Fighting Fatigue with Better Training and Great Books

“The fatigued mind would rather categorize a conversation about God as another superficial distraction, requiring little cognitive attention.” That’s a finding by Dr. Alan Noble of Oklahoma Baptist University. He believes we’re unknowingly training our students away from a faith-filled life.

Noble outlines some of his thoughts in his new book Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. He believes the method we’re using to train our students is pulling them away from deep faith. One of the main debilitating tools we teach, he cites, is multitasking.

Learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. Noble notes that if students study and watch TV simultaneously the information they collect goes to the striatum. This region of the brain specializes in new procedures and skills. He outlines how focused study, without multitasking, would store the same information in the hippocampus, where it is categorized in a variety of ways and is easier to retrieve. Stanford neuroscientist Russ Poldrack is collecting mounds of research data that shows that multitasking is stressful. His findings show that multitasking is counter-productive to an education that seeks changes in thinking, processing, and character formation.

Multitasking is addictive. There is a natural dopamine-addiction feedback loop that effectively rewards the brain for losing focus. The brain is rewarded with a dopamine hit when it finds external stimulation. This causes the brain to naturally search for a distraction. This is a significant problem for students who increasingly have school given to them on devices.

When laptops sit between students and teachers as a “help” there is actually a significant obstacle to process what the teacher is teaching. This is especially true for character-shaping information, that requires internalization and self-reflection.

In school settings, where there are countless opportunities to engage information, less distraction is best. Students in many schools have the ability to search the web for additional information mid-lecture. Sometimes they might fact check a teacher. While this sounds like a good thing, regarding understanding and processing information, fact-checking is actually distracting from the correct processing and understanding of concepts.

In some schools students participate in ongoing background discussions. Message boards run in real-time while teachers lecture. These online chat boards and comment opportunities change the way the information is received. Noble notes that the barrage of information and distraction actually flattens distinctions between what is important for class and what is a distraction. Because of all the options the students face decision overload.

These decision overloads are as much a problem for students’ spiritual development as their cognitive progress. Because students are being trained to flatten distinctions in the classroom, ultimately being able to learn “at their own pace” and “take control of their learning” they miss the vital truths that are bound inside a text, lecture, or overall purpose in a course. They find that a search for truth or relevance is as important as the information communicated. The distinction between truth and fact is flattened and students see hearing and understanding as synonymous, losing context in what they’re studying.

This training can bleed into the spiritual life and training of students. Some might lean to question God’s justice and love, equating stories of punishing the Amorites to Jesus dying on the cross. Because they’ve been trained to flatten distinctions because of distractions in school they tend to carry these habits into the processing they do with their faith. This isn’t what is being trained at Hillcrest.

Students at Hillcrest engage in class without devices. Some classes require note taking as a way for students to process what is being lectured. Other classes require participation, where students must give feedback to earn points for their grades. These small grading assessments build habits of engagement that moves students from hearing to understanding and often internalizing the ideas and concepts being taught in their Bible-based classrooms.

This week a student told a staff member that in her writing class she feels Hillcrest is transforming her thinking. She is finding time to think about difficult matters. She said that teachers are nice, but difficult, bringing up ideas and demanding a response.

The student shared how another class makes her nervous each time she sits in her desk and opens her notebook. She said that this specific teacher expects the students to have an opinion on the topic each day. She shared that it has pushed her to develop views, opinions, and think through why she believes what she does. Her training at Hillcrest is pushing her from distraction, because classrooms aren’t filled with computers. Instead, classrooms are filled with people who demand dialogue.

The Bible shows in countless areas that students will become like their teacher. No matter the curriculum, cultural pressures, or even the goal oriented practices, students model the lives of their teachers. If their teachers share their faith boldly, uniting big ideas in the world with solid Scriptural disciplines, students will learn to do that.

During one of the snow days this past week a Hillcrest staff member was spotted digging into a book that is part of an ongoing staff development program. This teacher is pushing her students to dig into great books. In one of the classes she teaches the students practice breaking down stories, understanding underlying motivations and structures in characters, situations, and historical contexts.

In a recent class period her group of students needed to break down how they would handle a situation of persecution. While their initial responses were light on engagement, the teacher pushed them to more deeply engage, saying running away isn’t an option. She worked, using a great book, to cause the students to attack a compromising situation and mentally think through a resolution that would not be easy but would be agreeable to their logic, order, and process in the way they wanted to live.

It is clear that students at Hillcrest are battling the mental fatigue. The world is training them to be addicts of it. But with Biblically-based mentorship, godly training, and great books, the students are building muscles that will support them as they encounter difficult obstacles in the years ahead.

Wayne StenderComment