Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Darnedest Thing About Multitasking

Kids say the darnedest things. They say they can multitask. For a decade, as they grew up in the digital age, we adults thought "kids these days!" and believed them. I believed them, too. In fact, I envied them.

But then I read Brain Rules, by John J. Medina, a molecular biologist, who points to research that shows our brains and our students' brains don't work on two things as at a one. Like the computers we created in our own image, we are binary thinkers. We sequence. We this then that.

So multitasking is a myth. Stephen Henshaw, Chair/Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkley, correctly names the activity of processing more than one media at a time as quicktasking. His comments are part of a new video feature at Common Sense Media. While quicktasking may be useful at times, constantly moving from one thing-task-idea to the next leaves our students without the skills of concentration and focus.

Two tips offered by Common Sense Media include:

  • Limit distractions, turn off the electronics
  • Encourage more reading

What makes this multitasking myth more insidious is the fact that it seems as if it's not a problem. Kids (and adults) think they are doing just fine. The National Academy of Sciences finds that heavy media multitasking students lack focus, understanding, and retention while trying to attend to two or more activities at one time. Time seemingly gained by doing or learning two things at once is actually lost if they are not able to be recalled later.

A study at Stanford University, showed that multitaskers were the worst at multitasking. By frequently multitasking, students are not only suffering when it comes to focusing on one thing, but are less able to focus on anything whether there's one, two, or more things. They scan but do not internalize information presented, perhaps because they treat all information with equal attention and do not focus, prioritize, or otherwise sort it out.

As much as I love to revel in our media world and the creativity it invites, I'd shudder to think that my students live a life without getting lost in a book for an hour or two or sit and write a journal or a poem without interruption. Beyond these romanticist ideals, as a teacher, I am concerned that our students are not able to "turn it on" when focus could mean the most. It is not an enviable situation. Focus, concentration, and retention are benefits too important to be winked at.

The darnedest thing is our students don't know what they are missing.

Image credit: Reformatted from"Multi-tasking." By Atonal. 27 Nov. 2007. Flickr/cc.

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