Distracting Ourselves from Learning


I really try not to rant in blog posts. (I do most of my ranting around the house where my dog greets it with a yawn before burying his head under a blanket.) But I’m growing weary of something that I’m seeing more and more.

One of the reasons I like and participate in social media is the exposure it gives me to fellow educators who may have perspectives that differ from my own. I’m often challenged to consider different backgrounds, alternate perspectives, and even conflicting opinions. I’m not always swayed by what I encounter, but I am frequently challenged.

However, I’m only challenged when I take the time to listen respectfully (or read carefully, or view attentively, or…) and make an honest attempt to construct an understanding of what someone else is communicating. That means I need to shut-up, both my head and my mouth, until I can articulate the fullest possible understanding of another’s thoughts. When I talk back before understanding what’s being said, I disrespectfully shut the virtual door in my colleague’s face. Worse, when I converse with others while a colleague is making a point, I communicate my own arrogance by conveying, through my actions, that what I have to say to someone else is more important than hearing my colleague’s ideas. How can we learn from someone else when we’re absorbed in conversations that only confirm our already-held biases?

I reached my boiling point with this during a recent Web-based event. The moderator of the event had convinced the author of an excellent book to give a group of educators an hour of time online. As the interview proceeded, I watched the “back channel” chat taking place. Almost immediately, the topics of conversation went far from the ideas being discussed. People, I’m assuming other educators because it was an educator’s forum, immediately began sharing their own, often uninformed, opinions and conversing as if they were the only ones in the “room.” In so doing, they frequently missed the points made by the moderator or guest. They were not engaged in learning from the experience; they were engaged in self-confirming feel-good ego stroking.

Yes, I know. These teachers were free to do what they wanted in the forum during the event. But, and I think this matters, at what point does this freedom begin to impair the learning of others? Yes, I could have ignored the chat room posts, but if that’s the choice, why bother with the tool? It only adds to my brain’s workload of disregarding the irrelevant and attending to the important.

Here’s why I see this as a problem. Many of these teachers are strong advocates for the use of technology in education, as I am provided it supports good pedagogy or fosters authentic learning. However, their own use of it reveals its potential drawbacks. How can we model effective technology use for students if we use it to distract ourselves from potential learning?

Yes, yes, I know. Not everyone was/is guilty of this. But, at least as “back channels” go, it doesn’t take very many before the tool becomes a distraction rather than a benefit. Engagement for learning means engaging with the new ideas and directing interaction toward such thinking. Engagement focused elsewhere is not learning; it’s a cocktail party.

Okay, the rant is over. You can come out from under that blanket now.

Images: Wallpaper4me & KD Washburn


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22 Responses to “Distracting Ourselves from Learning”

  1. April 21, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    Yes, I know. It's a rant. Please forgive me. Distracting Ourselves from Learning: http://is.gd/BUPCnL #education #profdev #edtech

  2. April 21, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    Thank you for respectfully bringing this to our attention. I commend you for your attempt at holding fellow learners and educators accountable. I think many of us may have been in professional development situations (on-line, blended etc.) where our colleagues were not walking their talk re/ appropriate and respectful learning behaviors.

  3. April 21, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

    "Engagement focused elsewhere is not learning; it’s a cocktail party" http://ecologyofeducation.net/wsite/?p=3295 #tóim!

  4. April 21, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    Distracting Ourselves from Learning: http://is.gd/BUPCnL #education #profdev #edtech

  5. April 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    RT @kdwashburn: Distracting Ourselves from Learning: http://is.gd/BUPCnL #education #profdev #edtech // Good questions raised.

  6. April 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    RT @kdwashburn: Distracting Ourselves from Learning: http://is.gd/BUPCnL #education #profdev #edtech

  7. April 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    love it! RT “@kdwashburn: Distracting Ourselves from Learning: http://t.co/0Km8RJp #education #profdev #edtech”

  8. April 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    love it! RT “@kdwashburn: Distracting Ourselves from Learning: http://t.co/0Km8RJp #education #profdev #edtech”

  9. April 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    love it! RT “@kdwashburn: Distracting Ourselves from Learning: http://t.co/0Km8RJp #education #profdev #edtech”

  10. April 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    “How can we model effective technology use for students if we use it to distract ourselves from potential learning?”

    That about sums it up. These distractions you write about will obviously affect students, and we can’t afford to be ignorant or unrealistic about it. Part of what I see leading to this situation is that too few teachers and administrators approach technology as a means for educating ourselves. The more we think of ourselves as something other than grown-up students, the greater the gulf we place between ourselves and our students.

  11. April 22, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Not sure if this is a matter of educator “accountability.”

    Like Jason, I found back-channel conversations distracting and rude when I first started using electronic meeting platforms. It felt like an out-of-control classroom (my go-to context), with class clowns grabbing attention away from some interesting ideas and presenters. While developing a workshop on moderating webinars, I heard the opposite perspective, however. Many people– and they tend to be younger and, for lack of better descriptors, less “linear” and more “social learners”– found the back channel chat the real source of their learning. They chuckled at my “sit and get” mentality. So old school.

    This was hard for me to understand, as I do like to absorb information and ideas, and evaluate them, on my own. I also like to work on projects alone. I’m happy to share once I’ve got my “stuff” organized and down on paper, and enjoy feedback and group editing, but trying to create meaning in group formats with disjointed ideas bouncing around makes me crazy.

    Other people developing the webinar moderation course felt completely different. They found the running exchanges–even when they were off-topic–very stimulating, pushing them into different perspectives, making the experience deeper and richer. One very savvy and prominent 21st century educator called it “taking group notes out loud” and suggested it was what employers wanted, a kind of crowdsourcing and intellectual networking.

    Since then, I’ve been very careful to evaluate webinars by asking: Is this chaos–or is mine only one perspective?

    • Anonymous
      April 22, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

      Hey Nancy,

      Thanks for the comment. And the compliment in attributing this piece to me. However, Kevin D. Washburn penned it. I need to find a better author plug-in to ensure it is very clear who wrote which piece. Sorry for the confusion. Cheers.

  12. April 22, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    "Distracting Ourselves from Learning" new post by @kdwashburn on obstacles we create. http://bit.ly/gWD2oy Insightful as always.

  13. April 22, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    RT @JasonFlom: "Distracting Ourselves from Learning" new post by @kdwashburn on obstacles we create. http://bit.ly/gWD2oy Insightful as …

  14. April 22, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    RT @JasonFlom Distracting Ourselves from Learning new post by @kdwashburn on obstacles we create. http://bit.ly/gWD2oy Insightful as always.

  15. April 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Great comments, and thanks for reading, thinking, and communicating.

    I do not doubt that “back channels” can be a tool for deepened learning. However, if the chatter runs astray of what’s being communicated by the individual making the presentation, then we have to conclude that what is being “learned” is different from what is being taught. This may be satisfactory to some, but it carries a major risk of shared ignorance being classified as “learning.” Again, it’s not that I’m against the use of tech in this way, and I’m certainly not an advocate of “sit and get,” which I consider an unacceptable approach to teaching/learning. My “rant” was a venting of my frustration over teachers not using the technology wisely during an event designed for their professional development. If we cannot put the tech to good use in constructing our own learning, how can we model its beneficial use for students, and how can we dare to hold them accountable for using the tech wisely?

    Let me put it this way: if the “back channel” communicates that so-and-so is now dating so-and-so, I may have learned a new fact, but it won’t help me understand the structure of the atom. An exaggeration, I know, but I think it makes the point: when critical concepts are being taught, “learning” something new about my social circle is probably not going to foster my learning of the more important ideas.

    Hope this makes sense. Any tool must be used wisely to produce benefit. A hammer can add support by pounding in nails, or it can be used as a tool demolition. Tech is no different, and until we can use it effectively in our learning, I question whether we can guide students in using it beneficially for their own learning.

  16. April 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Distracting Ourselves from Learning, complete with comments, even: http://is.gd/BUPCnL #education #profdev #edtech

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