In reading Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s The Distraction Addiction, I find solace that I am not the only adult challenged by the myth of productive digital multi-tasking.

As an educator, I see our students struggle too. While our emphasis on boys-only classes offers fewer distractions of one kind, the introduction of classroom devices offers more of another, even as our iPads allow students greater ability to engage and collaborate and produce meaningful, resonant work.

Teen minds are like smart phones, with certain apps running all the time: the Twitter app (“did you hear what I said?”), the Facebook app (“do you like what I did?”), the relationship app (“has she noticed me yet?”), the homework app (“I thought that was due tomorrow!”), the reptilian app (“can I dodge the Dean all day?”) and the hormone app (not possible to be encapsulated in a parenthetical).

Their minds are “full” — full of data and energy and noise. And while our Dean’s office sees its share of blank stares at the question “what were you thinking?” a lack of calm brought on by their many running mental apps is likely the bigger culprit.

Schools have already had to adopt roles that used to be filled elsewhere, such as providing a neighborhood experience in a K-8 after-school program because more and more kids don’t play outside after school. It appears to me schools must now jump into another role: providing mindLESSness, opportunities for students to “swipe off” the apps running in the background of their mental operating systems.

We chose our campsite for our all-class camping trip because it has no cell signal. When we asked our students about the trip, many quotes agree with the one that stated “I liked just hanging out around the campsite with my group and just having a good time. We didn’t have the barrier of technology so we could actually talk to each other and not have a constant distraction.” That said, there were more than a few boys who expressed frustration at not having their iPads because they missed the entertainment (games, streaming etc) that their devices provide when they are not at school. I echo the response of many when I write that perhaps it is not the worst thing in the world to be bored once in a while…boredom can be a great impetus for creativity (though I am certainly wary of some forms of “creativity” when it comes to camping and campfires!).

In other examples, we start each weekly Chapel and many daily classes with espacio, in which our students now have the ability to be quiet and still for four minutes; we encourage them to turn off their smart phones and the constant state of semi-attentiveness that go with them.  We run a device-free sophomore trip to Costa Rica with the girls from Convent, where students engage in service learning and cultural immersion without the ability to tweet “OMG sea turtle nesting restoration: no joke” between heaves of the shovel. Of course, a co-ed trip means that plenty of the non-technological mental apps are still running, though only in traditional ways like talking and hanging out.

I know that I perform better at my job when I find brief moments to free myself from the apps that are running in my mind. Our students perform better, too, when our schools provide similar opportunities.  We are too far down the line with classroom and personal devices to pull them all the way back, and there are way too many benefits to suggest doing so, anyway.  Instead, we have to focus on how to help them navigate their digital reality, and sometimes that means shutting it down.  It’s a balance that we strike with so many other seemingly disparate concepts, bridged by the “&”: “coed & single-sex” “Catholic & catholic” …  “high tech & reflective”.



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