Saturday, August 18, 2018

New Book Coming: Teaching Distracted Minds

Special welcome to readers coming to this blog from the recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about digital distractions. I've kept the post below as I originally wrote it, but just wanted to provide here the brief update that I'm making steady progress on the book, and anticipate finishing by my December 2019 deadline, putting the book out a year or so later. In the meantime, follow along on Twitter at @LangOnCourse or Instagram at @jimlang7. I blog here every month or few, on lots of random topics, including Donald Trump's indiscriminate use of capital letters, teaching like Aristotle, Angela Duckworth's theory of grit, and why highlighters suck. Distract yourself for a little while and enjoy. 

The first time that my syllabus mentioned anything about the use of technology in class was in the spring of 2008, when I wrote the following policy into my Argument and Persuasion course:
  • PUT AWAY AND TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONES!  If your phone rings or vibrates in class, or I see you checking it or texting, you will be absent for that day.

This policy likely arose from some student who was texting during in class the previous semester, so you can trace back my concern with this issue at least ten years, and probably longer. Students on my campus have been slower than those on other campuses to bring their laptops into class, so at that time cell phone were the only in-class technology that concerned me. 

Ten years later, both the concern and the policy seem almost quaint. I haven't heard a cell phone ring in class for at least a few years now, and I no longer have a strict attendance policy. We do enough low-stakes writing exercises or other activities in class that students who miss class will gradually bleed away so many points that it makes it difficult for them to pass.

The vexing question of how to address student use of technology in class has become an increasingly fascinating one for me, though. I see faculty all over the spectrum on their policies about the use of technology in class, read arguments in academic publications about whether we should ban phones and laptops from class (and I've written some of those arguments myself), and pored through lots of research about the use of technology in class and how it impacts student learning.
The coffee shop where I like to work, with it's many distractions.

Almost all of that research connects to the larger cultural debates we have been having about attention and distraction. Are our cell phones destroying our ability to pay attention? Are students these days incapable of sitting down and focusing on difficult texts, because they are so used to scrolling continuously through their phones? Has the advent of our latest technologies changed the human brain? Do we need to re-think our education systems for our tech-saturated world? Or should we focus instead on teaching students to focus their minds, using techniques like mindfulness?

A few years ago I began really thinking about this question in earnest, exploring the research on attention and distraction, and reading what both learning theorists and working teachers had to say about these issues, about their students, and about their policies. What I found, especially in the literature of attention and distraction, was how fundamental this question was to so many aspects of our lives. Neuroscientists, for example, debate about the extent to which our attention systems form our very consciousness. Philosophers consider what it means to think with and without attention. Psychologists point out that attention to one thing means blindness to many others. And teachers wonder whether, without attention, we can learn anything at all.

I always know that I've hit about a good book topic when I can't stop wondering about a question. And a good two years after I began thinking about these issues in depth, I'm still curious and wondering. That curiosity has led me into historical and philosophical texts which demonstrate that we have been concerned about distraction for a good two millennia now. It has led me into the work of neuroscientists who explain why our minds are subject to distraction, and how that might have benefited our early brains. It has led me to the work of psychologists who describe creative thinking in terms that sound an awful lot like distracted thinking.   

All of this is prelude to say that I'm pleased to announce that my next book, Teaching Distracted Minds, will be published by Basic Books in 2020. (I buried the lede for this blog post way down here at the end, just to see if you were paying attention.)  I'm still on the research journey, but the ideas that will form the core arguments of the book are in place, and I hope I will be able to offer readers some new historical and scientific perspectives, some creative solutions for the problems that educators at all levels are having with distracted students in class, and some new ideas for how careful thinking about attention and distraction can improve the education we provide for students, especially at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

I'm very grateful to my agent and to the editors at Basic Books for helping to make this project come to life.  I was fortunate enough to have multiple presses interested in the book, and Basic made a very convincing case for their ability to bring the book to the widest audience possible. I can't wait to get writing, and to get the book in your hands as soon as humanly possible.

In the meantime, to all my fellow teachers out there, have a great start to the new academic year.

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