Distractions That Interrupt Learning (Tony Riehl)

Part of the core of teaching a lesson beyond sequencing whole group, small group, and independent activities, figuring out use of instructional materials, and timing each segment of the lesson is to reduce distractions. With hand-held devices ubiquitous among students, distractions multiply. What do teachers do to manage digital distractions?

Veteran math teacher Tony Riehl wrote a post on this subject. It appeared May 22, 2017 . He has taught high school math courses in Montana for 35 years. I added blogger Dan Meyer’s comments on Riehl’s post.

I learned early on with cell phones, that when you ask a student to hand you their phone, it very often becomes confrontational. A cell phone is a very personal item for some people.

To avoid the confrontation I created a “distraction box” and lumped cell phones in with the many other distraction that students bring to class. These items have changed over time, but include “fast food” toys, bouncy balls, Rubics cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot item now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.


A distraction could be a distraction to the individual student, the other students or even a distraction to me. On the first day of the year I explain to my students that if I make eye contact with them and point to the distraction box, they have a choice to make. If they smile and put the item in the box, they can take the item out of the box on the way out of the room. If they throw a fit and put the distraction in the box, they can have it back at the end of the day. If they refuse to put the distraction in the box, they go to the office with the distraction.

On the first day of the year we even practice smiling while we put an item in the box. The interaction is always kept very light and the students really are cooperative. It has been a few years since an interaction actually became confrontational, because I am not asking them to put the item in my hand. I even have students sometimes put their cell phone in the box on the way in the door because they know they are going to have trouble staying focused.

This distraction box concept really has changed the atmosphere of my room. Students understand what a distraction is and why we need to limit distractions. We even joke sometimes because the box isn’t big enough to put “Billie” in the box.


This Is My Favorite Cell Phone Policy

By Dan Meyer • May 24, 2017 • 26 Comments

Schools around the world are struggling to integrate modern technology like cell phones into existing instructional routines. Their stances towards that technology range from total proscription – no cell phones allowed from first bell to last – to unlimited usage. Both of those policies seem misguided to me for the same reason: they don’t offer students help, coaching, or feedback in the complex skills of focus and self-regulation.

Enter Tony Riehl’s cell phone policy, which I love for many reasons, not least of which because it isn’t exclusively a cell phone policy. It’s a distractions policy.

What Tony’s “distraction box” does very well:

  • It makes the positive statement that “we’re in class to work with as few distractions as possible.” It isn’t a negative statement about any particular distraction. Great mission statement.
  • Specifically, it doesn’t single out cell phones. The reality is that cell phones are only one kind of technology students will bring to school, and digital technology is only one distractor out of many. Tony notes that “these items have changed over time, but include fast food toys, bouncy balls, Rubik’s cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot items now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.”
  • It acknowledges differences between students. What distracts you might not distract me. My cell phone distracts my learning so it goes in the box. Your cell phone helps you learn so it stays on your desk.
  • It builds rather than erodes the relationship between teachers and students. Cell phone policies often encourage teachers to become detectives and students to learn to evade them. None of this does any good for the working relationship between teachers and students. Meanwhile, Tony describes a policy that has “changed the atmosphere of my room,” a policy in which students and teachers are mutually respected and mutually invested.

This is a different approach. The cell phones are in jail. But I admire the incentive for parking your phone.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

5 responses to “Distractions That Interrupt Learning (Tony Riehl)

  1. I dunno, the choice he gives them is just as confrontational. Most kids just hand over the phone or maybe beg to keep it and I make an on the spot decision, sometimes relenting, sometimes staying firm. If the kid doesn’t hand over the phone, he’s going to the office.

    How’s that different?

    • larrycuban

      Yes, I agree with you. One way is hard-edged, the other soft-edged but both are instances of teacher authority being used. There is either a direct or indirect confrontation between teacher and student because power and authority come into play whether it is a box labeled “distraction” for students to drop items into (indirect) or a command from the teacher to hand over the distraction (direct). For many students, I would guess, using the box averts a personal confrontation with the teacher.

      • 99% of the time, I take the phone away with no complaints–often even a rueful smile on the kids part. I often pride myself on “snagging” it–that is, I’m talking to the class, not even looking at the student, and bam! got it. The kids laugh (in a good way).

        Every so often I get a flat refusal and I always give the student a chance to walk it back. Sometimes, I’ll even let the student keep the phone if I get a serious concession, because I can see it’s an at-risk situation and I want to give them a chance. Other times, no remorse and a sense of entitlement, I just call for a supervisor. Happens rarely, but I always tell my kids that disobeying a direct order from me is the single most common reason a student is sent to a supervisor. The whole thing doesn’t work if everyone doesn’t agree I’m boss.

        But that negotiation process is exactly the same as the box.

        It’s kind of like the whole fiction where teachers say they give the students a chance to “create” classroom rules. In every case, the students come up with the same rules the teacher would create anyway, possibly with one oddball rule that doesn’t bother the teacher. But if they come up with rules the teacher doesn’t like the mirage is put to rest.

        I think teachers should be openly in charge as a loose dictator. That is, I dont’ have many rules, and I’ll give you some negotiating room, but at the end of the day, I’m boss and let’s not create any pretense otherwise.

      • larrycuban

        Well, you are certainly clear about who is boss in your classroom. The point I made about direct and indirect authority expressed by the teacher–something students learn in a classroom nanosecond– is quickly evident in your classroom. As you say, there is no need for a “distractions” box.

  2. Pingback: Digital Mindset of Teachers and Educators « Light Offerings

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