The Distracted Classroom – And Solutions for Change

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Whether studying at home or in school, a blocking app is a great tool for self-control.

Now and then, people have the experience of being separated from their devices – especially their cell phones – for a long enough time that reflection begins to set in. One example from James Lang, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, tells of a student immersion trip to Ecuador during which he and the students were learning about the deep poverty faced by many in parts of that nation. Phones were stored away upon arrival and not returned until the end of the stay. After a few days of withdraw-like symptoms, even the students most addicted to their phones began to discuss how nice it was to have a break and how, upon their return to the United States, they would consider ways of limiting their previous super-glue-like attachment to technology. It's hard to know how many of those students followed through with those aspirations or vows, but if you had to make a bet, it would probably be safe to assume that the majority fell back into their old ways. For students past the age of about 15, not having a cell phone these days is seen as almost a deprivation. It’s as if young people believe the right to a phone is enshrined in some United Nations human rights compact. From the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep, perhaps the only time they aren't constantly snatching glances at a screen is during lessons in a classroom, although even that is debatable. Any teacher will tell you that ban or no ban, students find ways of sneaking tech into pretty much everywhere. The classroom is no longer outside our interruption-based culture.

So how should schools or even home-learning environments deal with ‘distracted classrooms?’ You could go Draconian and put some sort of jamming device in every room that perhaps would reduce the ability to connect to Wi-Fi or a cellular system. But, one can play games or be distracted by a phone without the ability to go online. You could also try patting each student down and confiscating every possible device. Both of these ideas could be somewhat effective… but neither of them does much to address the root of the problem, or helps teach students how to be productive, or does anything that would change their behavior when the individual isn't being coerced into compliance. Many university students have begun joining adults in the workplace as well as stay-at-home parents in self-limiting their web exposure by downloading what is commonly called a ‘blocking app.’ These free and easy-to-download and install apps sync across all of your devices and block certain websites – or the entire internet – at certain times of the day or for certain days of the week, or for whatever specific periods you decide. This means, for example, that a high schooler’s phone could be set up so that it's not possible to access TikTok or YouTube during school hours, but then those sites would be unblocked after say, 5:30 p.m. This is best done with the young person's approval and understanding… as anything that’s forced on someone is something the forced feel almost duty-bound to find a way around. Think about it: people escape from prisons but pay to go to silent retreats. By having the student be a part of choosing what to block and when to block it, they will be developing many skills for the future, such as smart decision making, fighting distractions, learning limits, learning to be honest with themselves, and improving self-control. And, they’ll be making these choices freely. Remember, most students aren't unintelligent and could – if they wanted to – unblock sites or completely uninstall the app. But for the most part, people want to be ‘good,’ and want to control themselves… especially if the alternative is someone else controlling them.

Setting up a blocking app together with your teenage student, for example, is a good step towards learning valuable lessons that will be hugely beneficial for the future. And of course: practice what you preach. Your kid seeing you spend half your day staring at a screen unproductively isn't much of an example. Install a blocking app for yourself as well, and block social media, or blogs, or sports sites, or whatever you honestly know is the biggest waster of the preciously limited time you’re supposed to be getting things done. And, don't forget to reward both yourself and your underage student for positive achievements. If you stick to the plan and avoid distractions during work or school hours, go ahead and spend an hour on whatever trivial pursuit you may enjoy online… and enjoy it guilt-free. A blocking app isn't a ‘gun to the head,’ it's merely a ‘nudge’ in the right direction. Let's say it's 10 a.m. and you “forget,” and go check Facebook. If you previously blocked that site a little message will pop up telling you: “Sorry, this site is blocked! Get back to work!” That nudge can be powerful. It's a reminder of our aspirations to be better, to control ourselves, and to be more productive. And of course, the earlier a person can learn to control themselves, the earlier that person will begin a pathway towards a happy life. Several thousand years ago, the great Roman Emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in his book Meditations, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.” Learning self-control has become so much more important in the millennia since Aurelius put quill to scroll. A blocking app can be the first step to beginning to take back control of your thoughts and your life.

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