Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You have just spent the last ten minutes doomscrolling through Twitter. Some of the posts made you laugh. Some made you anxious over the state of the world. Some made you insecure about what you are or are not doing. A couple made you think. Maybe you responded, but probably not. You might have clicked through a link, but, again, probably not. It is time to work. You close the Twitter app. Then, without so much as putting your phone down, you reflexively open the Twitter app and check out what is happening — if you’re anything like me, you didn’t even open another app in between.

Or maybe you went from the Twitter app on your phone to Twitter on a browser, or vice-versa.

Or, maybe, TikTok or Facebook are more your speed. Or maybe snapchat or a game. The specifics don’t matter because the end result is the same: people flit from one thing to another drawn like moths to a flame to advertisements, social media, and a host of other distractors carefully designed to harvest our attention.

This ubiquitous feature of modern life, naturally, leads to waves of hand-writing over the pace of life and how modern technology has entirely ruined the ability of people, but particularly young people, to focus for any length of time.

In an educational context, these fears has led to the question of how to best eliminate distractions from the classroom, whether through draconian technology bans or trying to convince students to treat class like a sanctuary where they should leave their concerns at the door for the duration. According to James Lang, however, these well-meaning impulses are asking the wrong questions. We can never eliminate distractions. Beyond the simple fact that our monkey minds are calibrated to look for distractions, it is too much to expect that students will be able to put out of mind a sick loved one, or a relationship problem, or a bodily pain, or any of an infinite variety of other concerns for a class that may or may not be all that important for them. If this wasn’t obvious before, it should be now given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the bad news. The good news, as James Lang points out in the first chapter, is that latest round of laments for the prelapsarian days before distraction are strikingly myopic. That is, there was never a golden age when people were free from distraction and laments about its loss merely get updated to account for technology. In his posthumous novel “The City and the Mountains” (A Cidade e as Serras) from 1901, the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós includes a dream sequence where the narrator is appalled by the frivolity of modern life:

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful han which created it—the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Or one could look to the collection of quotes on the subject collected by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

In other words, to be distracted is to be human. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a kitten who doesn’t understand it is a problem for her to repeatedly leap onto my desk, chew on books, papers, and pens, and nuzzle my hands while I type. She is also fascinated by my fingers when I am touch-typing.

Lang’s thesis in Distracted is thus that we should not pursue the quixotic aim of eliminating distraction, but that we should be leaning in to strategies that cultivate attention. Sometimes this requires temporarily eliminating distractions — when I am doing my academic writing, for instance, I set a length of time during which I turn off my email and won’t check social media —but, more frequently, the strategies involve finding ways to redirect and renew attention when it flags over the course of a class and a semester. Learning is hard work and if you’re anything like me your attention span dips precipitously when you’re tired. The same thing applies to students.

This thesis might be simplicity itself, but actually pulling it off in a classroom setting requires practice and attention.

Like his earlier book Small Teaching, Distracted is not prescriptive. Lang mentions several times that he is generally agnostic about a lot of teaching methods because good teaching can take many forms. What works for one teacher — or student — won’t necessarily work for another. Rather, he lays out current research into the science of attention and uses numerous examples of activities and practices to establish principles that any teacher can adapt to their class.

I concluded of Small Teaching that its simplicity was the greatest sign of its success. Distracted tackles thornier issues and Lang dedicates the entire third chapter (~35 pages) to the tech ban debate that couches his suggestions in the awareness that his own policies have changed quite dramatically over the years. This and other portions of the book take a more process-oriented approach that encourage the teacher to be conscientious of how the policies affect the classroom atmosphere.

Other portions of Distracted are more like Small Teaching. The book’s second part offers six “practices” of attention and how they can help draw students toward the material you have to offer. These range from the simple — cultivating a community through the use of names and modeling the behavior you want to see by leaving your phone in your office — to engaging student curiosity to techniques for focusing attention by switching between activities or with quick attention renewal devices in which he gave the example of a preacher asking an audience for an “amen” when they start to drift. Lang also makes the case that assessments are a critical component of attention because they work to direct students toward the material that you believe is important in the course. Sometimes this means crafting assessments with attention in mind since many students will never be more focused on your material than when writing a big test, but other times it involves no- or minimal-grading on repeated assignments that ask the students to connect what they’re learning in the class to life today. Students might find the practices unfamiliar at first, but with practice and attention on the part of the teacher they can pay dividends in the classroom.

Much of what Lang writes in Distracted echoes the direction I have been moving my courses over the past few years in terms of building community and keeping the classroom fresh, particularly on low energy days. It doesn’t always work, of course, but each of the chapters in Part 2 offers a wealth of ideas to help draw students back in. For this reason I fully expect that I will return to Distracted for inspiration and found that it was an ideal book to read while putting together my courses for the semester. In fact, I often would read something that inspired me to put down the book mid-chapter to modify language in a syllabus or tweak an assignment. It is possible to quibble with a small individual observation or policy or suggestion, and I did at times, but for every one where that happens two more will land home.

Distracted is not necessarily where I would start for a new teacher looking for tips on teaching (my current recommendation is David Gooblar’s The Missing Course), but it is both one of the two books I would suggest after that (along with Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom) and a book with a lot worth considering for even the most experienced teachers.