Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Attention and the Unplugged Classroom

In my recent article in America I talked about what Catholic schools are facing as they seek to keep themselves grounded in the teaching example of Christ while best utilizing the technology of our times. Though I tried to focus my article in the reality of the classroom (as opposed to politics and boards-of-education) I purposefully didn’t make practical suggestions as to specific guidelines that Catholic schools should adopt concerning the student use of things like iPads, tablets, smartphones, and laptops.

One reason is that I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a blanket rule such as “students should not be allowed to use internet-capable devices at any time during class.” While I’d argue that conversation should be the ideal for all Catholic classes, different subjects call for different kinds of access to information. Such a rule might serve well for an English literature class, but a Biology or Business class might call for students to access the internet more frequently during class time. Each subject area requires a different toolbox, so to speak.

Overall, though, I’m wary of requiring all students to use a screen for every school activity—notes, e-textbooks, writing, etc. Such schools often refer to themselves as 1:1 schools. My school isn’t a 1:1 school, but in my experience dealing with personal technology use in the classroom, I know that very quickly students become accustomed to flipping open their devices upon sitting down in a class and getting “in the zone,” focused on their screens while their teachers yak away at the front of the room, trying desperately to distract them from their glowing pads. I can only imagine that in a 1:1 school this is what occurs in every class, all the time. Good teachers, in such environments, quickly learn that they must roam in back of the room while they speak, so that students always suspect that they’re lurking over their shoulders, privy to what’s on the glowing screens in front of them. This method helps stem the tide of finger-swiping to emails and ESPN and role-playing games that are inevitable when the subject matter doesn’t hold their attention. But is it really an education when the teacher becomes a disembodied voice at the back of the classroom, a relayer of information to the processers hunched over their screens, rather than a person who attempts, according to the root meaning of education, to draw out from students their real selves by encountering them? If we accept the former scenario as true, there is no purpose to the classroom at all. The teacher might as well be a lecturer in a MOOC. Why not send the kids home and post a few files on the subject matter on the class website?

The notion of attention is key to any defense of the Catholic classroom. In my article, I stress the importance of conversation, and try to distinguish it from discussion (talking about a common idea) by arguing that conversation demands full physical and mental presence with another. It is rooted in openness. For genuine conversation to occur, I must surrender myself to the possibility of having myself and my desires and my world displaced by that of another. To get to my point, attention is the fabric of conversation, and, I would argue, of education. True attention—whether to another person, a scene in a work of literature, or a problem in Calculus—consists of a combination of openness, humility, and care, and is what classrooms, in the spirit of conversation and encounter, should encourage, nurture, and ultimately, demand.

I’m indebted here to Simone Weil’s brilliant essay on the purpose of education, which argues for this kind of attention. A friend introduced me to the essay, and I can’t thank him enough, because it describes so precisely, and so logically, what kind of classroom environment Catholic schools should foster. In a nutshell, Weil argues that the goal of an education should be to teach students how to pray, and prayer, she says, ultimately means paying attention. Weil goes to lengths to explain exactly what kind of attention she’s talking about. Attention, as she describes it, is not a furrowing of the brow and tensing of the muscles in the attempt to grasp the subject matter but the opposite: a radical receptiveness to what is at hand, to something outside oneself. This approach is what prayer consists of, she claims (and I agree), so in all areas of study, students not only learn about a unique subject; they learn, essentially, how to communicate with God. The essay really is excellent, and I hope to write more about it in the future.

In line with the Classical understanding of freedom (often called “freedom for” or “freedom to,” contrasted with the Enlightenment-Modern notion of “freedom from” limits—here's a great explanation), to give full attention to something necessarily means to restrict one’s choices. I give my attention to the road when I’m driving by not texting or trying to drink coffee and switch the radio at the same time. I give my attention to another person by not watching TV or checking my email or reading a book while she is trying to tell me something. And in study, I give full attention to the subject matter by not trying to do other things at the same time. Many writers talk about issues of attention that arise when trying to write on the same device that also gives them access to the internet, and many solve the problem by using an internet-blocking program or app that irreversibly shuts down certain websites or their wi-fi for a set period of time. To focus completely, one must reduce the available competition for one’s attention.

So attention, because it is the heart of conversation and of prayer, must be what Catholic classrooms encourage. For most of our students today, this kind of attention is something that will have to be gradually taught, as it is completely alien to our “twittering world,” as T.S. Eliot put it at the onset of modernity. Attention becomes the measuring stick for the techniques and tools we choose to use in our classes. Pen and paper can be a distraction for the doodler, and in a sense discourage him from giving his attention to what’s going on in class, but certainly not in the same way that personal-screen technology can. Even in a school with a good firewall that blocks certain websites, whenever a student has a screen open, he has before him a wide array of demands on his attention, such as the internet, games, or even other classwork stored on his device. In reality, an education should do the opposite. It should help him limit those options to focus on one thing—what’s passing between the teacher and him in conversation.

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