We’ve gotten in the habit of calling our students multitaskers.

And we need to stop.

As part of the 21st century skills push, we’ve worked to show how this generation of kids is different. How they think differently and how their brains have been wired differently by the vast amount of data that they’ve messed with since birth.

The implication is that we need to deliver information differently, that we need to do school differently. And I don’t disagree with that.

But one way that we’ve pushed this agenda is to suggest that kids are better multitaskers than we are. And I think this idea is coming back to bite us in the butt.

During a recent conversation with my 16 year-old (which started when I asked him to close his laptop lid while talking with his grandfather), he said something along the lines of:

Come on, dad. I’m a kid. I can multitask!

(I’m hearing this more and more among educators, by the way. But encouraging back-channels and twitter fests during presentations / conferences / staff development is a conversation for another day.)

Brain Rules author John Medina says it best:

To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask.

Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time.

Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.

He goes on:

Businesses and schools praise multitasking, but research clearly shows that it reduces productivity and increases mistakes.

I understand why we praise it – we believe suggesting that kids are multitaskers will help make believers out of the anti-21st century skills people. But doing so encourages poor instructional design on our part and decreases the ability of learners’ brains to effectively focus on the truly important.

A recent article, Multitaskers May Be Falling Behind, supports what Medina and others are saying – especially in terms of using multiple forms of media:

. . . studies show that media multitasking in particular takes a toll on the brain. You might think you’re accomplishing a lot but a 2009 Stanford University study shows otherwise.

Eyal Ophir, a cognitive scientist and one of the researchers on the study states that:

People who juggle multiple forms of electronic media have trouble controlling their memory, paying attention or switching from one task to another as effectively as those who complete one task at a time.

Another Stanford researcher, Clifford Nass:

At the end of the day, it seems like it’s affecting things like ability to remember long term, ability to handle analytic reasoning, ability to switch properly . . .

Another researcher, Maggie Johnson, wrote a recent book called Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Her research seems especially appropriate for social studies teachers:

If we forget how to use our powers of deep focus, we’ll depend more on black-and-white thinking, on surface ideas, on surface relationships. That breeds a tremendous potential for tyranny and misunderstanding.

Let’s be clear . . . I strongly support the use of social networks and technology as learning tools. But I’m beginning to believe that we’re not really sure how to use these tools appropriately as part of instruction.

Several weeks ago I wrote a rant against educators who are attempting to ban laptops from the classroom, urging teachers to develop engaging alternatives to traditional instruction.

So what do engaging alternatives that encourage “brain attention” look like? Can students and instructors really use technology/media/social networks in ways that engage and keep students focused on the truly important?

I think so.

  • Stop suggesting that kids are great multitaskers, stop giving students “permission” to divide their attention.
  • Share the research with your kids
  • Help students understand that technology is a tool that supports original thinking and to get away from the idea that cut and paste is okay.
  • Don’t encourage kids to do multiple things at once as part of your instruction and be very clear about the steps that students should take in their learning.
  • It’s okay to ask kids to close laptop lids or stow cell phones during short periods of direct instruction, small group discussions, debates and other forms of data transfer.
  • Purposefully create periods of reflection and meta-cognition into your instruction.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this looks like. But I am convinced that multi-tasking students will develop into citizens that will “depend more on black-and-white thinking and on surface ideas.”

And that can’t be good.

Update April 1Article detailing the Stanford research discussing the problems caused by “multi-tasking:”

. . . we all bet high multitaskers were going to be stars at something.

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.

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