multi-tasking: friend or foe

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.


3 responses to “multi-tasking: friend or foe

  1. Debi, I appreciate how thoughtful you are in your thinking about “multitasking”

    People so quickly assume that multitasking is akin to attention deficit when, like your post highlights, it is more of an agility of focus or an ability to sift.

    I can’t help but wonder how we build learning experiences for kiddos to practice multi-tasking in meaningful ways. Some say that the future of multi-tasking lies in gaming. I wonder how that will look in the classroom?

  2. Interesting….I still don’t quite know how I feel about multitasking. I do it all the time but wonder if I would feel better about what I produced if I did one thing, well, at a time.

    I found a blog entry that captures my current thoughts on multitasking. This is an entry by Lylah:

    Apparently, we’re not doing several things at once as much as we’re doing several things one at a time, very quickly — and not necessarily very well. So multitasking? It may be just a myth.

    I tend to agree with this. You are really only giving one thing your attention at a time which means we are doing a lot of things really fast!! I also think this is why our lives are so hectic! If we could slow down and do one task at a time (this also means adding a few extra hours into the day) I think we might feel better about what we have accomplished as opposed to just checking things off a list.

    Also, on the radio recently they were discussing how parents (and I would say teachers) multitask with students. A parent called in about her son who said to her one day “mom, I want you to listen to me with your eyes”. How perceptive!! When we multitask with our children (or students) we are in a sense telling them other things are just as – or more – important than what they are telling us. Not a great message.

  3. I’m still unsure about multitasking. The jury is still out on the pros and cons but one thing is for sure: all the screens in kids’ lives are wiring their brains differently. My boys are 6 years apart and the younger one has been around computers his whole life whereas the older one was purposefully kept away from computers until age 5. We watched the same amount of TV, although TV programs really changed over those 6-10 years. I saw a difference in the way my youngest looked at TV, even as a baby/toddler: he would stop playing and pay attention to the fast-paced, visually bombarding ads then, as soon as the regular programming would resume he woudl go back to his own play. The visual richness of the ads, paired with music appealed to him in unique ways. Digital literacy is a visual literacy.

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