Learning to Manage Distractions


One of parents’ biggest concerns around student use of technology is that of distractions. The same tool we use to create and learn, can be used to entertain and derail productivity.

So what are our options, as teachers? As parents?

We could create elaborate structures of control (blocking certain websites, turning off wifi etc), but that is only a temporary solution.

At UWCSEA, we prefer to educate students about distractions, with a view to creating informed citizens, who learn to manage their tendencies to get distracted. This is of course what all adults need to learn to do themselves…

This skill of self-management takes time to develop, and students need lots of opportunities to practice. They may well need frequent reminders throughout their schooling of techniques and approaches to reducing distractions, and this is where responsive teaching comes to the fore.

One of the ways we have begun to educate students about distractions is through the Personal and Social Education curriculum. Recently, I co-taught with a Grade 3 teacher, who was concerned her students were getting side-tracked with Google Chat, and who wanted some strategies for helping students remain focused during class.

When I walked around the room, I asked if I could borrow a few students’ computers to show the class. Here’s what we found:

Like adults, students in our Grade 3 class loved personalising their computers. The majority had chosen a desktop background of something they were interested in (Minecraft, soccer players, horses etc) and many had changed their Gmail backgrounds to have snow falling or animated gifs moving in the background at all times.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Movement and colour can attract attention, often away from what we should be focusing on. Think about visiting a news website, for example. Advertisements often contain moving elements, as these attract the eye – a deliberate attempt by the advertiser to get you to notice what they are selling.

If we choose to have moving elements on our Gmail backgrounds, or our desktop wallpaper (one of the options on a Mac is to have a new desktop background picture every 5 seconds), then we are making it much harder for us to concentrate on our school work.

Colours that help promote calm and thinking are greens and blues, so they were recommended to the students as colours they might like to choose for their desktop and Gmail backgrounds. We encourage personalisation, but we want to make students aware that their choices have an impact on their learning. Students went back to their computers and made changes they were comfortable with.

The ability to send and receive instant messages is a relatively new phenomenon for our Grade 3 students. Understandably, it’s an exciting feature to explore. Many students have older brothers or sisters who like seeing their younger sibling online, and take the opportunity to check in. This puts the younger student in a bit of a conundrum – do I reply to my sibling, or stay focused on my school work?

In one of those serendipitous twists of fate, this exact scenario occurred while I was in the room, providing us with a perfect teachable moment.

We plugged in the computer of a student whose sibling had sent a G-Chat message, and asked the students what they could do in this sort of situation. There were lots of animated discussions in groups about this scenario, and we collected some of the responses and evaluated them as a class.

“We could turn our G-Chat to invisible, so noone knows we are online.”
“So can people still send you messages when you’re invisible?” we asked.
“Yes, they could.”
“Have a think about how that might that affect your learning,” we suggested.

“We could turn our G-Chat to busy, so people know we’re working.”
“So can people still send you messages when you’re busy?” we asked.
“Yes, they could.”
“Have a think about how that might that affect your learning,” we suggested.

“We could sign out of G-Chat when we’re at school.”
“So can people still send you messages when you’re signed out?” we asked.
“No, they couldn’t.”
“Have a think about how that might that affect your learning,” we suggested.

We then sent students back to their desks to make a decision that would help them remain focused on their learning following the discussion with the class.

Documenting Thinking
The final piece of the puzzle was to document their thinking about distractions, and the changes they decided on for their laptops using a Quicktime Screen Recording, which we embedded in their Google Site (see below for details)

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