Though cliché, the old adage about the chicken and the egg is all too fitting for this discussion. Did our reliance on modern technology grow from a human desire to multitask? Or did our propensity to multitask develop and expand because we have so many tools to jump to and from?
On any given day, I could be writing a report for work, answering an email, getting a text, assisting a coworker via instant messaging, and cleaning up some web code, all while listening to music. As I type this, I have open two internet browsers with a multitude of tabs (work homepage, work email, Google Apps administration, personal email, a teacher webpage template I am creating, Google music, and my graduate studies Blackboard page), in addition to Microsoft Word and three Excel files. I cannot sit and work on a task uninterrupted until completion—not because I don’t want to, but because my environment and culture won’t allow it. While I would love to be able sit and work on one thing from start to finish, I can’t just ignore all my phone calls, emails, and other requests. We are all expected to be constantly accessible and connected, so we have no choice but to multitask. Because of the sheer amount of tools and content available to our students, they face a similar overload, now and in the future, and knowing how to multitask is a vitally important part of being able to handle it all.
Granted, a big problem is that many teens’ priorities are not the same as many adults. They are still learning how to easily switch between tasks to something that is more important, but sometimes talking to a friend is the most important task to them. As technological leaders and role models, it is up to us to help students identify and hone their critical-thinking skills so that they can effectively use their time and be successful later in life.
—A former K–8 technology instructor, Chris Stefanski is currently the associate director of technology for the Paterson Diocesan Schools in New Jersey, USA. He assists both principals and teachers in helping the schools meet their educational technology needs.
By Dennis McElroy
It may seem that multitasking is a natural part of daily human function. It’s true that, for instance, your eyes may be viewing this narrative while your ears hear what is happening around you. Your hands and fingers might be navigating this page as you read through the text. Your brain is able to discriminate what is important from the extraneous inputs your senses are receiving. It can instantly shift focus, delegating tasks to the background and back again. Even the process of writing this essay was an example of multitasking: my fingers typing, my brain thinking about what is to come, my ears filtering noises from other offices and students in the hallways. But is this really what most people mean when they refer to multitasking?
I believe that when most people think of multitasking today, they are thinking more about what technology is capable of doing. Since the late 1980s, computer operating systems have had the capability to run simultaneous processes. Since then, we’ve transferred this idea to our own brains, and now we have the same expectations for ourselves. Rather than prioritizing and focusing on a particular task while other minor tasks operate in the background, we now believe we should be able to keep multiple processes running equally and at the same time.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Earl Miller was quoted in a 2008 National Public Radio article (www.npr.org/tablet/#story/?storyId=95256794) stating, “For the most part, humans can’t focus on more than one thing at a time,” unlike computers, which can run multiple processes with all of the needed “focus” on each one. He says that, instead, we “shift our focus from one thing to another with astonishing speed.”
The crux of Miller’s explanation is its emphasis on focus. While a computer can blindly process multiple tasks, it is incapable of being distracted. It isn’t listening to its environment. It can’t smell something cooking in the kitchen. It doesn’t see pictures on a television. Human beings, on the other hand, are constantly taking in and processing information. We are the consummate input device. We can’t shut off our senses. We are able to make determinations about what is important and what is extraneous noise, but that takes mental energy too. That’s why we get distracted and why we sometimes lack focus.
Educational psychology courses teach us that classical music, vanilla, and a view of the outdoors are all beneficical to learning. Yet if the music is too loud, the smell is too strong, or the sun is too bright, these inputs can quickly become distracters. If this is true, it’s no stretch to imagine the impact that incoming text messages, a yammering television, and an iPod blaring music may have on focus.
To do something well, we must be able to focus on that task and delegate other inputs to appropriate, lesser levels of awareness. The more complex the task, the more focus required. Driving a car is a great example. Extensive research shows the influence of drinking (which impairs focus), texting, and other distractions on one’s ability to drive. Just transfer that analogy to learning. There’s no way students can do it to their highest potential if their attention is elsewhere.
—Dennis McElroy is an associate professor of education and director of technology for the Graceland University Gleazer School of Education in Lamoni, Iowa, USA. He formerly worked as a high school science teacher, administrator, and technology consultant for the Iowa Department of Education.