More on multitasking

By Anne Collier

I recently posted on “Student multitasking: Embrace or erase?” and got two questions from two different vantage points on the subject. I was trying to be as brief as possible and still quote some important points in school administrator Matt Levinson’s outstanding book From Fear to Facebook, because I’d already written a long post on digital breathing room (kind of the opposite of multitasking). But the good questions got me to thinking that this discussion deserves a bit more consideration.

From Ira David Socol at Michigan State University, the tweet came, “Shouldn’t embracing or avoiding multitasking be the student’s choice?

First, I think trying to erase multitasking these days (by students or anyone else) is a little like trying to stop the Free Hugs movement (see what I mean here). It’s pretty much part of being human – or part of technology use, which is part of being human now. But of course I have to agree with Deresiewicz and the research he cites (more on that in a moment) that we human beings need to pull away from our multitasking at times in order to be able to think straight, or have focused thought.

So, Ira, yes and no. Ultimately only the learner him or herself knows how s/he learns best, so it partly has to be up to the student. But in making their decisions about multitasking as they grow and develop, students deserved to be informed about what the research shows about it, and – in the context of life, not just school – help in taking breaks from all the stuff their multitasking delivers, potentially at all hours of the day and night (e.g., digitally “enhanced” social drama).

And the question from friend and fellow parent of teens John Caldwell, who first emailed me the Deresiewicz talk: “How do you define multitasking? I hear Deresiewicz basically saying that you can’t really multitask, and the attempt to do so impairs your ability to think. On the other hand, you say that we don’t need to fear it – really? I don’t need to be nervous about something that impairs my ability to think? Seems that we are using multitasking in two different ways. On one hand, the attempt to concentrate on more than one thing at a time is impossible and we are leading ourselves and our kids astray when we don’t emphasize this. On the other hand, it seems as if Levinson’s teacher is describing something else – a rich learning environment that is drawing from an ever-growing pool of resources. And we and our kids have to be able to dive into this pool and swim. But that, in my mind, isn’t multitasking.”

Good questions. The strict definition says we simply can’t multitask. When we *think* we’re multitasking (applying attention to several tasks at once), we’re actually switching our attention back and forth from one thing to another in rapid succession. We simply can’t focus all our attention on more than one thing simultaneously, the research says. For example, if we’re writing an essay and watching a TV show at the same time, our focus switches back and forth between the two in a way that slows and lowers concentration on the creative work we’re trying to do. See the first segment of Frontline’s Digital Nation last year for the research on this (I blogged about the documentary here).

But there are different kinds of multitasking, including the kind that doesn’t require intensely focused thought – such as having a chat in Facebook while surfing YouTube or cooking while watching TV. There are times when multitasking is just fine, I think most parents agree. It’s pretty unrealistic to hear messages like “multitasking is bad” and then set a “ban on all multitasking at our house,” and it’s approaches like this that make it hard for kids and adults to work together well on constructive tech use.

Another thing to consider is that all we’re talking about is a moving target. I’m not saying the research findings we have now will be entirely wrong for the next generation, but brains are getting rewired, little by little, because of the way we live our lives (including the tech-use parts). So research needs to be longitudinal, and what was true for me as a student is probably not entirely true for my kids the videogamers and FB users and will be even less so, probably, someday for my grandkids. That probably has both good and bad implications, but it’s mostly neutral, and human beings are hugely adaptable too. So I struggle with categorical, generalized statements about what is good or bad for us or what we can or can’t do – especially when in any way influenced by fear, ignorance, politics, or money.

I agree that Levinson’s teacher was setting up a rich learning environment. But it’s one in which “multitasking” (if not in the strictest sense) could definitely – and more likely – occur. For example, it sounds like the classroom’s set up for students to be taking notes or otherwise recording and looking at photos while their teacher’s talking or they’re collaborating on a task, or for different students to be working on different parts of the same collaborative project simultaneously – or both. Different students working on the same thing simultaneously is a different definition of “multitasking,” of course, but I include it because I really think we’re seeing a number of definitions in use out there in the public discourse. Readers, please treat yourselves to Levinson’s book From Fear to Facebook for lots of examples of tech-enabled, rich learning environments.

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