I’ve written before on information overload, but a recent read gave me a much better word for what I’m getting at: noise. You and I and every one of our students live in a world so unprecedentedly full of noise that we, as a species, are literally figuring out how to deal with it for the first time.
From Peter Drucker’s article “Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself,”  as cited in Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:
In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time — literally — substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.
This is clarifying. The problem isn’t just information — it’s the choices so much information presents us with. How, then, do we teach our students (and ourselves) to manage themselves when we have next to no historically validated model for doing so?
It’s pretty much all noise
Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism (audiobook), which introduced me to the Drucker article and is a perfect January read, seems largely inspired by the ethos of a single designer named Dieter Rams. According to McKeown, Rams “is driven by the idea that almost everything is noise.” His chief principle for design, Weniger aber besser, simply means, “Less but better.”
If you’ve been around the blog for a while, you can imagine how my heart hummed as I read Rams’ mantra. The “non-freaked out approach” to literacy instruction emphasizes just five skills: thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and improving. Last summer, I stripped my blog’s design down using a reader-centered design philosophy — I wanted to reduce distractions to the reader. My own classroom is quite minimalistic: there are lots of books, and lots of reminder things like anchor charts, mottos, a word wall. 
If we’re going to manage ourselves better — and help our students do the same — noise reduction is the place to start. This is, according to Drucker, perhaps the 21st century skill.
Helping our students live quieter lives
There are two ways to deal with noise: we can resist it, or we can eliminate it. My grandfather, who graduated near the bottom of his high school class but retired as a successful CEO, used to say that he was successful because he was lazy, meaning that he always tried to find better or more efficient ways to do things. The lazy person’s approach to dealing with noise isn’t resisting it — it’s eliminating it.
But noise reduction is way harder for some of our kids than it is for others. Ninth grader Naddyia, who shares a one bedroom apartment with five family members and has unlimited use of her smart phone, has a lot more work to do than her classmate Paris, who has her own bedroom and a mandatory “no cell phone” study time each night. You can’t just tell Naddyia to “be grittier” or “do her homework” if you’re going to do all in your power to promote her long-term flourishing. Likewise, there will come a day when Paris won’t have a monitored study hour. All of our kids need instruction around noise reduction.
I want my students to do better in life and better in my class, and that means I’m really interested in how to teach them to eliminate noise.
Angela Duckworth, of grit fame, has an interesting idea for this. When asked how teachers can help students develop persistence and passion for long-term goals, Duckworth recommends that teachers consider how to encourage kids to “be the teachers of their own bedroom classrooms.” Think about teachers: we set up our classrooms with student learning in mind, trying to make the boards visible and distractions minimal. For example, most of us probably don’t allow students to read and send text messages whenever they feel like it. The question then is how can students modify their home environments to be “equally well engineered for [them] to be the kind of kid that [they] want to be, to act in the way that [they] want to act?” 
Now, again, this is clearly a different challenge for Naddyia than it is for Paris. Paris doesn’t have to do much here — but a simple 5-10 minute, whole-class writing-and-discussion activity on the topic can be useful for her in the long-term because she won’t always be living at home. Likewise, it’s useful for Naddyia — maybe she can shove a table against the wall somewhere in her apartment so that she’s not facing the rest of the room. At the very least, she can put her cell phone on airplane mode while she listens to music and does her nightly studying.
When I talk to my kids about Duckworth’s bedroom classroom concept, I don’t expect that it will lead to drastic life changes for all of them. I do expect, though, that of my 100+ students, a percentage are going to take the idea and run. And, since I don’t invest a ton of time into this — again, we’re talking a 5-10 minute warm-up style activity that won’t sideline my content and curricula — I’d call this a fantastic use of time.
Leading by example
While the Naddyias of our classroom have great excuses for struggling with noise reduction, you and I have far fewer. Yes, we may not have Paris’ parents to mandate how we use our smart phones, but we can make decisions about a lot of the noise sources in our lives.
We can limit the apps that we carry on our phones, or choose not to have a smartphone at all. I’m a fan of Twitter, but I don’t put it on my phone. I’m as addicted to checking my email as the next person, but I intentionally keep email notifications off my phone. I even have the Internet browser on my phone turned off — surfing idly isn’t an option for me. Like my Grandpa, I am too lazy to want to deal with resisting these things.
We can keep a clean desk (still working on that). We can declutter our classrooms. When we sit down to grade papers, we can turn off electronics so that our focus is on doing the task and making it as quick and useful as possible.
At home, we can limit the TV that we watch. I’ve yet to watch a modern television show that I don’t find engrossing — but this is largely because I make sure not to watch many television shows. I really enjoy how stories can be told on the silver screen, especially today, but I could easily find several hours of great TV to watch every night.
The same is true for video games — I played a lot in high school, and when a student shows me the latest video game trailer (Fallout 4 was a big one a month or so ago), I immediately want to play. But for me as a husband, dad, and teacher, video games are noise.
The point here isn’t to live a life devoid of digital recreation — Crystal and I will watch a modest TV series together once a year or so; my college-aged brother and I get together once or twice a year for a day of video games. Rather, it’s that being a better and saner teacher means practicing what we teach. If we’re going to teach noise reduction, we need to practice it ourselves.
But I think there’s a useful kind of noise, too — a kind of noise that we can create for ourselves. More on that next time.
- Drucker, Peter. (Spring 2000.) “Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself.” Leader to Leader Journal, no. 16. Full text here.
- I give a narrated video tour of my classroom in the School Year Starter Kit.
- Duckworth’s full comments on building grit can be found here, as part of the “Positive Psychology Meets K-12 Pedagogy” course.