Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Your Attention Please

“I used to ride the train to the same two stops
And look at the graffiti on the rooftops
Like the same song playing on the jukebox
Joint called "Faded Polaroids In A Shoebox"
Regardless to what the cadence is
It can’t be forgotten like old acquaintances
I realize how depressing of a place it is
And when I notice my reflection whose face it is”
- The Roots

When you do a search for “millennials multitasking,” you can come up with 52,000 or so hits.  If you do one for “students Multitasking” you get close to 3 million hits.  You find articles debating the validity of this skill set, and you also find articles on how to teach, manage, and/or take advantage of this skill set.  One articles gives you ways that you can develop your multitasking skills.  Another gave you ways to hire the best multitaskers.

The problem is that multitasking does not exist.  A human brain can multitask, but not in the way some think it can.  Not when it comes to actually paying attention.  I can type this, wiggle my toes, and chew gum at the same time (oh yea, and it keeps my heart pumping too).  The brain is constantly multitasking.  However, what these links are describing, and what we think of when we think of multitasking, is doing two things at the same time, or, paying attention to more than one thing at a time.  This, we simply cannot do and all the evolving we’ve done in the millions of years we’ve been walking around hasn’t given us the capability to do so.  Say nothing of the idea that kids who are “digital natives” all of sudden have the ability to do something the brain hasn’t done in million of years.  Relatively speaking, evolution happens fast, but not that fast.

The irony is that we are creating a generation of kids that believes they can multitask, simply because they were born in the digital age.  We have convinced them that they are different than we are, that their generation was born with this special skillset.  It’s like saying my generation was born when we had cars, therefore we are all natural race car drivers.  What we should be doing is teaching them to concentrate, not filling their heads with the believe they were born with comic book super powers.

I just read Brain Rules, by John Medina.  It’s a fascinating and insightful book that describes how the brain works, and why it works as it does.  It comes complete with a set of 12 principles and rules about the brain.  In terms of multitasking, Medina citing real scientific research, calls it a myth.  “The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time.  We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.”  In other words, your students (or you for that matter) must systematically move from typing an email to talking on the phone.  If you try and do both things at the same time, something is going to fail. 

So students can’t pay attention to two or three things at the same time (i.e., texting and driving).  Therefore they can’t read and text at the same time.  They can’t chat and do complicated math problems at the same time.  They can’t write an essay and watch TV at the same time.  It’s important to know this because they actually try (they get the essay done while watching TV) but studies show if you are interrupted, it takes you 50% longer to accomplish a task and you also make 50% more mistakes. 

If our students are multitasking, we’re simply not getting the best from them.