Action, Not Distraction

October 11, 2009

Active learning is the fourth theme of fun in learning, and people who responded to “fun” surveys included things like field trips, hands-on activities, and being able to get up and move around during class as important aspects of enjoyable learning experiences. Other things like service learning and working on projects and activities outside the classroom also mattered.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about active learning and how easy it is not to be actively involved in learning. Learning requires attention. Of course, some knowledge comes from daily life when we are paying little attention to what we are learning. Increased vocabulary and knowledge of spelling and mechanics, for example, are often by-products of reading for fun, even if you’re reading romance novels or crime fiction. When it comes to school-related learning though, deliberate attention is generally necessary, and attention requires active participation of the mind. It also requires disengagement from distraction.

Multi-tasking really isn’t, a study completed recently at Stanford University shows (Adam Gorlick, August 24, 2009, “Media Multitaskers pay Mental Price, Stanford Study Shows,” Stanford News Service, retrieved October 10, 2009, http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html,). Anthony Wagner, an associate professor of psychology and one of researchers who conducted the study, says of those who engage in tasks while distracted by electronic media: “When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

In other words, if you’re a student in my class and you’re checking baseball scores on your computer while you’re hiding your phone on your lap so I won’t see you texting, it is highly unlikely that very much of what is happening in class is getting into your brain. You may get the big picture, but details are easily lost if you aren’t actively paying attention.

In addition, there is a certain amount of anxiety created when you’re doing something that you aren’t supposed to be doing. That provides further distraction. On some level, you may fear that you will be called on and won’t know what’s happening. If you are seen playing solitaire on your computer while you should be taking notes, it is highly likely you will be called on.

I am a serial unitasker when I have serious creative and/or intellectual work to do. I usually have lots of things going on, but I try to give full attention to the one I am working on at the time. I fight writer’s block or artist’s block or teacher’s block by turning to another project if I get stuck. Taking a break and working on something else helps me return refreshed to the original task. I need to beware of other kinds of distraction since I am easily sucked into the email vortex or the search for the perfect quotation. I also know that although I can watch Project Runway and file papers, I cannot watch Project Runway and write this blog.

Think about your own multitasking. Are there some “lies” you’re telling yourself about your productivity (or your safety if you text/talk and drive)? How do you approach serious creative and/or intellectual work? Could you improve your productivity?

Perhaps it would be a good idea, fantastic as it sounds, to muffle every telephone, stop every motor and halt all activity for one hour some day just to give people a chance to ponder for a few minutes on what it is all about, why they are living and what they really want.
•James Truslow Adams


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