Tuning in, tuning out

What is the longest period of time a student can focus on a lesson without his/her mind wandering?

Probably 15 to 20 minutes, max.

I sat in the back of the classroom, observing and taking careful notes as usual. The class had started at 1:00 o’clock. The student sitting in front of me took copious notes until 1:20. Then he just nodded off. The student sat motionless, with eyes shut for about a minute and a half, pen still poised. Then he awoke, and continued his rapid note–taking as if he hadn’t missed a beat.

[…]

Adult learners can keep tuned in to a lecture for no more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and this at the beginning of the class. In 1976, A. H. Johnstone and F. Percival observed students in over 90 lectures, with twelve different lecturers, recording breaks in student attention. They identified a general pattern: After three to five minutes of “settling down” at the start of class, one study found that “the next lapse of attention usually occurred some 10 to 18 minutes later, and as the lecture proceeded the attention span became shorter and often fell to three or four minutes towards the end of a standard lecture” (pp. 49–50).

The “Change–up” in Lectures bt=y Joan Middendorf & Alan Kalish. TRC Newsletter, 8:1 (Fall 1996).

This makes sense to me.

I think a lot of teachers intuitively deal with the fact that student attention waxes and wanes by a) repeating points, b) asking multiple questions (which repeats points), and c) using the blackboard/whiteboard (also repeats points).

That’s why Powerpoints are a problem: if you miss a slide you’re sunk. Nothing stays on the board.

Sad news and bad news in English class

So much badness where cell phones in the classroom are concerned.

I mentioned that a couple of years ago I had a classroom cell phone problem so oppressive I actually considered leaving my job.

Of course, I wasn’t going to leave my job, but what I did do was assign “cell phones in the classroom” as the final paper topic–the final paper happening to be, fortuitously, the “simple argument” assignment. (Simple argument in my department: write a 5-paragraph essay arguing for or against X.)

Unfortunately, assigning cell phones in the classroom turned out to be a misfire since more than one student took the position that cell phones in the classroom were A-OK,  the only problem being that we instructors were too boring to compete. Being more riveting than a cell phone, one student wrote, was the professor’s job.

So that was annoying. Since my policy is never to be annoyed by a student opinion, I regretted assigning the topic.

That said, the papers were a revelation.

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App shmapp

It wasn’t so much that the new app … didn’t work. It was that people were struggling to even log in or download it in the first place.

‘A Systemwide Disaster’: How the Iowa Caucuses Melted Down By Shane Goldmacher and Nick Corasaniti 2/4/2020

This is reminding me of my friend who teaches in the city.

Last fall, word came down that this year teachers were to provide 21st century learning. Which meant Google docs. Everyone had to use Google docs in every class.

My friend teaches a combined SPED/gen ed middle-school class, and not one of the students could remember his/her password. Not one. So every day there would be 40 password crises, all of which had to be personally resolved by the two teachers in the room.

In case you’re wondering, the teachers couldn’t just have all the kids use the same password on one big shared Google doc (I asked) because my friend had already tried that the year before. A couple of the kids wrote bad words in the shared doc, so every student now had a document peppered with bad words, then admin saw the words and raised a fuss, plus a couple of parents might have seen them … I’ve forgotten the story now, but the upshot was that assigning the same password to an entire middle school class yielded exactly the kind of trouble anyone who has ever lived with a middle-school child would predict.

This school year the problem wasn’t just that none of the kids could remember their password. The possibly bigger problem was that they all freaked out when they forgot. So on top of individually logging 40 students into Google every day, the teachers had to talk 40 students down off the Forgot My Password cliff.

All this just to get into the system.

It took hours to get anything done. The class was taking 3 days to finish a lesson that had taken 1 day to complete the year before, and the kids were begging for release.

“Can’t we use paper? Please?

A couple of months in, the school did its usual quarterly testing, and the best teacher in the school had dismal results. After that the whole thing went away.

And see:
Blackboard shmackboard
Cell phone agonistes

Breakthrough

I mentioned in Friday’s post that I spent years being paralyzed over the question of collecting students’ cell phones at the beginning of class. Embarrassing, but true.

My breakthrough happened last summer, when I taught at an ESL school near my house.

New teachers all had to take a series of standardized exams that were given under strict testing conditions: no cell phones, no watches (no analog watches, even), no bathroom breaks in the last half hour.

So there I was, the person who had been longing to take cell phones away from students, suddenly having my own cell phone taken away.

It was a revelation.

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Collecting cell phones looks harder than it is

For the longest time, where cell phones in the classroom were concerned, I was paralyzed. I wanted to take them away, but I didn’t think I could or should.

My students were adults, what business did I have taking their phones?

And supposing I did collect phones, what would I do with them? Where would I put them? I teach college, not K-12; I don’t have my own classroom where I can hang cell-phone pockets and the like.

Even worse, what if someone refused to give me his/her phone? Wouldn’t everyone else refuse, too?

Then what?

Basically, I had a mental block.

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Cell phone bans that stick

To date, I’ve met one instructor–just one–whose students keep their cell phones stashed in their backpacks. 

“I don’t have a cell-phone problem,” he told me.

“You don’t?”

“I tell students, first time I see a cell phone out, it’s a 5-page paper on a topic of my choosing.”

“Second time I see a cell phone out, it’s a 5-page paper for the whole class, also on a topic of my choosing.”

“I’ve seen a cell phone maybe once.”

“I don’t have a problem.”

And see:
Cell phone agonistes

Please put that away

Katie and I were talking yesterday about cell phones in the classroom.

She reminded me that she’d recently listened to a recording of a college class in which, every couple of minutes, the professor interrupted himself to say “Please put that away.”

It was striking, Katie said, hearing the words “Please put that away” without the visual, a much more jarring rupture in the flow. Then hearing the same request again–and again and again–brought home the dimensions of the problem in a way sitting in the classroom listening to “Please put that away” live would not.

Inside a class, everyone habituates, which is why everyone keeps getting out their cell phones, and why the teacher keeps repeating Please put that away even though putting it away leads directly to getting it back out again. The whole stop-start-stop-start to-and-fro recycles itself.

That’s the trouble with banning cell phones. You have to enforce the ban.

And enforcing the ban, unless you’re willing to take more drastic action (drastic action post t/k), means you have to interrupt the proceedings a lot.

Not fun, and not good.

And see:
Cell phone agonistes

Class without phones

Best in class, part 1

Last September, for the first time, I collected cell phones at the beginning of each class.

I’ve always banned phones, but a phone ban without an enforcement mechanism is like a trade agreement without an enforcement mechanism. It’s not a ban.

When you ban cell phones things start off well enough, but one by one the phones make their appearance, and pretty soon you’re staring at the tops of people’s heads instead of into their eyes. You tell students to put their phones away and they do, but once they’ve broken the ban there’s no turning back. Before you know it, you’re spending your time monitoring cell-phone use while also trying to teach college composition and gin up classroom discussion of the readings. It’s miserable.

It’s so miserable, in fact, that two years ago I considered quitting. Over cell phones.

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Best in class, part 1

This semester’s class was the best I’ve ever taught. Far and away the best.

It wasn’t me, it was the students. They were great. They all came to class all the time (that may have been a first); they paid attention; they learned; they progressed; they were cheerful and engaged … they were a fabulous group. Every week I would marvel at how well they were doing and how much fun they were to spend time with.

For most of the semester I assumed this was a simple case of random variation.  Sometimes all the stars align and a class gels, I figured. 

But as time went on, random variation lost its punch as an explanation, mostly because it didn’t actually explain anything. What is happening when a class “gels”? Plus it didn’t seem fair to the students I’ve taught in the past, who were also terrific young people I looked forward to seeing each week–and who all got on well with each other and with me. 

So what was going on?

Why was this class so different?

Then, just before semester end, it hit me.

No cell phones.

More t/k

And see:
Cell phone agonistes

Richard DuFour, RIP

Lost to lung cancer, at 69.

I never met him, or heard him speak, but Richard DuFour meant the world to me.

He was the superintendent who thought suburban students deserved accountability, too.

On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum is affluent Adlai Stevenson High School—a one-school district in the Chicago area. Students and teachers there worked in the same team-based professional learning communities and benefited from the same honest, tough-minded leadership advocated here. They relied exclusively on in-house expertise as teams met, by course, to share and prepare lessons and units that they continuously improved on the basis of common, team-made assessment results. Over a 10-year period, under the leadership of Richard DuFour, Stevenson broke every achievement record on school, state, and college entrance exams. Advanced placement success increased by 800 percent (Schmoker, 2001b).
Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning by Mike Schmoker