Restoring attention and memory by disconnecting?

Montserrat Hermitage
Catalonian Hermitage

For some time now, I’ve been (along with certain friends and colleagues) advocating for at least occasional Slow experiences in higher education teaching and learning. Somewhat akin to Slow food (which of course has its detractors, and probably rightly so), Slow pedagogy would involve savouring time rather than “spending” or “wasting” it. Slow pedagogy would help us to avoid the McDonaldization of education that has become the norm in our credentialist, shortcut-oriented culture.

Recently, in my obsessive Facebooking at night when I should be reading a good novel, I noticed a link to a New York Times article (part of a series on connectivity and our brains) about five academics who went on a technology-free nature excursion to test its effects on brain activity. On some level, it is unsurprising that they found significant differences after “getting away from it all” — any number of regular people who go into the wilderness every once in a while could have told them this. What’s interesting is that these five guys all had different opinions to start with regarding the impact of hypertechnology on our brains, but by the end, they pretty much agreed that we need to find ways to measure the effects of time away from it, or rest periods.

In my own educational development career, I probably get at least 30 emails per day that need answering. Maybe this isn’t much compared to other jobs on campus, maybe it’s more than others. My point is, though, that on a micro level, I have found some serious differences in my motivation, concentration, happiness and productivity when I am forced by the structure of some of our workshops to stay AWAY from email all day. For example, the recent training with King Saud University professors, or the Teaching Excellence Academy (TEA) each April have afforded me the luxury of intense work without ubiquitous interruption. Today was Day One of a three-day Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), and I’m surprisingly energized after a very long day and night, in part I think because I completely ignored email for 10 daylight hours! I’m only half-joking when I say that I would like to hold ISW and TEA in the woods, away from cell phone networks and wifi.  Anybody with me?

In the end, of course, and somewhat ironically, it’s through social networking sites and social bookmarking tools (Facebook,, Twitter, Diigo, Delicious) that I continue to find some of the best material I have seen, including that New York Times series. So I’ll stay connected, but I’m going to start recommending that we and our students spend more time away (solidly away) from our tech than frantically attached to it, and try to build learning or development experiences that foster Slow pedagogy.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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