Why Students Can't Focus and What You Can Do About It


By James M. Lang

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Keeping students focused can be difficult in a world filled with distractions—which is why a renowned educator created a scientific solution to one of every teacher's biggest problems.

Why is it so hard to get students to pay attention? Conventional wisdom blames iPhones, insisting that access to technology has ruined students' ability to focus. The logical response is to ban electronics in class.

But acclaimed educator James M. Lang argues that this solution obscures a deeper problem: how we teach is often at odds with how students learn. Classrooms are designed to force students into long periods of intense focus, but emerging science reveals that the brain is wired for distraction. We learn best when able to actively seek and synthesize new information.

In Distracted, Lang rethinks the practice of teaching, revealing how educators can structure their classrooms less as distraction-free zones and more as environments where they can actively cultivate their students' attention.

Brimming with ideas and grounded in new research, Distracted offers an innovative plan for the most important lesson of all: how to learn.



I FINISHED WRITING this book in February of 2020, one month before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in the United States. While the book wound its way through the production process, teachers around the world were shifting their courses online on very short notice. Having never taught online before, I had ten days to transform my British literature survey course, which met three times per week in a physical classroom, to one in which our every encounter would be mediated by screens. During those ten day I learned how to record video lectures for my students, write productive prompts for our discussion board, conduct group and individual Zoom sessions, and assign and evaluate student work entirely online. Much to my surprise, I found the exploration of these new teaching practices invigorating. I had been curious about online teaching for several years, wondering how it would compare to the traditional classroom experience. Some of the teaching practices I experimented with in my online course proved very effective for my students; I will continue to use them when I return to the face-to-face classroom.

I suspect many traditional high school and college courses, the kind that meet in physical classrooms filled with human bodies, will undergo a similar transformation in the post-pandemic world. Our courses will be enriched by our newfound familiarity with tech tools that have been tested and proven effective by online teachers for the past decade or two. As a consequence of this, the devices that we like to blame for distractibility will assume an even more important role in the lives of educators and students. Attempts to remove them from our learning spaces will become increasingly challenging in this world of blended learning environments, in which students are learning through both their devices and the community setting of the classroom. But whatever differences might emerge in the educational world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the core challenge that this book addresses remains exactly the same as prior to the pandemic, and as it will remain for as long as humans teach other humans through formal schooling: cultivating the attention of students in support of their learning.

You’ll read much in the pages that follow about how attention contributes to learning, and about how and why distraction gets in the way. If you have been teaching for any length of time, you will have direct experience with this problem in your own classroom: you will have seen students’ attention drifting out the window, waning over the course of the day, or disappearing into their phones and laptops. If you have now also taught online, at least temporarily, you will likely have witnessed attention failing and flailing in those environments as well. Perhaps you noticed students eyeing their phones or checking e-mail during your Zoom sessions, or perhaps you were able to surmise this was happening because you were doing precisely the same thing in your departmental Zoom meetings. You might also have complained to your spouse or friends that you were having difficulty concentrating on your work during the early weeks of the pandemic—a reminder that distraction comes in many forms, and not just from our digital devices. We can be as distracted by our fears and anxieties (and other aspects of our nonacademic life) as we can by our phones and laptops. Whenever we are attempting challenging cognitive work, distraction sings to us sweetly, beckoning us into easier and more pleasurable pursuits.

But the education supported by attention brings greater and more meaningful rewards than the temporary bursts of pleasure we can get from our distractions, and it can give us the cognitive tools we need to manage our fears and anxieties during times of crisis. A student comes into my literature course baffled and a little frustrated by the poems I had assigned her to read; we circle our desks and work our way slowly through one of those poems, and then finish with a writing exercise in which I ask her to think about how the poem connects to her own life experience. Through the attention she has given to the class and the poem, she emerges with new insights into humanity’s right relationship with the natural world. A student who has no idea what she wants to do with her life hunkers down over an experiment with a lab partner, and finds in those test tubes something so fascinating that it launches her into her major and ultimate career path. While we were all teaching and learning remotely, I watched one of my daughters, who has struggled with anxiety, complete an art class online, working patiently at her charcoal drawings under the occasional online supervision of her teacher. Later in the evenings, I would sometimes find her holding coloring and drawing sessions with her younger siblings in her bedroom, helping all of them find comfort during this crisis through the exercise of their creative faculties.

Digital devices did not create the challenge of cultivating student attention in support of these kinds of life-altering learning experiences. We have been sidetracked in recent years by assertive voices who lay the entire blame for our distractible natures at the feet of our laptops and phones. But to place the blame exclusively there only works if you ignore the architectural features of our brain that make us prone to distraction, or the long history of humans complaining about the distractibility of their minds. Although we have more distractions today than we had in the past—and more powerful distractions in the form of our digital devices—teachers have always wrestled with the challenge of capturing and sustaining student attention in support of their learning. To overcome that challenge, we need to turn our heads away from distraction and toward attention. Our challenge is not to wall off distractions; our challenge is to cultivate attention, and help students use it in the service of meaningful learning.

This book emerges from my convictions about the essential role of attention to education. It offers many recommendations for how to make attention a priority in your classroom, from the building of community and the design of your course to the structuring of your class period and the development of creative new teaching strategies. I hope that you will find in here a new understanding of the role that attention can play in student learning, new tools for cultivating the attention of your students, and fresh enthusiasm for the task.

April 20, 2020

Worcester, Massachusetts

part one



A Brief History of Distraction

OUR FEARS ABOUT the distractibility of students exist within the context of larger social fears about increasing distractibility in the digital era. With screens available everywhere now, even on watches and glasses, we wonder whether our devices are doing permanent damage to our attention. We tend to express that fear most vocally in relation to our children and students, perhaps because we see them so frequently interacting with their screens in ways that seem trivial to us: texting one another, watching videos, tracking celebrity social media feeds. But most adults I know also fear, or at least wonder about, the extent to which distraction might harm our attention. A couple of years ago, while visiting another campus, I had dinner with an administrator in his mid-sixties, and the topic of attention and distraction arose. “I can’t seem to pay attention anymore like I used to,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “I can barely get through a few pages of a novel before I find myself checking my phone.” The resignation in his voice struck a chord with me, as it seemed to capture well the dominant tone of our current conversations about distraction and attention. Something has been lost, and we regret it; we know the identity of the culprit, but we are helpless in the face of its power. Two assumptions buried within that administrator’s statement underpin this story of attention lost: the first is that we once had a greater ability to pay attention; the second is that our devices are to blame.

Before we turn specifically to the challenges of attention in education, then, it would be useful to put our assumptions about attention and distraction into a broader historical context. As we shall see, rumors about the recent death of attention have been greatly exaggerated. We can trace concerns about our distractible minds just about as far back as we can trace the development of written philosophical, religious, and literary texts. The history of human reflection on the problem of attention encompasses writing from both Western and Eastern traditions; works of ancient philosophy and sacred scripture; novels, poetry, and nonfiction; instruction manuals for polite behavior; and screeds against new technologies. We need to acknowledge this history before we consider how to address our contemporary educational concerns, because it can shape both the intensity and nature of our response. When we recognize the extent to which anxiety about distraction has a long history, we can dial back the sense of panic that infects much of today’s discourse about students and their short attention spans. But we can also acknowledge that today’s technologies are presenting some particularly complex new challenges to our students—and to ourselves.

Wandering Minds and Fly-Catching Lizards

Considerations of the problem of distraction date at least back to Greek and Roman antiquity. In the Ethics, Aristotle argued that distraction arises from a clash between activities which are more and less pleasant to us. “People who are passionately devoted to the flute,” he explains, “are unable to pay attention to arguments if they hear someone playing a flute, since they enjoy the flute-playing more than the activity that presently occupies them.” Thus we are distracted away from challenging tasks (such as attending to arguments, paying attention in class, or grading papers) when we encounter the prospect of something more pleasing (such as listening to music, chatting with a friend, or checking Twitter). In a following passage, Aristotle explains that the problem can arise not only from the potentially pleasant nature of the distraction, but also from the unpleasant or boring nature of the experience we are having: “When we are [only] mildly pleased with things of one sort, we do things of other sorts; for instance, people who eat snacks in theaters do this most when the actors are bad.”1 In this statement we get not only a description of Aristotle’s theory of distraction, but also a glimpse of the challenges that ancient theaters faced in the form of their distracted audiences (a problem to which we will return in greater detail in Chapter Five). But we see even in these earliest writings about distraction the dual nature of its power over us: we can be pushed toward distraction by unpleasant or difficult experiences (listening to arguments, watching bad theater) and pulled toward it by the prospect of something more pleasing (listening to flutes, eating snacks).

The Latin theologian Augustine of Hippo, who penned the Confessions in the late fourth century, offered less of an analysis and more of a lamentation of the distractions that beset our mind. For Augustine, as for many religious writers, the proper focal point should be God; he was thus disturbed by the inability of the human mind to stay focused on prayers. In the Confessions, he bemoans the ways in which his contemplation of God and truth could be broken by the smallest and most everyday distractions:

How is it that when I am sitting at home a lizard catching flies, or a spider entangling them as they fly into her webs, oftentimes arrests me?… When this heart of ours is made the depot of such things and is overrun by the throng of these abounding vanities, then our prayers are often interrupted and disturbed by them. Even while we are in thy presence and direct the voice of our hearts to thy ears, such a great business as this is broken off by the inroads of I know not what idle thoughts.2

In the same chapter of the Confessions, Augustine explains that he can try to structure his life in order to minimize distractions: for example, he can avoid going to the circus to watch dogs chasing rabbits. But even his best intentions and efforts won’t stop his attention from being diverted if he sees a dog chasing a rabbit while he’s out taking a walk. No matter how we try to corral our disobedient attention toward higher matters, it will defy us in the end.

We find these same laments about our distractible minds in the religious and wisdom traditions of other cultures. Huston Smith and Philip Novak explain in Buddhism: A Concise Introduction that the core insight of the Buddha was the impermanence of all existence; our failure to reconcile ourselves to this impermanence represents the source of our suffering. That impermanence applies not only to the physical objects of this world that come and go, but to the thoughts and emotions that spin incessantly through our mind. In Smith and Novak’s summary of the insights of the Buddha, “Every mental and physical state is in flux; none is solid or enduring… We have little control over our mental states and our physical sensations, and normally little awareness of them.”3 Practitioners of Buddhism begin their journey toward a more mindful existence by acknowledging what the Buddhist tradition often refers to as the “monkey mind”—jumping, swinging, and howling in unceasing motion. That monkey mind, subject to constant distraction and wanderings, represents the starting point for the long and arduous journey toward enlightenment.

From the monkey mind to the blissful state of enlightenment, from fly-catching lizards to contemplation of God: the ancient texts of attention and distraction put the two terms in a clear hierarchy, with attention above and distraction below. Attention enables us to contemplate the truth, to focus on what matters, to achieve peace and wisdom. Distraction scatters the mind, deters us from right thinking and behavior, and brings unhappiness. We speak about attention and distraction in these same terms today, as we admonish our children and students to pay attention at the dinner table or in the classroom. We feel Augustine’s unhappiness and irritation when we are distracted by trivial matters—pulled in many directions, true to the Latin roots of the word dis-traction, which means to drag something apart. We chide ourselves for the hours we spend on our phones, knowing that we might have spent that time in more productive ways: in study or scholarship, in exercise or prayer, in conversation with our children, parents, or friends.

These ancient texts establish another important binary, though—one that is essential to understanding our contemporary concerns about distraction. We see in the range of early writing about attention that we are subject to both internal and external distractions. For the Buddhist, the source of the problems lies within us. Minds jump and wander, disobey and distract; no matter how hard we work to harness and sustain our attention, it slips from our grasp. But Aristotle and Augustine point out that our susceptible minds are also drawn from their focus by external forces. Flute players, lizards, and spiders intrude on our attention and pull it away from the places we wish it to be. The English poet and cleric John Donne, writing in the early sixteenth century, describes in a funeral sermon the way that his efforts at attention to prayer are beset by these twin demons of internal and external distraction:

I throw myself downe in my Chamber, and call in, and invite God and his Angels thither; and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels for the noise of a Flie, for the rattling of a Coach, for the whining of a doore; I talke on in the same posture of praying; Eyes lifted up, knees bowed down; as though I prayed to God; and, if God, or his Angels should aske me when I thought last of God in that prayer, I cannot tell: Sometimes I find that I had forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I cannot tell. A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a feare of tomorrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine eare, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my braine, troubles me in my prayer.4

Given all of the distractions that Donne describes—from the noise of a fly to the straw beneath our legs (external distractions), from our memories of yesterday to our fears for tomorrow (internal distractions)—it begins to seem miraculous that we are ever capable of sustained attention of any kind.

Theorists of attention will continue to express concern about both internal and external causes of distraction right up to the present day, but in eighteenth-century Europe a new formulation of the relationship between internal and external distraction emerges, one that raises a scary prospect.

Coffeehouse to Computer Screen: The Destructive Power of Distraction

That lovely hot beverage that you might be enjoying as you read these words, the source of so much energy and delight among students and teachers alike, first became popular in the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century. It was discovered by Europeans through both travel and trade, and was promoted for its stimulating qualities and for its many reputed health benefits. The first coffeehouse in England was opened in 1650 at Oxford University, thus initiating a long and still vibrant association between learning and coffee. The first coffee shop in London opened just two years later, and then coffeehouses spread with startling speed throughout the English capital. Fifty years later, there were more than two thousand coffeehouses in London. They became sites of leisure, political discussion, and commercial work. The insurer Lloyd’s of London originated in a coffee shop, as did an early version of the London Stock Exchange. These buzzing sites of social, commercial, and political interaction drew people together in major cities across England and beyond, including Vienna, Paris, and Amsterdam.5

The manic atmosphere in the coffeehouses created energy and excitement, but at the same time drew the concern of intellectuals who feared that it was interfering with the ability of coffeehouse patrons to put their heads down and focus on serious work. Tom Standage, author of Writing on the Wall: Social Media—the First 2,000 Years, cites the words of an Oxford don in 1677 who argued that “solid and serious learning” was declining as a result of people wasting their days in coffeehouses.6 A lawyer from Cambridge had made the connection between coffeehouses and a decline in focus slightly more specific a few years earlier: “Who can apply close to a Subject with his Head full of the Din of a Coffee-house?”7 The rise of the coffeehouse—and the concerns raised by these scholars about its role as a new source of distraction—echoes the fears of Augustine and John Donne about the ways in which external distractions can intrude on thinking.

In eighteenth-century discussions of the coffeehouse, a newfound focus on the problem of distraction raised a dreadful prospect: sustained exposure to external distractions can degrade our internal capacities for attention. Isaac Watts was an English clergyman and writer of Christian hymns, including that Christmastime classic “Joy to the World.” In 1727, he published a self-help book for freethinking folk called The Improvement of the Mind, and in it he cautioned readers that spending too much time in distraction-filled environments would eventually create an easily distractible mind:

Do not choose your constant place of study by… the most various and entertaining scenes of sensible things… A variety of Objects, which strike the Eye or the Ear, especially while they are ever in motion or often changing, have a natural and powerful tendency to steal away the mind too often from its steady pursuit of any subject, which we contemplate; and thereby the Soul gets a habit of silly curiosity and impertinence, of trifling and wandering.8

The use of the word “habit” in this passage reflects a fear that what we have previously acknowledged as an unhappy feature of the mind—its tendency to wander away in spite of our wishes—can be exacerbated or made more permanent by too much time spent in the company of external distractions. In other words, the more time you spend being distracted, the more you will become an easily distractible person.

The formulation that we see in Watts’s book has become the dominant way of theorizing the problem of distraction, right down to the present day. Writers will no doubt continue to reflect upon and lament the internal wanderings of their own minds, echoing eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson’s remark that “with or without our consent… the mind will break, from confinement to its stated task, into sudden excursions.”9 But this problem seems much less pressing to writers as we progress into the twentieth century and beyond. The locus of concern rests more and more squarely, with each passing century, on the newly developed technologies or media that steal our attention, chip away at our cognitive powers, and destroy our ability to pay attention to one another. A 1906 cartoon from the British magazine Punch depicts two well-dressed late Victorians seated under a tree, facing away from each other, each staring at a telegraph receiver on their lap. “These two figures,” the caption reads, “are not communicating with one another. The lady receives an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.” The figures, mesmerized by their quaint devices, bear an uncanny resemblance to students today, sitting under a shady tree on the quad, transfixed by the phones in their hands.10

The specific fear of external technologies diminishing attention capacities arises again with the arrival of the radio. As this new device found its way into people’s homes in the 1920s and ’30s, according to historians Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt, “many grappled with the meaning and place of the radio in their mental lives. Could they take in all it had to offer without sacrificing other mental powers? Was it a force of enlightenment or a source of distraction and dissipation?” A diary writer from the time notes that she “spent a stupid and useless morning at home did not even get the papers read. The radio interferes with my intellectual life very much.”11 Note the connection here again from short- to long-term: the concern is less about the “stupid and useless morning” than it is about the ability of such mornings to destroy her “intellectual life.” The more she listens to the radio, with its short bursts of entertainment, the less she can pursue an intellectual life of sustained thinking.

Both radio and its successor, television, raised special concerns about their impact on young people and their developing brains. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, those concerns included a special focus on the ways in which screen exposure could negatively impact the attention spans of young people. In 2004, a research study appearing in the journal Pediatrics presented data showing a correlation between high rates of television viewing among very young children and rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses at age seven.12 “This study,” explained the lead author in a news release, “suggests that there is a significant and important association between early exposure to television and subsequent attentional problems.”13 Two years later, the same journal published a second essay calling these findings into question. Using a different set of research tools to approach the issue, a pair of researchers found that “effect sizes for the relationship between television exposure and symptoms of ADHD were close to zero and not statistically significant.”14 But the media had jumped on the original study and broadcast its findings widely, cementing the proposition in the minds of the public that too much attention to screens could cause permanent damage to the attention spans of children.

And who could forget the ongoing panic about whether video games are destroying our attention spans? Michael Z. Newman documents the ways in which the rise of video-game culture in the 1980s “prompted educators, psychotherapists, local government officeholders and media commentators to warn that young players were likely to suffer serious negative effects.”15 Those negative effects of course included the ability to pay attention. As recently as 2010, news outlets were covering an alarming study, also published in Pediatrics, that showed that video games could be destroying the attention spans of children.16 “Playing video games may make it harder for some children to pay attention in school, a new study suggests,” reads the opening sentence of a Canadian news report on the study.17 What the study actually revealed was that children who spent more than two hours per day on video games and television were more likely to be flagged by teachers as having attention problems. The caveats were buried in the article: there was no way to determine whether the video games were causing the attention-span problems, and in fact the causality could just as easily have run in the other direction—it could have been the case that children with attention problems were more likely to gravitate toward video games. Or perhaps there was no meaningful connection at all—the real culprit might have been the fact that children were gaming beyond their bedtimes, and lack of sleep was creating the attention problems reported by the teachers.

Contemporary Concerns

With all of this historical context in mind, we can now take a fresh look at the arguments being made by contemporary critics of distraction, like Nicholas Carr. Carr’s best-selling book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, points the finger at the internet and the devices that enable it: computers, tablets, smartphones. But the underlying logic is the same as the one articulated by Isaac Watts: too much time spent in the company of distractions ultimately changes who we are—for the worse. Carr posits the existence of a “linear mind,” one that can proceed logically and deliberately from one thought to the next, that is being slowly supplanted by a more scattered version of itself: “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”18 As previous writers have argued, Carr posits that this change occurs because of the way external forces—coffee shops, telegraphs, radios, television screens—continually draw our attention in multiple, divided ways. “The division of attention demanded by multimedia,” Carr writes, “strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding.”19

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  • "An optimistic and useful guide to cultivating student attention.... Lang's lucid prose and dry wit make for a pleasant reading experience, and his evidence is consistently on-point. Teachers and parents teaching at home will find inspiration and insight in this sterling study of 'the crucial connection between attention and learning.'"—Publishers Weekly
  • "A lucid discussion of attention and how to persuade students to pay it."—Kirkus
  • Every educator, from kindergarten teachers to graduate and undergraduate school teachers, struggles with reducing distraction in the classroom. Lang tackles this problem by offering strategies for students and constructive approaches and tools to encourage attentive behavior.—Library Journal
  • "Distracted proves once and for all that the question we face today is not 'How do we make students stop looking at their phones during class?' but rather 'How can we help students find meaning during class?' Packed with specific, easy-to-implement pedagogical strategies for seizing and maintaining students' academic attention, Distracted is an eminently practical guide for increasing authentic student learning in any subject. It will transform the way we think about teaching and learning in higher education."—Jessamyn Neuhaus, SUNY Plattsburgh
  • "This book will change how you think about education. Distracted takes us on a phenomenal ride into a much misunderstood aspect of human learning and finally into the refreshing light that science, literature, philosophy, and history bring. Anyone who cares about learning—their own or anyone else's—should take this journey."—Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do
  • "Lang's books have held a place of honor in my library of parenting and education books, and Distracted will, too. It is a delightful mash-up of the research and history on attention and learning. I adore this book and will be recommending it to parents and teachers."—Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure
  • "Attention is a finite and precious resource we are always in danger of squandering. Distracted will help teachers and students use it to nourish mind and soul."—Ian Leslie, author of Curious
  • "Distracted is a must-read for every classroom teacher. Lang makes a compelling argument that 'attention is an achievement' and that we should be cultivating 'attention renewal' rather than preventing distractions. He presents practical classroom activities for fostering curiosity and community—with the research to back them up. Candid insights on effective laptop policies, inviting students into the conversation, and the role of assessments make Distracted an invaluable resource that will change how you—and your students—think about learning."—Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and author of Powerful Teaching
  • "In order for learning to happen, we need our students to be fully present in the classroom—and we need to be fully present for them as well. This book tells us why we must actively cultivate our students' ability to focus, weaving together compelling and unexpected approaches for addressing the age-old problem of distracted students."—Michelle D. Miller, Northern Arizona University
  • "Attention is an essential part of the learning process. Yet, to those who teach, attention can feel elusive and fleeting. In Distracted, James Lang helps us navigate the challenges presented by technologies that bring both a world of information, and the potential for endless distractions, to students' fingertips. Lang encourages us to rethink our attempts to ban anything that may distract learners, and instead, to focus on practices that gain attention."—Bonni Stachowiak, Teaching in Higher Ed

On Sale
Oct 20, 2020
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

James M. Lang

About the Author

James M. Lang is a Professor of English and Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College. He is the author of three previous books on higher education teaching and learning: Small Teaching, Cheating Lessons, and On Course. He is also a long-time monthly columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He lives in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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