In Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer outlines four myths that hurt education. Of the four myths, the one that most immediately spoke to my own journey to become a better teacher was myth number two — “Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.”
I’m one of those children of the 1980s who had parents who went to great lengths to raise me away from TV and, later on, the Internet. But practice sitting still and being quiet isn’t a prerequisite for learning. When we worry about our students being distracted in class, it is because we assume they need to focus their attention completely on one thing to be able to learn.
For better or worse — and I think there is room for debate there — that isn’t the background of today’s undergraduates. For the simple reason that the pace of our culture has changed, today’s students are equipped to change topics, mediums and multi-task much better than their parents.
So, breaking this myth helps us to think about teaching in a new way. How can we use our students’ ability to quickly move between mediums and multi-task? I often combine lecture, writing assignment or project, a video/audio piece and discussion in every class. But each of these are done consecutively. I’m left wondering how I could use multiple mediums at one time.
For instance, if students had an essay question that required them to respond to a video, could they record their reactions in real-time and then tidy up the essay afterward?
As a reporter, I live tweeted meetings I’ve attended and use those tweets to help reconstruct my articles. If every student were live-tweeting a lecture, using a hashtag, might they be able to use their collective tweets in lieu of note-taking?
Would having an activity to accomplish during what are typically passive moments in the classroom help them be more mindful learners?
I’m not sure, but I think it would be worth trying. And I think student feedback will be key. I find that students are very honest about what works and doesn’t work when asked. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown summarize this struggle succinctly in “A New Culture of Learning”: “The challenge is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new” (49). But the first step to creating something new is being willing to try.