The illusion of multitasking

Last Thursday morning before leaving for school, I was ironing my shirt in the kitchen while listening to WBUR on my NPR app on my  iPad.  I do this often, listening to the news while I get ready for the day, before anyone else in my family is awake.  If I don’t catch a few news stories, then I spend ten minutes or so reading blog posts linked to my Twitter feed.  If I don’t set aside some time in the beginning of the day for news and information, I rarely find the time later.

As I creased and pressed my shirt that morning, I became rapt to a story written by Kurt Nickisch entitled “The Perils and Evolving Promise of Multitasking.”  I link it here to my own peril.  I want you to read/hear this story, but at the same time, I want you to remain and read what I am about to write.  In the end, it is beyond my control.  You will have to decide.

The story addressed concerns I’ve heard a lot this year from my students regarding technology.  My students, mainly my juniors, understand the power of technology and are willing and able to use it as a learning tool.  At the same time, however, many of them report that often technology distracts them from their educational purposes and leads to their spending way more time doing nightly homework.  I acknowledge this concern as well, but I believe in my gut that it is my duty to build technology in the context of classroom learning.  It would be far easier to block out the distraction that handheld devices pose and revert back to “traditional” chalk and talk in the classroom.  I understand and empathize with my colleagues who do not allow students to use their smartphones in class.  I tell my students all the time that I absolutely love the literature that we are studying–Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Orwell’s 1984 among others–and nothing would be easier for me than to sit in front of them daily and lecture about the subtleties of this masterpieces.  In fact, I do a lot of talking during class.  But to hedge against my inner desires to morph into a college English professor, I employ technology to give students agency to create new experiences and meaning from their interactions with these great books.

How do I do this, you ask?

First off, I publish my daily agenda on our class social network, edmodo, before class.  As soon as I post it, students get an alert on their smartphones.  I usually try to schedule these posts to go live right as the bell rings to end the previous class, so I am not the cause of distraction in a colleague’s class.

Here’s a sample agenda for my B block junior class from last week, actually from the morning I heard the story on multitasking.  You will see by clicking the link that this is a standard English class-type of activity.  I give students a writing prompt to start the lesson, which they do in an old-fashioned notebook.  Then I put pair them up and have them discuss the reading from the night before, in this case, it was Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” Speech.  We then move from small group discussion to whole class discussion and then I give them some written homework based on what they discussed in class. The technology, though used only during the hw portion of the lesson, is actually central to the learning objective which appears embedded in the agenda as “What are the positive and negative aspects of Washington’s key ideas in the speech?”  If I did not use technology in this lesson, I would have had students answer that question in writing for hw.  I would have collected it the next day, read it over the weekend, and given it back to them four or five days later.  Because I asked students to post the highlights of their classroom discussion on a common Google doc, I was able to monitor the Google doc as they did it.  The next day in class, I had a clear idea of which parts of the text students grasped well and which parts needed further discussion.  In this way, technology became part of my formative assessment, which is how we evaluate students’ progress on their way towards the mastery objectives, which will be evaluated in a summative assessment.  If you take some time to look at the agenda, read the speech, and o peruse the Google doc with my students’ analysis of key quotations in the speech, you can evaluate for yourself the understanding that is exhibited.

As you can see, the classroom experience for students involves reading, asking questions, writing, building meaning through large and small group discussion.  These are perennial activities in all high school English classrooms.  Being a “connected educator,” I am not trying to subvert the tried and true methods of teaching.  Believing it my duty to “integrate technology into my classroom,” I am not merely trying to keep them busy with electronic gadgets.  Allowing my students to have and utilize their e-devices during class, I am not opening a Pandora’s box of distraction.  I am giving students opportunities to use technology in real-world settings.  As high school students, the classroom is their “real world” and so they must learn how to manage their attention span, figure out for themselves when it is appropriate to switch the device off, and most importantly leverage technology to work collaboratively with their colleagues in ways that we adults never did when we were in school.

Technology can be a distraction.  I too am allured by the “illusion of multitasking,” that feeling that quantity of information is better than quality.  But I know better.  I wanted to write this blog post for six days.  For six days, it has been in my head, waiting for my full attention.  It wasn’t my highest priority, until this evening.

When I ask students to use technology as part of their experience in my English class, I am hoping that through this experience, they will become more self-aware about how they can best leverage the power of technology.  I am not trying to get them addicted to electronic devices or feed their desire to be connected to thousands of “friends” all at once.  They need our help to figure when and how it works for them.  If we constantly yell at them to “put that thing away,” we are not helping them.  The user needs to develop that self-awareness.

I was able to finish ironing my shirt and get to school safely the day I heard the story about the perils of multitasking.  I was able to devote my time and attention to  my students, my colleagues, my school, and my family in the week since I thought about writing this blog post.  I know when I must put away my iPhone.

You, if you got this far, also understand the benefits of using technology to connect to people and ideas.  You understand that reading this blog and many others is an important part of engaging in the education of your children.  You know deep down that technology has unlimited potential for learning and unlimited potential for distracting.  The only way to unlock that learning potential is to help young people recognize that multitasking is an illusion.

We can’t do this on our own!  We have to work together.  You might start by viewing this short video interview with your student and having a chat about figuring out the right balance for oneself.

Please let me know what you think and/or how that discussion goes…


3 thoughts on “The illusion of multitasking

  1. Ann Knocke

    Joe, It will not surprise you that Lisa is less interested in technology than most of her peers, me too for that matter. We see the value in some contexts, and I am grateful for your enthusiasm and perspective. I also see the point to the video, and agree that our brains do many things at once less well than one at a time. The most relevant point I think you make is that our children need to learn their best way to multitask, or not, in the culture in which they live. Ann

  2. Hey Joe. Nice post. it was okay to post to somewhere else. I waited till I was done reading, but it was fun to step into your head and see how that soundcloud post spurred your writing.In my masters program I learned that you can watch or look at an image while you hear words for example watching a baseball game, but you cannot listen to words and read words- so in that sense multi-tasking is a myth.

    I like the distractions sometimes because in a way it’s like brainstorming or taking a shower or nap- it can help me process an idea. I do draw lines however- I don’t Facebook and I don’t surf YouTube unless I’m looking up something for a purpose or listening to music. You do have to set limits: same with food and other pursuits that are fun but can lead to addictions and other harmful results. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Pingback: Work-Life Balance | Teaching Context

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