I wrote in tiny print on small pieces of paper, then made a little wad of each. Meticulously, I placed the compact balls under the classroom desks. The bell rang. Schoolboy chatter rose as students emerged from the anonymity of the hallway, jestling each other as they dropped backpacks to the floor near their desks.
“Take out a piece of paper and number 1 to 5,” I said. The boys groaned.
What came next was a short, purposefully difficult quiz. The sounds of head-scratching and pencil-tapping rose. Even the top students looked stumped.
The average grade was two out of five. Not one scored above a three. Perfect.
That was years ago, well before the advent of social media and the birth of educational technology as we know it. I used chalk back then, despite being probably the only teacher in the world with a chalk allergy. Occasionally, when I felt the pull to add state-of-the-art technology, I’d roll out an overhead projector. It also served as a heat source in cold months.
I was thinking about my old classroom as I read Johann Hari’s new book, “Stolen Focus.” The subtitle will help you understand why I, as a middle-aged man, high school teacher, and father of six, think it’s a great book: “Why you can’t pay attention–and how to think deeply again.”
Distractions are healthy breaks from the pattern of life. I believe that. However, too many distractions will interrupt the deep thought processes necessary to achieve, to form lasting bonds, to engage in the beautiful world around us. I picked up the book initially because I thought it would help me better understand my high school students and what type of adults they’ll become.
Then, I realized, that book is about us. You and me. It’s about the patterns of distraction that can angle us away from the horizon and into the marsh of mediocrity.
Hari offers 12 reasons we’ve lost our ability to pay attention, giving a detailed analysis of each and hope for repairing the distraction damage. He mentions pollution, nutrition, and the disruption of constructive mind-wandering. Check. He mentions over-structured play and technology. Check. He also mentions the frenetic pace we’re in, the one where we believe we are multitasking but in reality we’re doing several things poorly.
Hari argues that centering moments–those instances that allow for intentional reflection, intentional planning–are the vehicles for the greatest jumps forward that our world has seen.
I’m sure we all battled for focus as schoolkids. The legendary teachers, the ones who filled their classrooms and made it impossible to mentally wander, needed no props to stage their performances. The rest, however, relied on a mixture of pace and prose, gimmicks and games.
I remember showing informative-but-not-so-exciting documents to my classes early in my career. I’d announce, “Now, there’s going to be some brief nudity in this one so if you’re offended by that, you may stand in the hall until it’s over. But it’s really brief so if you’re not watching, you won’t even notice it.” Not one student ever volunteered to stand in the hall. Not one student ever fell asleep during those documents. I did that until my boss back then, Fr. George Tribou, appeared at my door, nodding at my cleverness. Then he told me to never do it again.
Hari explains that we’re inadvertently training our children to depart from deep thoughts. He laments the rise of organized activities that rob youth of the chance to problem-solve and develop leadership. He blames the mental and physical exhaustion the modern family week entails. He says that every time we pick up a phone when our kids are engaging us, we’re telling them there’s something more important than them going on.
He also mentions something intrinsically important to me: the decline of sustained reading. Hari argues that folks just don’t read as much anymore, and that this lack of page-turning has caused a myriad of problems.
For one, he says, reading fiction develops empathy as the reader imagines what it’s like to be another person, doing what another person does. A decline in fiction reading means a decline in reading people’s emotions, in understanding what those different from us are going through.
It was a great teacher-turned-fiction-writer, Pat Conroy, who had given me the idea in one of his books to wad up those pieces of paper all those years ago. The day’s lesson was on Charles Darwin and his innate ability to focus, to notice–really notice–the world around him. I asked my students if they believed they were attentive like Darwin. Schoolboy confidence always shined through as more than three-fourths of the class raised hands. I smiled.
“Have a look under your desk.”
“See that piece of paper? Grab it and open it.”
They opened the paper. Some smiled. Some slapped their foreheads. Others just nodded in that “you got me” way. “Pay attention to your surroundings,” I said, before moving on to more about Darwin.
Those students are adults now, raising their own families and navigating the challenges of a distracted world. If they sat quietly for a moment, they might remember that day’s lesson. They might remember that on each piece of paper were the answers to the five-point quiz.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.