If you know any social-media-savvy teachers or parents, you’ve probably seen quite a few links to this MindShift post about “The Age of Distraction” – and about the (perceived) importance of teaching young people how to focus in order to be successful. There’s a lively conversation at the original post, with 80 comments already as I write on Tuesday morning, and no doubt there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of other conversations about it, too.
If you live in a factory-model world, learn (or teach) in a factory-model school, and work in a factory-model workplace, the types of attention and focus featured in the post really are important for “success” – if success is defined as rising through the factory-ranks, or even just maintaining your position in an age of cutbacks. But if you step out of the factory-mindset for a moment, if you observe children (and adults) in non-factory settings, you’ll probably find that even the most “distracted” ones are quite capable of paying attention to things they’re interested in. And whether you’re surrounded by technology or not, there are always potential distractions around. Even without technology, I could stop and pay attention to The Dog, who’s curled up nearby, or I could listen to the rain that’s falling outside or notice other details of my immediate surroundings. And sometimes I do – and sometimes those distractions are more important than the “important” thing I thought I needed to focus on.
Managing distractions is the key – and it’s something we humans naturally do. The problem, I suppose, is that my distraction (the thing I’m tuning out) is sometimes your important task (the thing you want me to tune in and focus on).
It was a chilly, rainy Monday, and by the time they got to their upper-level Latin class, B, B, U, E, and C were tired and unfocused. Three of them had a Big Project due that afternoon – a Big Project that apparently involved much photocopying, cutting, pasting, and poster-making for Ms. X’s class – and they were worried about Another Big Thing, and about how hard it is to be a senior, and about Life After Graduation, and about a family member who’s suffering from a serious medical problem. If you operate with a factory-mindset, those things would be distractions from the Important Business of My Class, and you’d respond with yelling and labeling or a pain-punishment cycle, with threats and promises or sarcastic comments. Why? Because in factory-thinking, The Supervisor (that’s me, in one of the many roles teachers play in factory-mindset schools) is supposed to tell The Workers (that’s them, unless they’re the Raw Material and I’m the worker) what’s a distraction and what’s important business.
I didn’t. I reminded them once about the passage they didn’t read, and I made sure they had the materials for creating the next story in the storyline for which they now have creative control. And at the end of the day, when they hadn’t accomplished much, I pointed out that they’d be needing to do about 90 minutes’ worth of work in 60 today, since we’ll be presenting those new stories. ”We’re sorry!” they said. ”I accept your apology, but I don’t need an apology,” I told them. I just needed to point out the effects of the choices they’d made – the choices about what was a distraction and what was important business.
The only way you can learn to make good choices – by which I think I mean choices that get the results you want – is to have some opportunities to make and learn from bad choices. But B, B, U, and the others haven’t had much experience with choice-making in academic contexts. Ms. X and Mr. Y tell them what to do and how to do it and when it’s supposed to be done, and then Ms. X and Mr. Y fuss, fret, yell, and label about being responsible and getting distracted. And I understand where Ms. X and Mr. Y are coming from, because I spent many years doing that, too. But at some point, I realized the folly of trying to teach responsibility by taking all of it … and I think that’s when the journey from factory-mindset to joyful learning community began in earnest.
In a joyful learning community setting, there can still be deadlines and timelines, and sometimes you might need to specify things about processes or products. But the design, the execution, and the management – including the management of distractions and the decisions about what counts as a distraction – really have to belong to the community members, not The Supervisor. It’s a hard transition when you’ve been successful in factory-model settings – a hard, but important transition, because factory-thinking itself is a distraction these days. Even though it’s another gray, rainy, chilly day today – and even though there may be some imperfect and unfinished stories and products from the various groups this afternoon – the joyful learning community will continue … and the most important lessons (including the ones about managing distractions) will probably still be learned.
I wonder what else we’ll learn and discover today!