Ah, multi-tasking. Sometimes that word feels like an obscenity to me. More often than not I think the countless demands placed on me (on all of us) during the school day limit my productivity, but in theory shouldn’t multi-tasking increase productivity? The most straightforward definition, “the performance of multiple tasks at once,” does not address the quality or level of completion of those multiple tasks. But then along comes this fancy new definition from Henry Jenkins. He proposes that multi-tasking is really the “ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus onto salient details on an ad hoc basis.” So multi-tasking is a good thing.
Those two definitions are really talking about two different things. I think Jenkins’ idea of multi-tasking moves beyond task completion and into higher order thinking skills, demanding that we (and our students) evaluate incoming information and connect/filter/prioritize in the moment. In popular culture, however, multi-tasking seems to imply doing a bunch of disparate things at once, and perhaps not doing any of them too well. A researcher in this Washington Post article cautions that too much multi-tasking could even be detrimental to developing brains.
But I wonder…perhaps our brains are evolving to accommodate these new demands. I remember seeing a presentation (maybe the district’s Web 2.0 kickoff a couple years ago?) where we learned that research on kids’ brain function in the last 5-10 years shows that they are much more visually oriented than language-based. They respond more readily to icons and symbols than adult brains. That is a dramatic change in how we communicate with each other, and it’s kind of overwhelming for those of us with old-fashioned language-based brains. I guess my point is that there’s no good or bad about multi-tasking , especially Jenkins’ description of it. It just is, meaning we can’t hunker down and close our eyes and say “go away while I focus on just one thing at a time.” I still see a necessity for single-minded focus, but it is increasingly unrealistic in our work and school environments. We want our students to be able to sift through multiple forms of information and use that knowledge in new and creative ways. Just as important, as Jenkins points out, is that we teach students what it looks like to be off-task compared to multi-tasking in an effective manner.
All this is a challenge to my own brain, but learning new things is good for me. Like vitamins.