Keeping Kids Awake in the Classroom

New technology and new lifestyles always bring about excitement and fear. Computers and phones have changed all of our lives in the past few years making it easier and easier for us to become engaged in increasingly more and more attention keeping ways. The world has shrunk: we can now use Skype to message family and friends from hundreds of miles away; no longer does a student have to waste precious time making their way to a library since almost the entire body of human literature is available to anyone; and of course any number of entertaining distractions can be accessed with the click of a button. Who can forget the Times cover from May last year:

What’s she holding in her hand? A smart phone.

Of course such articles are to a large part ridiculous. Time Magazine has to sell issues and what better way than to make the entire young population mad while reinforcing the older population’s curmudgeonliness and waylaying their fears. “We messed up the world, gave birth to a bunch of entitled technology addicts, but we can die peacefully. They’ll clean up after us.” Sighhhh. People need to sometimes realize what will and won’t change. Technology will change; people rarely do.

Yet there are some fears the increasing access to technology and the increasing saturation of a new sort of pop culture obsessed with fame that are well-founded. In this article by John Warner questions of the distraction age’s effect on education rise up. Now I’m sure many of you have heard the argument that classes need to entertain students or lose them to an increasingly large population of kids who went through school and learned nothing. As Warner says:

The bar for being an “entertaining” teacher is actually pretty low. Once in the room, the audience is captive. Students expect boredom, so if there’s even a glimmer of mirth, the appreciation is outsized.

This may seem like it provides the answer: we need to entertain our students in the future. Warner brings up a point to combat this. Entertainment as we see it now would require something along the lines of lectures given by Matt Damon and available to all on the internet. Soon, Warner suggests, this slippery slope of trying to entertain students would lead away from education entirely:

The plot twists on Scandal get more absurd with each episode. A revelation that would’ve dropped jaws in season one gets yawns in season three. The show is already burning itself out. You can almost feel the buckets of sweat coming out of the writers room.

Matt Damon lecturing will give away to shirtless Matt Damon lecturing. We will also have Scarlett Johansson versions for people who prefer that visual.

But what do we do when shirtless Matt Damon is no longer sufficiently stimulating? Shirtless Matt Damon juggling chainsaws. Next class: shirtless Matt Damon juggling flaming chainsaws.

Yet this does not give teachers or professors a free pass to boredom. How many have ever been in a class where the teacher provided no incentive to come to lectures nor was it even necessary to pass the class? We don’t need entertainers to teach us, but increasingly it feels as if professors often don’t even know how to engage us. For example, I had a class a few semesters ago where the professor would lecture for three hours (this was a discussion seminar by the way) on whatever book we had read that week. Despite the difficulty of keeping my attention focused, the class wasn’t even accomplishing its purpose. What good is it to hear the importance and techniques of book when much more good could be done listening to a lecture on different forms or styles of literature and then applying that ourselves (as students) to works we read. How many times have you thought, in your life, who let this person into a classroom? Does s/he know he’s responsible for our futures? As Warner concludes at the end of his article:

The student comments on my classes say how “entertaining” my lectures are, except I never lecture. The centerpiece of my class periods is the oldest ed-tech we have, the Socratic dialog. I believe the reason my students find the class entertaining is because they are doing 50 percent of the talking and 100 percent of the thinking.

Physics professor Bernard Fryshman reminds us that even in this digital age our students are “analog beings” in need of “jostling” in order to learn.

I agree. That’s what we’re doing in class, my students and I, jostling each other. We can do this because we’re in proximity.

So perhaps education doesn’t need to entertain us, it just needs to do its job and the students will respond. We don’t have to tune out in class, but listening to anyone for three hours, an hour and a half, even fifty minutes drone on in monotone about some complicated subject will have trouble keeping even the most engaged student’s attention, especially with how much else we have going on in our lives. But let me know what you think. How can we keep students in the classroom? Write out your responses below.

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