What is this need for students to be sitting upright, focused on the instructor at the front of the classroom? We say they won’t learn if they are not paying attention but I really wonder if this is truly about attention at all. Is it not more about power issues in the classroom?
Let me be clear here – I’m not referring to the students who are chattering away while I’m lecturing, distracting everyone in the room. Nor am I referring to those who might be talking on their cell phone in classtime. But students who are doing more than one thing at any given time are labelled as “disengaged” and I just don’t think that’s always the case.
I’ve been to a few teaching conferences in recent years where both delegates and speakers have insisted that if the students are not sitting upright, pen poised, eyes on the professor, they are just not engaged with the course. But this has not been my experience.
I’ve pondered this point for a long time … the issue of attention (or perceived lack of attention) began to interest me about 20 years ago when I was tutoring a 12-year old boy who I’ll call “Jake”. I was planning on becoming a high school teacher at the time and was taking on volunteer experience. Jake was having extreme difficulties at school and had been labelled ADHD. I volunteered to come to his home twice a week and help him with the school work that he was not able to complete in the classroom. One complication was that his IQ was above 140. Jake got bored very easily. I suspected that he was learning, even ahead in the curriculum, but that his boredom was causing him to act out in the classroom.
When I first agree to help Jake, I had a meeting with his parents and made it clear that they had to let me handle the situation in my way. They both agreed, grateful that Jake was getting some one-on-one help. But it was hard for them when we actually started working. His mother, in particular, had difficulty with the concept that Jake could be doing homework while jumping on his bed and bouncing a ball off the ceiling. But he was – not only was Jake fully aware of the curriculum, he could work at a very fast past. We made good progress. Sadly at the end of my tenure with the family, his parents chose to explore the Ritalin option and I lost touch with him.
But Jake’s way of being in a learning situation twigged something for me. I’d always had trouble concentrating on one thing at a time. The only place I actually succeeded in the classroom was in my literature courses because they were dynamic and involved. In lectures (before computers) I suffered, unable to focus and my notes usually turned into a short story or other piece of imaginative writing that kept me occupied during classtime.
Fast forward 20 years and I still work this way. It drives some of my colleagues batty. I’ve been accused of lack of focus from everyone from my doctoral supervisor to fellow faculty members. That is until they see my work. Then I think it becomes clear. I focus on things in very concentrated chunks. I write quickly and I type 110 words per minute (thanks to several years as a word processing operator during my undergrad years). At any one time on my computer I have multiple files open. For instance as I write this I have the following open: student papers being evaluated, my latest blog entry being edited, a poetry collection that I’m writing a review of, my RSS feeds reader, Vista for my 4th year course, Facebook and my email. As I work I flip through each one, back and forth, randomly until I’m finished. This drives my most anal and organized friends batty. And even that is not all: I have laundry being washed, my lunch in the oven and my blackberry flashing beside me.
So when I teach and I see students with their laptops open and I circulate to see what they are doing, if they have non-classroom related stuff on screen (games, Facebook, Email, Vista) I don’t necessarily ask them to close the computer. Instead I ask them what we are doing in class. If they have no idea and are checked out – then the computer has to go away. But more and more I’m finding they answer instantly. They are engaged. They are not sitting at attention staring at me but they certainly are engaged.
And if they are engaged and learning, then the “eyes on me” mentality isn’t really about the students’ learning, is it? It’s a power issue. The crux of any classroom situation.