watch the student’s eyes to see how he or she tracks you!– are not distracted.

“Things” that distract students are not new to middle school teachers. Their changing bodies, emerging social relationships, and developing brains have all proven more powerful than our books, lessons, and activities for generations and generations. We know how to manage those unavoidable distractions.

In the last decade, middle school educators have also gained experience managing the distractions that arrive in classrooms with cell phones and other electronic devices. We have been advised to react to digital devices with various strategies: I have been advised to confiscate them when I see them, ban them from being seen, integrate them into my activities, monitor their use in certain areas, and otherwise manage the distraction of digital devices.

In my experience with digital devices, I was not one to advocating banning them, as that seemed an easy approach for educators, but it also places all responsibility on teachers and other adults for monitoring the devices. I was unsure of how to react when school leaders started banning fidget spinners last spring, but then I reread The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen and was reminded how distraction is a tool for human survival and that our minds are naturally distractible.

I am unsure if the fad just faded away, or if the bans established last spring have changed habits and expectations for the fall, but fidget toys have largely disappeared from the schools with which I am familiar and where I have reached out to colleagues. Distractions gone.

In an interesting related story, a middle school team in New England has shared the steps they took to begin the school year. First, they declared their classrooms, “cell phone free zones,” and updated their handbooks so it was clear that cells phones were a distraction and they are not appropriate for school. They were expecting some push-back from both parents and students, but were surprised to have gotten none.

Students, they report, are happy to be without phones, and will nod in acknowledgment when they are asked to put the phone they mistakenly carry into a classroom into “the box.” Parent have said nothing.

Teachers have noticed students are far more focused, they read for extended lengths of time, they pay greater attention to classmates. In general, they are more present in the classroom. We know, of course, the first step of learning is to pay attention, and there is growing evidence that removing those distractions is effective.