Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I took a part-time job recently scoring written responses to a state test. The task was challenging and tedious. I worked in a large room with several hundred people broken up into smaller groups. Cell phones had to be turned off. We were asked to talk in our "library voices." We couldn't wear headphones or any kind of music player.

The music player thing made sense to me as a teacher. I don't allow my students to listen to their players except for very specific circumstances. I know that some classrooms ban them completely. In the middle school where I used to work, if we saw them, we were required to confiscate them. Actually, all the rules about noise made sense. We were reading and thinking and the quiet atmosphere made sense.

Here's the thing.

I had a hard time concentrating. Once I was competent in scoring a response and I had done over fifty or so, my mind wanted to wander. Any noise. Any laugh, cough or sneeze was enough to pull me out of my head into the world in which I sat. When there was appropriate discussion between our supervisor with someone, I listened. If there was inappropriate discussion about the traffic, the job or the air conditioner, I listened. I didn't have to be part of the discussion. It could be the two folks next to me or at the table behind me or across the room. I stopped scoring and attended to the distraction. Then I'd have to rein in my roaming attention and bring it back to the task I was being paid to do.

At home, I can control my environment to the point that I can sit for 3-4 hours and concentrate on a task. I don't do this with the TV on as I end up watching and not working. I can listen to music as long as it has no words or I stop working and start singing. If I really need to shut out the world and focus completely, I listen to white noise through my iPod. When I have control of my environment, I'm able to attend to a task for long periods of time. So, my experience with this scoring job has got me to thinking about kids and their music players. Maybe it's not that they are always trying to do more than one thing at a time or trying to block us out. Maybe they are trying to limit their inputs so they can focus? (At least some of the time.)

Rather than telling kids what they can't do, maybe I need to spend some time telling them how to better utilize the tools they have. I know I 'll share my experiences with my students next year when we talk about appropriate use of personal electronics. We all can learn to work smarter. It just may not look the same for everyone.

[Image: "distraction": Al Gunn]


  1. I'm really glad that you came to this conclusion. When I was in school, we weren't allowed to have music playing devices and it never struck me as odd. Yet, when I reached college I, myself, noticed that I studied with familiar music on-- it didn't matter whether there were words. Familiarity allowed me to zone it out and focus on the arduous amounts of math proofs my professors assigned me.

    By the time I started taking graduate courses, it was commonplace on test days to see one, or two individuals with those trademark iPod earbuds in their ears.

    I remembered this when I started my first 'real' teaching position, and had a student who listened to loud heavy metal on his CD player during every available non-lecture moment. I like your conclusions, and in the future will try to approach the issue head-on, before it arises. Thanks for the post, Al.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    Now I just need to figure out a way to convince my principal that the kids are really working. ;-)