Engage in the Challenging

This year I’ve noticed a trend that made itself even more clear today. I tweeted it earlier, but I think it’s worth exploring a bit more in writing.

I gave a short lecture today on right triangle trig to my algebra II class. (I had been doing more activity based, student centered lessons, so to be fair to the students it was probably a bit more boring than the last couple days.) I noticed many students, throughout the hour, whether it was during the lecture or group work, were on their phone much more than last week. I think this is because right triangle trig is a bit of an uptick in difficulty for many of them. Or maybe difficulty isn’t the right word. It’s just not as familiar to them. This causes them to go to something they find comfortable (their phone) very quickly.

I notice myself doing this at times. If I’m grading tests that aren’t that good or it’s taking me a long time, I find myself getting on Twitter or reading blogs. These are activities that are not very cognitively demanding and are much easier than the task at hand. Maybe that isn’t a great example because I’m not trying to learn something, but you get the idea. So I guess my question is, how do we help students persevere in these situations? I don’t think that taking away the phones is the best move. Once they get to college or their career, an employer isn’t going to say “you aren’t focusing enough, you can have your phone back at the end of the day.”

This is an open question that I can’t really answer. What are your thoughts or ideas? How do you help students see value in maintaining focus when class (life?) gets difficult? I’d love to hear your feedback, either here or on Twitter.


  • Andy Reply

    Building on this, I get frustrated that students only complain about the relevance of the task at hand when it is hard. We do plenty of things I would consider real-world-irrelevant in math class, but they only start whining if it is both irrelevant AND difficult. That’s when I find them going to phones or iPads for nearly-mindless games like Flappy Bird / Flappy Golf and 2048. These games are far less real-world relevant than what we’re doing in class (reason they claimed to check out in the first place), but they are easy and comfortable. Are my students saying “stop giving me hard things to do” or “if it has to be hard, it better have a purpose”? I’m worried it’s more of the former.

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      I worry it’s more of the former also. I guess the question is, have students always been like this? Are they just being kids? Or is this indicative of a larger societal shift/trend? I haven’t been in the profession long enough to know, although in talking to some older teachers I suspect it’s a more recent shift. It’s never been so easy to latch onto something that is less difficult. I think that daydreaming would be better than playing Flappy Bird.

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