Design for Distraction

The New York times story “Grow­ing Up Dig­i­tal, Wired for Dis­trac­tion” point out many of the ways that tech­nol­ogy is ingrained in our stu­dents lives and what that means for teach­ing, learn­ing and distraction.

But dis­trac­tion isn’t any­thing new. Whether stu­dents pass notes, doo­dle in their note­book, or stare out the win­dow, dis­trac­tion has always been part of a stu­dent life.

Now, you can say that tech­nol­ogy has taken dis­trac­tion to a dif­fer­ent level and with social media, text mes­sages, instant mes­sages, smart-phones and games, one would argue that we face a dif­fi­cult bat­tle.  But it is not one that we can’t win.

One of biggest top­ics we dis­cussed at my school prior to the launch of or 1:1 ini­tia­tive was how to deal with dis­trac­tion.  Stu­dents had already been bring­ing in lap­tops prior to the start of our pro­gram and every kid seemed to have a smart-phone or iPod with them wher­ever they went, so this was not a new issue for us, per se.  But now, by giv­ing every stu­dent a Mac­book Pro we would need to take the issue of dis­trac­tion head on.

How to do it if you’re a teacher. Design for Dis­trac­tion.  Design your class­rooms, your instruc­tion and you con­ver­sa­tions to deal with distraction.

1. Estab­lish Class­room Norms — You know stu­dents are dis­tracted.  I know stu­dents get dis­tracted. Let’s talk about the things that you can do to help min­i­mize dis­trac­tion while in the class­room and keep stu­dents focused on the lesson.

Let them come up with the ways they can keep them­selves on task.  This is not the time for you to “lay down the law” and by involv­ing them in the process you allow them to take own­er­ship of the problem.

This sounds sim­ple… but hav­ing this type of con­ver­sa­tion with your stu­dents at the start of the year can make all the difference.

2. The Phys­i­cal Space — If you are going to teach in a class­room with tech­nol­ogy you can­not keep the seats in rows.  You need to be able to move around the room.  Rearrange your class­room so that you can eas­ily see what is going on. You shouldn’t always be at the front of the room anyway!

By rear­rang­ing the space you can also help rein­force the norms you help estab­lish in the first place.  A gen­tle hand on a stu­dents shoul­der can remind them to refo­cus when needed and when they know you will be mov­ing around more they are less likely to “wan­der off” to web sites or instant mes­sage a friend.

3. Use the Tech­nol­ogy to Help — There are so many ways that you can use the tech­nol­ogy to help min­i­mize dis­trac­tion.  On our Mac­Books stu­dent can use Spaces to cre­ate vir­tual work spaces where only the tools they need for the class can be avail­able.  Stu­dents can also remove items from their Dock that can tempt them to become dis­tracted.  By remov­ing iChat, Skype or their Twit­ter app (that may be more me than the stu­dents) they will be less likely to launch the application.

There are also appli­ca­tions that stu­dents can install on their com­puter to help.  “Self Con­trol” is one such appli­ca­tion.  It allows you to block access to cer­tain appli­ca­tions, web site or ser­vices for a set period of time.  Once set you can not bypass the appli­ca­tion. Restart­ing the com­puter or delet­ing the appli­ca­tion will not work; you need to wait the pre­scribed time.

4. Using the Right Tool — Stu­dents (and teach­ers) need to real­ize what the right tool is for the task at hand… and that tool may not be the lap­top.  Telling stu­dents to close their lap­tops or put them away needs to be some­thing that you feel you can do.  Often in 1:1 pro­grams there is a feel­ing that you have to use the lap­top all the time.  That is just not the case.

5. Good Teach­ing — It all comes down to you.  I hate to say it, but if kids were eas­ily dis­tracted in you class before they had access to tech­nol­ogy, they are going to be even more dis­tracted by the tech­nol­ogy.  Good pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment and a good sup­port struc­ture is impor­tant to have in any school and in par­tic­u­lar when you are work­ing with technology.

Often the stu­dents may know more than you about how to use the appli­ca­tions or the hard­ware, but remem­ber you are the one that can help guide them in its appro­pri­ate use.  You don’t need to know every aspect of the tool, but you do need to under­stand it’s how it can or can’t be applied in your area.  If you don’t, just ask.  Ask a col­league, ask you cur­ricu­lum sup­port per­son, or even ask your student(s).  Have him or her explain why the tool is the right one for them to be using.

6. Engage the par­ent body — It doesn’t end in the class­room.  Your school should be address­ing this issue with the par­ents as well.  Through newslet­ters, dur­ing con­fer­ences, in par­ent meet­ings, by what­ever means you have at your dis­posal you should be talk­ing about this with your par­ents.  No good teach­ing is done with­out the sup­port of par­ents at home and this is not different.

You need to let par­ents know what you are doing to address this issue in school and what they can do at home as well.  The par­ent that says that they can’t con­trol their child’s Inter­net use at home or the amount of time they spend play­ing games is sim­ply not par­ent­ing.  Help sup­port them in their homes.


Lock­ing down com­put­ers, con­fis­cat­ing smart-phones and block­ing social media sites does noth­ing to teach stu­dents how to deal with dis­trac­tions for them­selves.  All this does it tell them that it’s some­one else’s respon­si­bil­ity or puts up walls for them to spend their time try­ing to get around… and we can’t afford an arms race.

Please let me know what your thoughts are on deal­ing with dis­trac­tion in your school or class­room and share you thoughts below.

Addi­tional Resources (add 11/23/2010):


About William Stites

Currently the Director of Technology for Montclair Kimberley Academy, "Blogger in Chief" for, husband and father to two crazy kids who make me smile everyday.
This entry was posted in 1to1, Design, EdTech, Schools, Social Media, Teaching & Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Eric Juli


    Thanks for the prac­ti­cal response to the Times piece. Your post offers con­crete options for teach­ers already using tech­nol­ogy in their class­rooms. These are great sug­ges­tions for the tech-infused class­room, but what would you say to the teach­ers in the Times piece who seem to believe that tech­nol­ogy is the dis­trac­tor get­ting in the way of the learn­ing that ought to be occur­ring in their class­rooms? The author seems to set up the par­a­digm that either you are suc­cess­ful stu­dent and tech­nol­ogy is a sep­a­rate com­po­nent of your life out­side of school, or the tech­nol­ogy out­side of school gets in the way of the “real” learn­ing that should be occur­ring in school. I don’t buy the par­a­digm, but many teach­ers, admin­is­tra­tors, par­ents, and super­in­ten­dents do. Your thoughts?

    Thanks for the post,

    Eric Juli

    • William Stites

      I think that it comes down to the con­ver­sa­tions with fac­ulty about what it means to pre­pare our stu­dents for the world they will be enter­ing once they grad­u­ate. I look at the way that I learn now, the way that I work and share infor­ma­tion and won­der how I would be able to do any of it with­out technology.

      Maybe you won’t get through to the teacher, but you need to engage them in the con­ver­sa­tion if only to involve them in it.

  • David

    I’d like to fol­low up on what Eric said. I, too, noticed that inher­ent pre­sump­tion that tech­nol­ogy and learn­ing were sep­a­rate. The assump­tion seemed to be that com­put­ers were used for dis­trac­tion from learn­ing, whereas I know from my own son’s expe­ri­ence that com­put­ers can be used for learn­ing as well. At the same time, it seemed to me that most of the exam­ples of tech­nol­ogy dis­trac­tion men­tioned in the arti­cle were out­side of school–in which case, it is a parental prob­lem, rather than a school prob­lem (at least, not directly). Your sug­ges­tions above do noth­ing for the stu­dent in the arti­cle who reported play­ing video games four hours a day after school.

    I thought I’d throw in one more tech­nol­ogy solu­tion: to keep stu­dents focused dur­ing dis­cus­sion, I assign a des­ig­nated note­taker for every class, whose job it is to keep a record of what is said in class dis­cus­sions in a Google docs doc­u­ment just for that pur­pose. That allows me to tell stu­dents to close their lap­tops dur­ing dis­cus­sions, and also allows stu­dents to focus on the dis­cus­sion with­out hav­ing to worry about tak­ing notes. Stu­dents can also use the notes as an addi­tional resource when study­ing for tests. In a recent sur­vey I did of stu­dents, a large major­ity found the notes useful.


    • William Stites

      I try to point out above where you need to engage the par­ents. Since you post I have tried to high­light that point more clearly… thanks for the suggestion.

      As for the note­taker sug­ges­tion… I love it. It is one I heard before and thing can be very good (so long as you have a good notetaker).

      Thanks for the com­ment and adding to the discussion.

      • David

        Yes, you’re right, I mis­spoke (or mis-wrote). You def­i­nitely address it. Call it “poor inter­net read­ing syn­drom” on my part. Still, I think it points out a fun­da­men­tal issue in the Times piece, namely, blam­ing tech­nol­ogy for prob­lems whose fun­da­men­tal prob­lems lies else­where. I’m not an unqual­i­fied tech­nol­ogy booster. The read­ing I’ve done sug­gests it’s impor­tant to put com­put­ers, phones, iPad, etc. aside at times. How­ever, that’s dif­fer­ent from the “tech­nol­ogy is bad” view­point that the Times arti­cle seems to take. I think it’s more like “tech­nol­ogy is bad for some things and good for others.”

  • Jan Dev­ereux

    Thanks for shar­ing this per­spec­tive. The NYT arti­cle should have high­lighted how some of us “lap­top schools” are suc­cess­fully man­ag­ing the dis­trac­tion issue. Curi­ously, the 8 teacher-created videos with the story showed class­room tech­nol­ogy use in a much more pos­i­tive light than depicted in the article.

    • William Stites

      I think for those schools that are involved in 1:1 Ini­tia­tives the able to man­age much of this through the norm­ing of behav­iors and class­room practice.

  • Mag­gie Granados

    Your post is spot on… just as we say that tech alone isn’t the cool tool that makes the dif­fer­ence, but it can if the ped­a­gogy around it is shifted, in this instance the reverse is true. Tech isn’t the bad guy caus­ing dis­trac­tion, but it can if teach­ers, stu­dents and par­ents are asleep at the wheel and don’t change the oper­at­ing norms. There are plenty of schools and stu­dents, teach­ers and fam­i­lies who have done just that. Too bad the NYT piece didn’t use its plat­form to cel­e­brate some of those new, suc­cess­ful ways.

  • Anna Nolin

    And now…the other side of the argu­ment.

  • Rachel Sebell Graveline

    Great post Bill. I espe­cially like you com­ment “we can’t afford an arms race.” It reminds me of high school in the 90’s when a teacher band the use of TI calculators!

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