How to Teach in an Age of Distraction


How to Teach in an Age of Distraction

By Sherry Turkle October 02, 2015

At MIT, I teach a seminar on science, technology, and memoir. Enrollment is capped at 20 students. The atmosphere is intimate. We read memoirs by scientists, engineers, and designers, and then the students tell their own stories.

Some of them have lived hardscrabble lives. During one recent semester, their stories were particularly poignant. One had escaped with his family from the former Soviet Union. Another had overcome deep poverty; there were many nights when he had no choice but to sleep in his car. And yet, through all of this, these students had found their way to science or engineering or design. Sometimes the inspiration had come from a teacher, parent, or friend. Sometimes it came from fascination with an object — a broken-down car, an old computer, a grandfather clock. The students seemed to understand each other, to find a rhythm. I thought the class was working.

Then, halfway through the semester, a group of students asked to see me. They admitted to texting during class, but they felt bad about it because of the personal material being discussed. They said they text in all their classes, but here it seemed wrong. We decided the class should talk about this as a group. In that discussion, more students admitted that they, too, texted in class. They portrayed constant connection as a necessity. For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. They wanted to see who was in touch with them, a comfort in itself.


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