Monday, 6 June 2011

Teaching Multi-Tasking

Time is constant but a change in behaviour can effect what can be done in a given time period. This is the second blog in a series of three and explores the advantages of multi-tasking.

In 1992 I read a great little piece about time. The article has long gone from my life but the words “I’m tired of feeling tired of feeling tired in this non stop world of ours…” often bounces around in my head space particularly when I consider what I know and what I think I should know.

The non-stop world of 1992 was a data trickle compared to the digital avalanche of information that hits the web each day today. If you think you can keep pace then read the following Washington Post article or watch the USC clip and accept that in 2011 no one knows everything that needs to be known about any given topic. Information anxiety is an ever present companion for learners of today.

In Susan Scotts book “Fierce Conversations” she  talks about the loss of possibilities when a conversation stops or is muted. Multi-tasking is one such conversation which stops before dialogue begins. Amongst many in the teaching fraternity multi-tasking explains the demise of concentration and why the mental health of many are at risk as people lose the ability to tool down and contemplate. On the flip side the supporters can not imagine why anyone would choose to uni-task when multi-tasking provides so many opportunities.

Life long learners need to give attention to both concentration and contemplation to succeed throughout life. Knowing how to multi-task and when to take a break are important skills that need to be taught in our connected, digital world. Work published by the following authors; Norman Doidge, Small and Vorgan, and John Medina provides access to research on how the brain functions when faced with multiple tasking.

Four points filter to the top in regard to multi-tasking.
1. The brain processes different tasks in different regions. So two or more tasks can be processed at the same time as long as they use different regions of the brain. Students need to be able to identify the primary task and ensure that it is not competing with any other tasks in regard to brain function. This avoids the loss of performance caused by dual task interference.

2. The aptitude for multi-tasking is not fully developed in children and is one of the first aptitudes to decline in the aged. However, children who multi-task are aware of when they are not learning and they need the opportunity to change their learning conditions when necessary. They are capable of self-regulating.

3. Multi-tasking needs more time than uni-tasking. Focusing on one task reduces the time required to complete that task if the appeal, attractiveness and fun elements keep the student engaged. Often these elements are difficult to inject into the learning. Joining the primary task with low cost activities that improve motivation, completion rates and do not reduce overall performance reinvigorates the learner.

4. Students need to learn to identify the most effective time to switch or to interrupt a task. There are natural points for task switching or interrupting someone during a task that allow students to return to the task with the minimum of loss. Just randomly pulling the plug on a device is unwise, so to with learning.

With informed use multi-tasking can allow us to achieve more in a given time period. Multi-tasking should not be the only mode for living but when used as part of a balanced life it can enrich the time available.

Richard Saul Wurman (2002) information anxiety: "the gap between what you know and what you think you should know"

Washington Post: Rise of the digital information age.

USC Annenberg School: How Much Information Can the World Store and Communicate and Compute?

Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations
"If the conversation stops, is muted, becomes less authentic or if we add another topic to the things we are unable to talk about... Then all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and all of the possibilities for the people in the relationship become smaller until one day I overhear myself in mid-sentence making myself smaller in every encounter, behaving as if I am just the space around my shoes."

Norman Doidge, MD. The Brain that Changes Itself
CBC Documentary:

Dr. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, iBrain. Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind

John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

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