Family strategizing about multitasking

Instead of being reflexively dismissive, it’s better for parents and kids to work out together when multitasking does and doesn’t work.

By Anne Collier

We’re learning more about multitasking. From the research, we know that it isn’t either all good or all bad. We also know – have known for a while – that it also isn’t really multitasking. BUT what we call multitasking – which is actually switching from task to task really, really fast – is useful sometimes. So if our kids proudly believe they’re really good at it, we don’t need to be dismissive. Together, parents and kids can be a little smarter and more nuanced than that. Let me explain.

First the fact that might surprise a bit, buried in Education Week’s helpful article on this subject: Duke University professor Cathy Davidson says that “working collaboratively with other students requires intense multitasking, involving negotiating, debating, and explaining while juggling data and class assignments, often via multiple media, such as online videoconferencing and texting.” When they do this, they’re preparing for professional life – cross-functional teams collaboratively solving complex problems in fast-changing situations – which will be happening both online, using social technology, as well as offline. It may be more like juggling tasks than multitasking, technically, but that kind of activity really can’t be dismissed reflexively because of the “whitewater kayaking” kind of learning and working needed for this networked world. There are some things our children intuitively understand about their futures.

Then of course there’s the now fairly old understanding shared recently by Johns Hopkins psychology and brain sciences professor Steven Yantis that “there appears to be an intrinsic, structural aspect of brain function that prevents perfect task-sharing.” What does that mean for our kids? Something it might be good to share with them: research from California State University psychology professor Larry Rosen that shows when “multitasking” is not helpful. His study looked at students answering text messages while watching a video lecture on which they knew they would be tested. Those who viewed the 4-10 texts scored 10% lower on the test than the students who didn’t get texted – “the equivalent of a full letter grade,” Ed Week reports.

So here’s where parents and kids can get smart about what we’ve learned: Not smart, Dr. Rosen says, is to “simply remove technology and other distractions; they are too intricately woven into students’ daily lives, particularly in middle and high school.” Our kids – or all of us, really – need to “learn the metacognitive skills to help them understand when and how to switch their attention between multiple tasks or technologies.” How can families do that? Think together about when it is and isn’t appropriate (for social and academic reasons) to “multitask” and why – and develop a strategy, or policy, based on what you’ve worked out together. For example, it’s ok to “multitask” during a collaborative project, not when writing an essay. It’s ok to do what I’d call social multitasking when everybody in the social group is fine with texting in the presence of the group. I’m sure you and your kids can think of a bunch of scenarios to strategize around – and policymaking is based on how much self-control a child can demonstrate in situations, like during Dr. Rosen’s video lecture up there, when multitasking’s not helpful. I’d love to hear (and am sure fellow parents would too) what you work out – in comments below of via email to anne[at] [See also: “Too focused on fear of multitasking?” and much more.]

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