The Distracted Mind is written by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen. It describes how the world distract our brains, but also how we do so ourselves.
It’s more substantive than your usual pop science book with plenty of academic studies to boot, but this heavy referencing is useful for educators. We might implore students turn off their phones in lectures for their own good, but such warnings ring hollow. We all know that phones disrupt our learning, but we don’t know how. The Distracted Mind shows exactly how technology preys on our brain’s natural ability to be drawn to different sources of information.
To describe distraction, Gazzaley and Rosen use a model from the science of foraging. Foragers find an equilibrium between a food source (berries on a bush), the energy spent scouring that bush for an ever-depleting supply of berries and the energy expended travelling to a new bush.
Like foragers, we move from source to source of information, but we’ve lost our equilibrium. We don’t spend enough time at source (the lecturer) one before jumping to the next (our phone, a different tab etc). Gazalley and Rosen compare us to a ‘squirrel with an attention disorder, constantly jumping from tree to tree’.
If you’re in a lecture with your phone face up, you’ve festooned the next information source with Christmas lights. The book references studies that show 9/10 students use their phone in the lectures and 91% texted during class.
Gazzely and Rosen reference one study where eye-tracking equipment recorded when participants stopped looking at the slides or lecturer. Altogether, this amounted to 26 disrupted minutes in a three-hour class. 26 minutes is around 14% of that class. That might seem okay, but our distracted mind can take 20 minutes to get back on task. If those 26 minutes are distributed through the class - which they often are - students could spend most of the time off task or trying to get back on task.
The book smashes the myth of multi-tasking. Students mistakenly believe they can multi-task better than their elders, perhaps because they have grown up with technology that lets them flit from task to task. The evidence shows the opposite. Nobody can do it. Multitasking is switching very quickly from one thing to the next, often to the detriment of all tasks. Multitaskers have lower productivity across all ages. You can’t critically discuss Heart of Darkness while smashing your high score on Temple Run.
Multitasking (or task-switching) has its place. If you’re stapling, filing or doing some other menial tasks, then a bit of distraction is welcome. Checking your phone won’t speed you up, but it’s not going to affect your ability to staple documents.
In the lecture hall, students need higher-order skills. We assess students with time-sensitive, complex tasks. We want analysis, evaluation and synthesis, knowledge comprehension and retention. Here, students pay the price for distraction and task-switching.
We won’t alarm students into action by throwing Gazzaley and Rosen's book at them, but its final chapter offers solutions to manage distraction in the classroom. I’ve listed two from the book and two I like from elsewhere.
Tracking smartphone use
Gazalley and Rosen want us to appreciate the extent of our distraction. TrackTime, RescueTime and Menthal are apps that tell you how often you check your phone. Recall that it can take 20 minutes to get back on task, so multiply the result by 20 for a sense of just how much time can be lost to distraction.
Information is all around us. If we can see it, we’re likely to jump to it. Gazzaley and Rosen suggest adding blinkers to our digital environments so that other information sources are hidden.
If we want students to do this in class, we’re going to have to ask them to put phones in bags and, more importantly, close some tabs.
Multiple tabbed browsing invites distraction and task-switching. Irrelevant information is visible on-screen, crying out for your attention. Sometimes, one-tab working isn't possible, but we can tell students to close every tab that isn’t needed for the work in class. Remind them each website is merely two clicks away, stored in their browsing history.
To help students resist the urge to open new tabs, I suggest TabZolo. It’s an extension for Google Chrome that only gives you one tab.
Lead by example
I have written elsewhere about staff distraction. If you sneak a peek at your phone during the break, it sends a message that it’s okay for students to do the same.
Force a choice about laptop use
Laptops are useful for some students and are now vital in some classes, but many students still use pen and paper. Laptops are distracting for these students (think of that guy in front who is scrolling through his news feed).
David Laibson and Thomas Strazlecki of Harvard’s economics department have found a fascinating solution to this problem. At the start of term, students sign up to their course as either laptop or paper users in class. After students make their choice, they may not switch.
Those using paper sit in the first few rows so they don’t have distracting screens in front of them. Laibson and Strazlecki found 80% of students opt for pen and paper.
These measures are simple, based on evidence and don’t force students into technological celibacy. All they do is remove the distracting stimulus and help students focus.