Any mention of Blaise Pascal usually calls to mind “Pascal’s Wager.” It’s a fascinating thought experiment about the nature of belief. But perhaps people are less familiar with what might otherwise be Pascal’s most famous quotation:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
There are plenty of barriers to the proper education of young people; teachers have little control over many of these. Even so, they have tremendous influence over the day-to-day atmosphere of the classroom. Recognizing that, we must not fail to address what is perhaps the most ubiquitous of barriers, one affecting virtually every student in the developed world, to say nothing of society writ large: NOISE.
I once had a group of particularly excitable 6th graders. I referred to them affectionately as my “Dugs” (the squirrel-obsessed Golden Retriever in Pixar’s UP). They were constantly distracted, and by everything. After a few weeks of trying various strategies and procedures without success, I attempted a radical experiment. I asked them to come to class every day for a month completely empty-handed. Totally unprepared. No textbooks, binders, folders, pencil cases. Nothing. I began each class by handing each student a freshly sharpened No. 2 pencil (Ticonderoga’s are king). If the lesson called for reading from a textual source, I read it out loud to them or passed the book around and had them read aloud to each other. If the lesson called for writing, I distributed individual sheets of loose-leaf paper as necessary.
After a week or so of adjusting, I discovered—not surprisingly—that the students were much more attentive to the lesson, to my instructions, and to one another. I also saw marked improvement in the coherence of their writing and the clarity with which they were able to communicate their thoughts during class discussion. But in addition to those delightful academically-related improvements, I also witnessed something in the students that I did not expect. Both the individual students and the overall atmosphere of the classroom just seemed calmer, less tense, more at peace. Across the board, every student seemed to benefit on some intellectual or social-emotional level. This experiment prompted me to think more intentionally about the effects of noise on my students and their daily experience of my classroom.
There are three categories of noise affecting our students. First, and most obvious, is audible noise. Consider for a moment the typical day of your average middle or high schooler, focusing on the number of audible sensory inputs he or she receives: alarms buzzing, the cacophony of family morning rituals, the bells and buzzers, and the strange sounds coming from the band room at school, extracurriculars, evening activities, and the increasing number of young people wearing earbuds all day. Audible noise is a constant.
The second kind of noise is visual noise. Little time needs be spent discussing the ubiquity of visual stimuli in the life of a child, both inside and outside the classroom. Of note as well are the negative effects of fluorescent lighting in schools.
But by far the most harmful “noise,” one that affects our students the most, is mental noise: stimuli of the constant, instant, ever-changing, ever-new, ever-demanding, dopamine and serotonin variety that has increased exponentially with the advent of smartphones and devices—now as ubiquitous an accessory for a child as tennis shoes.
Every parent, every teacher, every adult is distracted by the mental noise of technology. We may have developed relatively effective productivity strategies or simply cultivated greater habits of self-discipline than those of young people. Or perhaps we’ve just convinced ourselves that we can successfully focus on more than one thing at a time. But the truth is, there’s no such thing as multitasking. And though we’ve learned to cope, our students almost certainly have not, in part because they cannot. Their developing brains just aren’t ready to navigate the mental onslaught of technology.
As the new school year begins, and as we consider if and how to implement technology in our classrooms, we’ve got to keep in mind that our kids already spend between five and eight hours a day on screens. From a 2019 Washington Post article:
“On average, American 8-to-12-year-olds spent 4 hours and 44 minutes on screen media each day. And teens average 7 hours and 22 minutes — not including time spent using screens for school or homework.”
Just imagine what the year of remote learning has done! The benefits of simply being off-screen for the length of the school day to interact with other off-screen humans might far outweigh the purported advantages of one-to-one school technology policies. Because so many of our students have become accustomed to the constant stimuli provided by texts, tweets, social media, and gaming apps, they find it increasingly difficult to simply slow down their minds. And in truth, we adults are no different.
So what can we do about it?
First, do away with devices. Perhaps your school has a one-to-one technology model. Don’t allow them in your classroom. Promote handwritten note-taking and (GASP) cursive. The benefits of writing in cursive have been shown in study after study. Model and promote authentic classroom discussion, focused primarily on cultivating in students the habit of attentiveness and active listening, and not simply a disconnected forum for every student to share what he or she is thinking. Read more of the assigned book aloud as a class rather than silently.
Second, remove audible and visual distractions from the classroom. Though I’ve written previously on this topic, it bears repeating that students aren’t necessarily helped by classroom walls plastered with pegboards and posters and piecemealed decor. Teachers must be intentional about what goes (and stays) on the walls.
Additionally, consider how your own classroom protocols or policies invite noise. Do students need to bring their textbook, notebook, binder, planner, and pencil case to your classroom every day? How much do they really need to have stuffed in their desks or lockers or backpacks? Simplify, simplify.
And what about the daily lessons? Do we jump from topic to topic and move from subject to subject at a breakneck pace in order to get through the material and check off our standards? Perhaps consider incorporating a classical educational approach to teaching known as festina lente (“make haste slowly”), which challenges teachers to focus on and measure success by the quality of time spent on the material rather than the quantity we are able to cover.
Finally, give students a few minutes every day to just sit silently. No music in the background; no text to read; not even so much as an idea for them to think about. Just ask them to find a comfortable sitting position (feet on the floor, hands on their desks), to sit quietly, doing their best not to distract their classmates. This will be a challenge at first; many students will revert to “Quiet Game” mode. But with some practice, the students will begin to catch on. And you may find that they quite enjoy it, as it provides a space for them to simply be.
Many might ask: what’s the point? What academic benefit does sitting in silence provide? Direct academic benefit? Perhaps none at all. But it will have a human benefit, which bears on every aspect of a student’s existence. And as teachers, we must always be concerned with educating the whole person. In a world obsessed with constant connectedness, perhaps what our students need most is a little peace and quiet.