Competing for Attention: Banning Incivility in School and Workplace

Recent articles about university professors telling their students to close their laptops and a few meetings I attended where cellphone etiquette left me feeling vexed got me thinking about teaching, learning, and rudeness.

Some college professors have banned laptops when they teach. Georgetown Law professor David Cole did exactly that and asked students to take notes by hand. Why did he ban laptops?
“This is like putting on every student’s desk, when you walk into class, five television shows, some shopping opportunities, and a phone, and saying, ‘Look if your mind wanders, feel free to pick any of these up and go with it.”

I have no idea how widespread the growing hostility toward laptops and “smart” phones are among the professoriate since media stories and the blogosphere inflate estimates. I do know from direct experience in standing at the rear of various lecture halls in my university, however, that most (but not all) of the undergraduates in courses are checking sports, doing email, and flitting to different websites. Few seem to be taking notes.

Also in the 1:1 high school where I have spent two years interviewing teachers, students, and observing classes, some teachers tell students to close “the lids” of their laptops, stow them away, or not bring them to class on particular days.

I hear rebuttals to this no-laptop rule I hear from advocates of both laptops and “smart” phones. Students today, unlike their elders, can multi-task, they say. Furthermore, high-tech boosters say, professors and teachers who restrict use of these powerful devices do not know how to integrate these learning tools into the content and skills they teach; they lack the know-how of engaging students’ attention through these powerful devices. These professors who nail bans to their classroom doors are letting traditional pedagogy (while rationalizing that taking notes by hand means that students learn better) trump the innovative use of knowledge tools in teaching and learning. What drives the current debate today over whether or not to ban laptops, cellphones, and other devices in classrooms is how seductive machines distract students from listening to teachers.

And it is this competition for attention that is at the heart of this mini-tempest over students distracted during lessons and the incivility that characterizes many workplace meetings.

ITEM: At a meeting of a superintendent’s cabinet to describe some findings from a study that I and a team of researchers had completed, ten of us were sitting around a table. As we presented our findings, all but one of those staff present were checking email and tapping out text messages off-and-on for the entire 45-minute meeting—including the superintendent. After the meeting, I asked the superintendent why the “multi-tasking” during the presentation. She said staff had to check email to see if any emergencies had erupted. The thought that occurred to me was that if there was an emergency, a staff member would have interrupted the meeting. I thought the multi-taskers were inconsiderate but kept my mouth shut.

ITEM: A study of 9,000 managers gathered data on workplace incivility—“behavior, seemingly inconsequential to the doer, that others perceive as inconsiderate”—and found rudeness rampant. Even though multi-taskers whine that they are more efficient than single-tasking colleagues, neurologists say that splitting our attention between competing stimuli—listening to a professor and incoming email beeping—actually leads to inefficiency in completing jobs.

The illusion of being always wanted—email, social media and access to new information–is addictive. In an increasingly technological world that both insulates and isolates each of us, the sense of being acknowledged in nanoseconds by others is powerful in workplace meetings, a lecture hall, and reporting a study to the superintendent’s cabinet.

For those who agree about growing incivility, what to do? It seems to me that the first step is to make covert rudeness, overt. When researchers have asked groups how many think that sending text messages or email during a class and meeting is rude behavior, the answer was unanimously yes. Then they asked how many did email and text, two-thirds said yes. Admitting that splitting one’s attention between under-the-table secret clicks on a device and the business at hand is inconsiderate, even rude, is only a first step to recognizing that workplace and classroom etiquette is a genuine issue of machine and human competing for an individual’s attention. Inconsiderateness will not dissolve magically until they are explicitly addressed and new norms of civil behavior are negotiated and agreed upon. Who ever said that new technologies are only tools and neutral in their effects?



Filed under technology use

14 responses to “Competing for Attention: Banning Incivility in School and Workplace

  1. Bob Calder

    Your mention of how an emergency might be handled reminded me of something. It is not necessarily only a matter of civility. It is a matter of the way technology has affected process.

    I would like to bring up an older technology: The fax machine as a disruptive force. At one time, the finance industry operated using a network of trust. The network was necessarily limited to trustworthy people. But after court cases determined the admissibility of facsimile, companies could use more aggressive individuals to do things previously not delegatable. This had effects that spread outward.

    It is possible that fast communication enables management to an extent never possible using older technologies? The importance of being able to manage every minute of the day is more important than politeness during a meeting. This allows managers to use otherwise untrustworthy subordinates.

  2. So how about we try to give students some instruction on how to use a laptop to leverage their learning? Explain how they can use it to look up stuff that they don’t know in order to make better sense of the lesson. Tell them it is ok to work on something else of the guy up front is covering territory they are already familiar with. If a word comes up and they don’t know the meaning, look it up. If they still shop or watch unrelated videos and tune out to the learning at hand, don’t forget that they are the customers. If they pay and shun learning, they are the losers. Good teachers don’t let their ego get in the way.
    Doug Green – DrDougGreen.Com

  3. Steve Davis

    Dr. Green,

    I agree that students should be encouraged to use technology to augment the learning process. Too frequently, however, secondary students will choose off-task behaviors unless they are performing a specific, instructor initiated task. Viewing secondary students as customers who can simply zone out at their own expense is totally unacceptable. The teacher will be the first one to be blamed for the student’s off-task behavior. The paradigm that you envision would likely work with graduate students but high school students and undergrads are likely to be more interested in Web 2.0 applications like Facebook, and Formspring than in making better sense of a lesson that they might not really care to understand. Some/many of these students need more of a direct-instruction approach to technology in the classroom. Students will use technology to further the goal of the lesson if explicitly instructed to do so. It’s not about ego; it’s about “teacher accountability.”

    There were no stop-lights before there were cars. The introduction of the automobile necessitated norms of social behavior on the road and our police officers spend a good deal of time enforcing these norms. It’s now necessary to establish norms of technology use that will facilitate communication rather than impede it. The fact that the superintendent couldn’t focus on Cuban’s report for 45 minutes underscores this. Presumably the item being discussed was of some import to have involved the superintendent’s cabinet and various high-level academic researchers; however, it was treated as a distraction from managing the minutia of educational bureaucracy. How much of the message did the superintendent and his colleagues digest? I can imagine some of the E-mails they were reading or maybe they were just managing their Farmville accounts. I check my E-mail in class during transitions, but not in the middle of lessons.

    The machines are not a disruptive force; the users are. The users should be under scrutiny not the machines. It’s very telling that people believe that multi-tasking during a class is rude, but still engage in the behavior themselves.

  4. Just as cars required new structures, digital technologies are demanding rethinking of communication and learning norms. Let us not hide behind the traditional view that sees a quiet classroom as a learning classroom (patently nor true) and allows management (and teachers) to hide behind controls such as reading what has already been made available or getting students to copy notes from a static board. We need dynamic approaches that value questioning and which develop student responsibility and ownership. This should also include quietness (for reflection and personal learning), but with understanding of why and to what end as a shared approach. Blaming technology continues to be used to shield second-rate thinking

  5. A great posting Larry, and so badly needed. I could recount a number of anecdotes about having witnessed the same appalling rudeness, but perhaps the most unusual one the techno-zealots should attempt to answer is the number of costly, commercial presentations I’ve done which have been ruined by this kind of bad manners.

    It’s one thing to not pay attention in a teacher’s classroom: it’s quite another to sabotage a business presentation on which rather large sums of money, and peoples’ jobs depend.

    • Bob Calder

      I believe that all inattention is equally offensive. However, each person in the audience prioritizes his or her day differently, so it is inevitable that certain folks may be pulled away either literally or metaphorically. The failure to delegate tasks to other people, whether they are employees, the plumber, or your children is, I think, a serious problem made more serious by reliance on instant, ubiquitous communication.

  6. Steve Davis

    Is it the case that teachers and presenters are not serving their “audiences” adequately? Popular culture exploits technology to further itself in a way that education has failed to do, thus far. Some of my earliest technological experiences were with games. I remember looking forward to going to my school’s computer lab to play Oregon Trail and using a Macintosh for the first time to play Dark Castle in a printing shop. Multimedia presentations, and Web applications are passe; using them seems too much like work, rather drudgery. If we’re going to grab students’ attention then we need content-area games that students want to play. I guess this line of reasoning begs the question, should educators have to meet their audiences where they are or vice-versa? Should everyone with a message have to “play a game” with their audience to be heard?

  7. Here are my questions.

    Let’s say a teacher or professor gives a class, and students are busy multitasking on their devices. Is it still the professor’s responsibility to respond to their questions after the lecture?

    Let’s say this same lecturer has some type of class capture, so that students can go back and review what they may have missed, does this change the desired student behaviors during the class or the instructor’s responsibilities after?

    If the student demonstrate that they are learning the materials (tests, papers, projects, whatever) does it matter whether they pay attention during class?

    • larrycuban

      My answers, Mitch, to your questions:

      1. Yes, it is the professor’s responsibility to answer questions since he or she has no record of who was multi-tasking.
      2. No, having videos of the lecture that students could watch at their leisure does not, in my opinion, excuse or change the “desired student behaviors during the class” or the professor’s responsibilities.
      3. Yes, it matters whether students pay attention–that is where the civility kicks in.

      • Bob Calder

        Is it useful to think of civil behaviour as a meta skill?

      • I find this a fascinating topic, so much is dependent on each of our views of the world, our rights and responsibilities, and those of others we interact with.

        In a lot of the world, professors profess, they don’t teach. If students come to class, if students listen, fine. If not, that’s fine too. Students learn. If they learn from the professor’s lectures fine. If they learn some other way, that’s fine, too. Virtually their entire grade is dependent on the final.

        In the US, the instructor seems to be more vested in the outcomes of the students, and more involved with the students. Thus, we consider it an affront if the student isn’t as vested in us as we are with them. Paying attention and civility thus rise as indicators that their commitment matches ours.

    • Steve Davis

      I want to parse out what it means to pay attention. Here’s my definition. Not everyone has to be doing the same thing at the same time, but they do have to be working toward a stated aim with focus and a sense of urgency. I like it when students aren’t paying attention to me because they’re looking something up in the dictionary or online that’s related to the topic under discussion or at least related to the pursuit of knowledge in some form. It’s Facebook and virtual window shopping for shoes and cars that drives me bonkers. Some may say that I am not engaging enough, but rest assured, I am pretty engaging and nonetheless it’s often times a struggle to hold students’ attention. My ego doesn’t need the attention. The content needs the attention.

      • Bob Calder

        So you pause for reflection and those students usually eagerly share what they dug up online. You incorporate it into the class’ bucket of knowledge and the whole technology thing helps them build their understanding. Bingo.

        What I do with my high school freshmen is allow them to text or look at sneakers, then ask for a couple of sentences reflecting on the issues or meta-issues surrounding our subject of the day. I explain explicitly beforehand that learning to deal with instant communication is something you have to do sometime and now is the time. It usually takes only a couple of these exercises to straighten out 23 of 25 students.

        It’s too bad Larry had to spare the delicate mental health of institutional bureaucrats. He can borrow my Aunt Edith next time. 😉

        BTW a colleague was attacked and kicked Tuesday when he asked a young lady to hand over her cellphone. We have been discussing the odd attachment some students seem to have with them. I’ll bet adults would behave in similar fashion if you asked them to put phones in a basket before a meeting. At the least there would be some serious wriggling.

  8. Steve Davis

    I was just at a high school graduation where a family member was talking on her cell phone while a commencement speaker was speaking. I was annoyed until I realized that she was giving directions to the ceremony to the person on the other line. At least it wasn’t during the national anthem. An English learner’s misspelling of cell phone as self phone may be very telling, beyond the obvious phonetic misfire. The incivility under discussion is rooted in the American ethos of individuality and selfishness where the good of the group (or even the person next to you) is usually far from most people’s concerns.

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