Multitasking: What a professor knows that students don’t
Multitasking: Students who've grown up with digital technologies often consider themselves masters of the art. But research shows that a distracted mind incurs "switching costs." Colleges should add multitasking to the responsible drinking and safe sex courses required of incoming students.
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That has led some of my colleagues to ban laptops from class. But that doesn’t seem quite right, either. Like it or not, our young people are going to have to learn how to use these new devices in ways that promote – not inhibit – their learning. And forcing them to go cold turkey won’t do that.Skip to next paragraph
Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of education and history at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," frequently writes commentaries for major national newspapers, and has a regular spot on WHYY, National Public Radio's Philadelphia affiliate, discussing contemporary news events in historical perspective. He and his wife, a pediatrician, have two daughters – one in college and the other a high school senior.
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What would? First, we need to share the latest scientific information with them. Just as many colleges now require incoming students to take online courses about responsible drinking and safe sex, so should they insure that the students learn about the dangers of multitasking. We can’t expect our young people to adjust their behavior if they don’t know that there’s anything wrong with it.
From the earliest ages, meanwhile, we also have to teach children strategies for separating – not blending – different activities. Instead of texting and studying at the same time, for example, reward yourself with a “texting break” when the studying is done. You’ll finish your work in less time, and you’ll get more out of it as well.
Finally, we should warn students that multitasking could inhibit their human interactions as well as their academic success. At the time of his untimely death, Clifford Nass was exploring how digital technologies – which have always promised “connectivity” – actually make it harder for us to develop meaningful attachments to others.
Just like our schoolwork, our relationships need focus in order to flourish and thrive. If you’re Facebooking while talking to a friend or a lover, you’re not going to develop as intimate a bond as you would if you gave your full attention to him or her.
None of this is new, really. For thousands of years, Buddhists have taught meditation as way to protect the mind from over-stimulation. And a century ago, pioneering American psychologist William James noticed that children responded to almost all distraction; the challenge of adulthood was to resist it. “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will,” James wrote.
He was right. But digital technologies are new, historically, and they have made it harder than ever to control our distracted minds. It’s time for the adults in the room to step up, and to start focusing on what matters: focus itself. Otherwise we’ll all be like a little kid, drawn to “every object which happens to catch ... notice,” as William James observed. Clifford Nass had another name for them: multitaskers.
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