Friday, February 4, 2011

Multi-....wait I've gotta take a call...Tasking

The current edition of Educational Leadership magazine is dedicated to “Teaching Screenagers”.  As one might guess there are articles related to cyber-bullying and what educational technology leaders are using in their classrooms.  But the content that I found most engaging were the ideas of current students and recent graduates around the use of technology in high school.  A few interesting opinions emerged as I read through their comments.  One topic of discussion was the increasing prevalence of multi-tasking.

For young people today multi-tasking is the norm.  Some even commented that they feel they have to do more than one thing at a time.  As one young person commented, “It’s not like we’re so distracted that we can’t accomplish anything.  It’s more that we’ve gotten into the habit of doing a couple of things at the same time and being able to function adequately in both areas.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”  What struck me immediately was the use of the word ‘adequately’.  This person was obviously aware, at least subconsciously, that while trying to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously, a lack of focus would actually hinder the outcomes.  After all, most of us don’t shoot for “adequate”.  So given that multi-tasking seems to be the new norm, I think it’s important that we make all students more aware of how the brain works and what the implications of multi-tasking really are, both positive and negative.

For instance, research has shown that our brains are not really made for true multi-tasking.  What we actually do is shift focus from one thing to another and then back again quickly and repeatedly, but we can really only focus on one thing at a time, especially men (insert snide comment here ladies). And with evolutionary biology being what it is, despite what the current generation of young people might believe, the human brain of today is not vastly different from human brains of the past; we just have more things competing for our attention.  If true multi-tasking were a forte of the human mind then cell phone use, and texting while driving wouldn’t be a problem.

Another interesting point of note was how social etiquette is being redefined in the age of iPods, cell phones and texting.  As one of these young people pointed out, it’s no longer considered rude (by some) to be receiving and sending texts while conversing with a friend or colleague.  Well, though others may not consider unsolicited impositions on their time rude, I certainly do.  And given what I’ve pointed out above, I defy anyone to fully engage in a conversation while texting such that the length and depth of the conversation is unaffected.

As technology continues to change the way we communicate and interact with each other, we need to make students mindful of the less obvious repercussions.  Students need to know that doing numerous things at once will indeed affect the outcome of each of the tasks.  And though social mores change with the times, and fatuous customs may fall by the wayside, (“Hats off inside boys!”) impositions on the time of other people will continue to be considered “rude”. As information technology facilitates communication, it also facilitates distraction.  In her book The Cult of Efficiency, Janice Gross Stein makes clear the difference between efficiency and efficacy.  We must ensure that as information technology becomes more ubiquitous, we teach students not to sacrifice the latter in a quest for the former.