An Inquiry into Distraction

Sometimes the most spontaneous ideas turn out well. The elementary tech coach and I were meeting the other day about technical stuff, but I couldn’t get something off my mind, and so our conversation turned to focus and the distractibility of computers. Our students are privileged. They each have their own laptop. It remains in the classroom, so we can’t quite call it one-to-one, but they use it a lot. Lately, they’ve been using their laptop all the time.

It’s amazing what they can do on their laptops. From creating Google documents to spreadsheets, to movies. They find songs they want to listen to on You Tube while they’re chatting with someone online from another class, and they’re searching for random things on the Internet. Amazing, but out of control.

My colleague and I then and there decided we’d get into a discussion with the students. We had planned another lesson related to Google docs, but this issue of distractibility seemed more pressing. We decided to probe the students and see what they think about concentration and distractibility. We wanted to get their ideas and document the conversation.

What is concentration

We started the conversation with students with: “What is concentration?” After a quick suggestion of ideas, everyone wrote their own interpretation of concentration on a sticky note. Students wanted to share, and they did, and then put their note up under our question.

Next, we created  a concentration scale: How focused are you? 1 was the least focused. 10 was the most. They came up and put a dot under where they thought they were. We made it into a game where I guessed where they would place themselves. That in itself was good to see if we were on the same page. Reports are coming up, so it was good to see if my assessment of some of their behavior matched their reflection. I guessed many of them were more focused than they themselves thought.

How well do you focus?

After they put their dot, we asked them: “What made you put your dot where you did?’ They mentioned things like:

  • It’s easier to focus when I’m excited about the subject
  • I focus more when I’m playing soccer
  • When I’m at home by myself, I’m focused
  • It’s easier when I’m not talking to friends
  • I get unfocused when I’m online

Bing. We were hoping someone would bring that up. We led the conversation then into what happens when they’re online. What is distracting when you’re online. They had a lot to say about that one.

  • When people are chatting with you
  • Listening to music on You Tube and you have to keep changing the song
  • Playing games
  • Researching on Google
  • Looking at different tabs

We had now been having a conversation about concentration for one hour. I was amazed at how well they were focused on our discussion of focus. Was it all the talk of focus? Was it the ability to honestly share things that had been frustrating them?

Typing using our utmost focus

From there, we decided to do a test and then reflect. Everyone was to type what they thought about concentration, based on our discussion. However, to type, they had to create a Google doc. and close all of their other tabs and programs. They were to have nothing open except the one tab on which they were typing. We gave them 10 minutes to type as much as they could type about concentration–theirs and what they had learned.

The room was silent except for the quick sound of keys being clicked. They typed a lot in 10 minutes, more than they had done in a long time. After 10 minutes, we did our final reflection: How could this exercise help you when you’re online. Their thoughts, not ours:

  • shut down tabs
  • avoid listening to music on You Tube. Load things onto iTunes so they can play continuously
  • stay off chat
  • make deadlines

They could reflect on their 90 minute lessons by: “I used to think, and now I think…”

For fun, we wrapped up the lesson with some expressions of what it feels like when they’re overwhelmed by too much distraction, especially online.They all struck a pose and held it as I went around and took their picture.



It was one of the best conversations we’ve had in a while, and so full of focus about lack of focus. I loved it. And, today, after a weekend away and only a quick look back on our visible thinking about concentration, students worked on their essay online, for 20 minutes in silence, fully focused…

I smiled.

About kdceci

I am a grade 5 teacher in a PYP school in Chicago, Illinois, USA. From the US originally, I worked in Asia the last 13 years. I am passionate about inquiry-driven education, collaboration, and ensuring kids get to continue to be kids that play, create and think as long as they can. Outside of school, l love to write, read, hike, run, meditate and travel.
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4 Responses to An Inquiry into Distraction

  1. What a great Inquiry! I have been having similar discussions in my Grade 5 class where we also have macbooks all day. I like the way you made it into a whole lesson. Starting to plan something similar! Thanks for the ideas!


  2. I was impressed by how well this idea was thought through, and the way the students inquired into their learning. It has sparked many similar ideas. Thank you kdceci!!


  3. Pingback: In Retro Cite (weekly) « A Retrospective Saunter

  4. Terry Dassow says:

    The inquiry lesson you detail here seems to flow magnetically towards an outcome which is entirely student-driven. The beauty of it is how you identified a problem, then introduced the topic to your students and led them to express their own feelings about the same issue, rather than dismissing the possibility that the students have feeling similar to yours. Your students took ownership and had immense buy-in because you were able to guide your students through a discussion of their own frustrations instead of taking an authoritative, non-listening tone. That’s so inspiring. Thank you for sharing.


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