How to Teach in an Age of Distraction (CHE)

October 2, 2015

By Sherry Turkle

At MIT, I teach a seminar on science, technology, and memoir. Enrollment is capped at 20 students. The atmosphere is intimate. We read memoirs by scientists, engineers, and designers, and then the students tell their own stories.

Some of them have lived hardscrabble lives. During one recent semester, their stories were particularly poignant. One had escaped with his family from the former Soviet Union. Another had overcome deep poverty; there were many nights when he had no choice but to sleep in his car. And yet, through all of this, these students had found their way to science or engineering or design. Sometimes the inspiration had come from a teacher, parent, or friend. Sometimes it came from fascination with an object — a broken-down car, an old computer, a grandfather clock. The students seemed to understand each other, to find a rhythm. I thought the class was working.

Then, halfway through the semester, a group of students asked to see me. They admitted to texting during class, but they felt bad about it because of the personal material being discussed. They said they text in all their classes, but here it seemed wrong. We decided the class should talk about this as a group. In that discussion, more students admitted that they, too, texted in class. They portrayed constant connection as a necessity. For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. They wanted to see who was in touch with them, a comfort in itself.

We decided to try a device-free class with a break for checking messages and emails. For me, something shifted. Conversations became more relaxed and cohesive. Students finished their thoughts, unrushed. They seemed more present and able to be in an uninterrupted conversation. When they were not tempted by their phones, the students told me, they felt more in control of their attention. With phones in hand, they felt control slip away. An irony emerges. For of course, on the surface, we all see our phones as instruments for giving us greater control, not less.

A lot is at stake. Where we put our attention is not only how we decide what we will learn, it is how we show what we value.

Dropping out of a classroom conversation can begin with a moment of boredom or because a friend reaches out to you. And once you are in that “circuit of apps” (as one student called it), even the best class can’t compete.

In classrooms, the distracted are a distraction: Studies show that when students are in class multitasking on laptops, everyone around them learns less. Distraction is contagious. One college senior says, “I’ll be in a great lecture and look over and see someone shopping for shoes and think to myself, ‘Are you kidding me?’ So I get mad at them, but then I get mad at myself for being self-righteous. But after I’ve gone through my cycle of indignation to self-hate, I realize that I have missed a minute of the lecture, and then I’m really mad.”

Even for those who don’t get stirred up, when your classmates are checking their mail or Amazon, it sends two signals: This class is boring, and you have permission to check out — you, too, are free to do other things online.

Despite research that shows that multitasking is bad for learning, the myth of the moment is that multitasking is a good idea. We are not inclined to let this myth die because multitasking feels good. People talk about multitaskers as addicted. But I find that discussing the power of technology in those terms makes people feel helpless. It is as though they are facing something that is by definition more powerful than they could ever be. Resistance seems futile. But many do resist. Writers, artists, scientists, and literary scholars talk about disenabling the Wi-Fi on their computers to get creative work done. In the acknowledgments of her most recent novel, Zadie Smith thanks “Freedom,” a program that shuts off connectivity on the Mac.

The analogy between screens and drugs breaks down for other reasons. There is only one thing you should do if you are on heroin: Get off it. Your life is at stake. But laptops and smartphones don’t need to be removed. They are part of our creative lives. The goal is to use them with greater intention, to live with them in greater harmony.

Instead of thinking about addiction, it makes more sense to explore how we are vulnerable to certain things that technology offers. The path forward is to learn more about our vulnerabilities and design around them. To do that, we have to clarify our purpose. In education, learning is the focus, and we know that multitasking is not helpful. So it’s up to us to actively choose unitasking.

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About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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