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For the Good of the Doodler

Doodling can be helpful in the classroom. Or not. You decide.

In a previous article, “Why Do You Teach,” I wrote about teachers pursuing the good of their students. Drawing an analogy between friendship and teaching (as Aristotle did between friendship and governance), I wrote:

Finally, the friendship that is pure is the friendship in which the two parties are so fond of one another, have such an affinity for one another, that they are friends not because the other is useful or pleasant, but because they want to see the other attain to the best things in life. In other words, I am a friend to the other person because I want what is good for the other person. I hope and pray for his good, and I do my part to make that happen.

What do we do, though, when the “good of the student” is not immediately apparent to the student? Let us examine a particular example and try to draw wisdom from the general principle (that teachers, like friends, ought to pursue the good of the student) that we might apply to the particular.

Say for example a teacher is teaching and one or more of the students are doodling during the lesson, whether that lesson be a lecture, a demonstration, or a discussion.

One might argue that if the student is paying attention and that the act of doodling is preventing the student from becoming distracted in other ways that might prevent attentiveness, then allowing the student to doodle is the right thing to do. That the student is paying attention is easily determined if the teacher calls on the student once in awhile to check. In this case, the good of the student might be simply allowing the student to continue doodling so long as he is attentive.

One might respond, however, that since the teacher doesn’t know the student is paying attention, or feels like he isn’t, or thinks it rude to doodle rather than paying more direct, un-intermediated attention, then the student shouldn’t be allowed to doodle. In this case, though, it is not for the good of the student that he shouldn’t doodle, it is for the good of the teacher. The teacher wants to feel attended to and that’s what is important here.

A student who feels the need to doodle in order to pay attention well might not appreciate being told by a teacher that it is more important for him to appear to be attentive than it is for him to actually be attentive. Who would ever choose to seem to be good or just or virtuous when he could actually be good or just or virtuous?

Matters are complicated when the teacher notices that the student doesn’t doodle for every lesson but only for some lessons. What makes it necessary for doodling sometimes but not other times? It might be noticed, for instance, that some lessons are inherently more interesting to the student than others. For some, the student does not need help attending to the lesson, for others the student does. Is the better action for the teacher to mandate unaided attending, or ought the teacher take responsibility for the bore that is his lesson? What if the teacher cannot make a lesson that is necessarily boring into an interesting one? What now is his response? Is the option to allow doodling still possible?

There might be another reason, though, to disallow doodling, one that is not for the teacher’s sake but for the student’s sake. While it might be true that this particular teacher could go without needing to feel attended to, it does not mean that every teacher can or that every public speaker can. It might be that the students need to learn to be attentive—even when they don’t want to be—without the aid of doodling because it is for their good. It is for their good insofar as it enables them to look out for the good of another, the other teacher, the other public speaker, the other presenter.

One thing that must be kept in mind, though, is that we are not born with perfect attentiveness, with perfect attention spans. In other words, the doodling might be a crutch for attentiveness that the student ultimately needs to grow out of his need for. Charlotte Mason talks about the need for short lessons that eventually build up into longer lessons, precisely because a person needs to develop or strengthen his attentiveness, his attention span. Perhaps, in a classroom with a doodler, one might need to help him develop his attentiveness. Rather than forbidding any and all doodling, the teacher could slowly begin restricting doodling, allowing some doodling and reducing that time over the course of the year. In this way, we might more carefully ensure we are truly pursuing the good of the student.

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