Have you ever stood behind a room full of teachers or administrators at meetings or professional development? What do you see on their computer screens? Let’s see—Email to keep track of what’s going on at work; Twitter to provide a back channel for communicating with others near and far; web sites that are the topic of the gathering and web sites that clearly aren’t; calendars to see what’s coming up tomorrow; blogs of favorite authors; consumer retail sites, and that’s just to name a few distractions. Add to that the cell phones, and the neighbor we’re chatting with, and it’s a wonder that we ever hear a word that’s said on the topic of the gathering or accomplish the tasks at hand. Are we surprised that we see the same thing in our classrooms, and by the way, what is the solution?
The truth of the matter is that we can only focus on one thing at a time. While we can cruise between lots of tasks in tiny bursts of concentration, we truly can’t be processing two thoughts on two different topics at the same time. How many times have you heard what a moderator said, taken off on that tangent in some way on your laptop (or on some other completely off task tangent) and then had to ask for the next part of the presentation to be repeated? I’ve never been to a gathering of professionals where this didn’t happen, and many times it’s me who got lost by my wandering fingers on the keyboard or phone.
I know what the canned responses are:
“Whose fault is it if students are running around on Facebook when they should be on task in the classroom?”
“Chat should be open for back channel conversations, and students who are engaged won’t talk about anything but the current topic."
“Stand and deliver presentations deserve the lack of engagement.”
“Find something students care about, and they’ll pay attention.”
“Show students how the topic applies to them in real life, and they won’t even think of socializing with their peers.”
Are you serious? Do you really believe that students, young and old, can use their interpretation of the quality of the class or meeting as their cop out for not paying attention? Who’s to judge that quality? I have one daughter who hates small group work. I have a son who would rather shovel snow than listen to a lecture. I have another daughter who thinks online classes are the best way to learn and another daughter who can’t stand not having other people physically present when learning. Do we really think that depending on each student's learning style or preference, an excuse can be made for not paying attention?
The truth of the matter is that despite the best intentions of presenters or moderators, whether with lessons for classrooms of students, or with PD or meetings for teachers and administrators, the temptations for participants’ forging ahead on their own, whether on or off topic, is enormous. We pick and choose what we care about, and we focus on what our priorities are at the time. In so doing, the entire purpose of the class or the gathering can be lost. Whose fault is that?
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and assert that the locus of control does not rest with the teacher or moderator alone, although they certainly share responsibility. The responsibility also has to lie with those who came to the class or session. Just because laptops or cell phones present huge temptations to wander off mentally, we owe it to ourselves and our peers to stay on task. I don’t care if the class or session isn’t perfect. I don’t care if there’s too much stand and deliver. I don’t care if the small group work seems ill defined. I don’t even care if someone is waiting for an important email to arrive. There comes a point when one has to take responsibility for his/her own learning. Students, young and old, who don’t are cheating themselves and their cohorts. Surely part of our job as educators, in addition to creating the best learning tasks we can, is to clearly define our behavioral expectations in our classrooms or meeting rooms, and surely our job as students is to follow the rules, pay attention, and learn. No excuses.