Student multitasking: Erase or embrace?

By Anne Collier

First, before I get into multitasking as promised in my last post, a public service announcement:

Read From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey, by middle school administrator Matt Levinson. I wish it could be required reading for every parent, teacher, administrator, district official, school board member, and employee of every state and federal education department in the country! It’s not only a great read as an honest personal story about the challenges of getting a whole community behind a transformative program. It also maps out for other school communities – from students and their parents to teachers to district officials – how they do this too. Do what? Make school interesting and relevant to students and help them (and their parents) learn how to use social media wisely by giving them opportunities to use it as a learning tool – which I’m convinced will ultimately lead to true school reform by giving it the grassroots support it needs in school communities nationwide. As Levinson puts it, “Moving to a 1-to-1 [laptop] program is not just about enhancing teaching and learning in an academic setting. It is about being open to the online world of students and being ready to deal with the social landscape that forms such an integral part of their lives.”

Ok, about multitasking. William Deresiewicz, quite understandably (do read his whole talk), has a problem with excessive multitasking. After citing research showing that people really can’t multitask, he told the West Point students, “Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.”

No question we all need to give ourselves time to concentrate and reflect. Multitasking is nothing to be proud of, but neither do we need to fear it. It’s just a part of digital-age reality that needs to be kept under control. Here’s another perspective on it in middle school administrator Matt Levinson’s above-mentioned book, From Fear to Facebook:

Levinson quotes a teacher as saying, “Students multitask and we need to create classrooms that multitask.” Then he describes what she means: “This particular teacher has given her classroom a facelift, and she teaches the class essentially online. YouTube videos, Google images, and iTunes songs plaster her PowerPoint lectures, and she posts daily to a class blog and includes interactive features in her homework assignments. Student love her class, and they rarely get sidetracked as they take notes on their laptops [in Nueva School’s carefully worked out one-to-one laptop program for all its students] and input data during hands-on labs. This teacher’s premise is to make the classroom mirror the online lives of the students so that students will not be distracted from educational goals. She has never had a technology-related discipline issue in her class.”

The key takeaways, there, are not that this is somehow the way all teachers should teach, but the phrase “not be distracted from educational goals” (this teacher is not teaching technology, she’s teaching *with* technology) and the teacher’s and Levinson’s willingness to incorporate the way students use technology into the learning experience and (as illustrated elsewhere in From Fear to Facebook) and school policy about tech use.

About students’ multitasking, Levinson quotes from a March 2009 article in Educational Leadership, by Urs Gasser and John Palfrey, who wrote the 2008 book Born Digital:

“Should we expend all our effort in trying to prevent digital natives from multitasking? The answer is no…. What we suggest, therefore, is engaging in a structured conversation with digital natives about multitasking as one strategy that can help them cope with the sea of information. An understanding of the way multitasking challenges learning can even help students practice intentional learning and thus improve the performance of their working memory” and, I would add, know when multitasking’s ok and when it’s not.

Related links

* Levinson’s excellent blog
*Moving Beyond One Size Fits All With Digital Citizenship,” by middle school administrators Deb Socia, founding principal of the Lilla G. Frederick Middle School in the Boston area, and Matt Levinson, whose full title is assistant head of school at The Nueva School in Hillsborough, Calif. It’s a very helpful essay about schools’ five stages of digital-learning adoption and the best ways to use digital tools to enhance teaching, learning, and students’ online safety. It also adds fresh material to the public discussion of digital citizenship (here’s my recent post on the global nature of that discussion).

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