As a teacher, I have taught every year level, from kindergarten to grade 12 in the United States, and Year 13 in Australia and New Zealand, in addition to university. I have always been fascinated by fidgeting students, particularly pen twirling. It reminds me of the complex mating rituals of tropical birds attempting to lure in a potential life partner. From the standpoint of evolutionary biology, perhaps the most flamboyant pen twirlers are demonstrating their physical dexterity and the ability to be good providers. But whether it’s chronic pen twirling, pencil biting, chair tipping, finger tapping or knuckle cracking, classroom fidgeting has recently been thrust into the education spotlight thanks to the fidget widget that has been sweeping the globe. These small gadgets are held between the fingers and twirled. They can spin quietly for several minutes.
By now, most parents would have heard of fidget spinners. If not, most of their teachers certainly have. In recent months, fidgets have taken the Western world by storm, knocking out last year’s big fad – water bottle flipping. Fidget spinners have been billed as a way to relieve tension and help students focus, although there is no convincing scientific evidence that this is true. Based on the history of fads, fidget spinners are destined to lose momentum. They are a fad with a capital ‘F.’ As such, they will run their course and fade away like the hula-hoop, mood rings and pet rocks. Yes, some people, particularly students, will continue to use them, but it will be a tiny fraction of their current numbers. Why? Put simply, the current fidgeting fad is unsustainable. Fads are initially attractive because they are fresh, new and exciting, but they quickly lose their appeal when ‘everybody’s doing it.’
Katherine Isbister, a professor of computational media at the University of California Santa Cruz, has studied fidget items. She observes that students have long been clicking, tapping and clutching. She thinks that fidget props can be useful by helping students with attention issues to focus, and those with anxiety disorders to maintain calm. Some studies have shown that squeezing a stressball or squirming and rocking about while learning, can improve focus.
But the problem with fidget toys in their current form, is that unlike a stress ball or the worry stone which could be squeezed or rubbed, they can be distracting to classmates. Not only do they require eye-hand coordination, most students quickly grow bored and attempt an array of increasingly sophisticated tricks.
Should fidget spinners be banned from the classroom? Yes, because they are distracting to both the student doing the spinning, and their classmates. If students want to fidget, I say, bring back the stress ball and squeeze to your heart’s desire. Even if it can be conclusively shown that spinners can help students with anxiety and focusing issues, they are too distracting. So when my students ask me, ‘Why can’t I use a spinner – it’s not hurting anyone?’ I tell them to practice during their lunch break and at home because if school does not work out for them, perhaps some day they can join the circus.
Today’s students have too many distractions. Mobile phones. Social media. Computer games. Spinners are just one more diversion that students can do without in the Age of Distraction. Humans are not very good at focusing on more than one thing at a time. The Center for Disease Control reports that each day nine people are killed and about 1,000 are injured in accidents involving distracted drivers. High on the list of distractions are texting and talking on mobile phones. Fidget spinners are reminiscent of the current trend of consuming sport’s drinks during everyday activities. Humans have survived for 350,000 years without sports drinks. Give me good old-fashioned water. Pocket the fidget spinners in the classroom. There is no substitute for peace and quiet.