Posted in Education, STEM, Teaching

Can a Distraction Be Motivating?

In elementary school, the slightest noise would cause me to look around the room for its origin.  Then, it took me forever to get back to work.  In this technology driven era, kids have even shorter attention spans.  With the ability to block ads, fast-forward commercials, and zone out while adults or teachers are talking using headphones, students are trained to not pay attention and stay focused on any one thing that is not entirely engaging for more than a minute.  This behavior is very evident in the classroom.  Students can generally only stay focused on one task for no more than 10-20 minutes at a time.  Switching things up and bringing novelty into the equation helps immensely.  However, every once in a while, a distraction can have a positive outcome.

Today in STEM class, the students continued working on the Explore the Forest Project.  The boys went outside and made more observations regarding their self-chosen forest plot.  They identified flora and fauna samples, created a map of their plots, and made sketches of what they found.  Things were great for about five minutes until the pesky flying insects proved to be a great distraction.  While the weather was sunny and warm, the black flies that have recently spawned in the forest areas were flying around our heads like gulls at a beach picnic.  While I was able to ignore them and focus on helping my students identify various flora and fauna samples, my students could not harness the focus to ignore the winged insects hanging in the air.  While the students had work to do, they rushed through it so that they could go inside to finish working.  Instead of taking the time to enjoy nature and the woods around us, they hurried through their work so that they could escape the flies.  They were so distracted by the natural world that they couldn’t enjoy themselves and get the most out of this experience.  But, is that a bad thing?

Perhaps the better question to ponder is, What caused this distraction to begin with?  Was it that the flies were overly irritating?  Sure, who really likes insects, except for maybe entomologists?  They are aggravating and frustrating, the flies, not the entomologists.  They make being outside in the spring and summer, sometimes, very unbearable.  Maybe that was the cause of what happened today.  Or maybe it was that my students are so easily distracted by the slightest noise or movement that they just couldn’t stay focused.  They are sixth graders and have trouble sitting still even when something is completely enthralling.  Yeah, that could have caused the great fly distraction of 2015.  Or perhaps, maybe they weren’t distracted but instead were effectively utilizing their time.  They knew that if they stayed outside too much longer, they would get off track and work ineffectively.  Maybe they had actually learned how they learn best this year.  Perhaps my magical teaching had actually transformed them into perfect students.  Wow, who knew I was a magician?  Although I know that I do have special talents as a teacher, that most likely wasn’t the cause of what happened today.  No, it was just the flies.  They are irritating.  However, what if this great distraction actually led to something amazing?

When my students returned to the classroom, I was sure that they would carry this flying roadblock inside with them.  I thought, they are going to go back into the classroom and talk about how annoying the flies were and not accomplish anything for the rest of the period.  However, once again my boys surprised me.  Back in the classroom, they worked incredibly effectively and accomplished much work on their forest field guides.  They researched the flora and fauna they had found in their plots and began creating their final field guides.  They created hand drawn images and were documenting the life they had identified outside.  And of course, the black flies were one of the five fauna samples used by almost every student.  This distraction actually led to more focused work.  They were more productive inside the classroom than they were in the novelty of the forest.  Even though I thought for sure that going outside and exploring the forest would be a sixth grader’s dream come true, I forgot to take the flies into account when planning this project.  Middle school boys hate insects and flies.  I’m pretty sure that it’s in their DNA.  But, by taking them outside and getting them to see that what they thought they wanted wasn’t actually what they wanted at all, helped them realize the power of hard work in the classroom.  Sometimes, it just comes down to them needing to try things out.  By providing our students with opportunities to test out their theories or ideas, they feel empowered and in charge.  Trust is built up and the students are able to figure out what they really want and need as learners.  Who knew that one negative distraction could actually lead to a positive outcome?  The moral of this story is that sometimes a distraction can actually be motivation.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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