06 May 2013

The Church Task Believers

I watched single-taskers this morning. Stopped at an intersection in a university town, an ambulance, blaring siren and flashing lights, was trying to get through the clog of traffic, but no one in a group of 12 cars could multitask - they could not take in their surroundings, they could not assess the other traffic, they could not develop a plan, a solution, that would allow the ambulance to move toward the hospital. They were driving: single-tasking in the way too many educational "experts" want students to function.

According to "experts," this is impossible...
Multitasking at a Virginia Beach diner.

I thought of this as I read a blog post claiming to be a "Brilliant Report" a bit later:
"For a quarter of an hour, the investigators from the lab of Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills, marked down once a minute what the students were doing as they studied. A checklist on the form included: reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer—and also using email, looking at Facebook, engaging in instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, surfing the Web. Sitting unobtrusively at the back of the room, the observers counted the number of windows open on the students’ screens and noted whether the students were wearing earbuds.

"Although the students had been told at the outset that they should “study something important, including homework, an upcoming examination or project, or reading a book for a course,” it wasn’t long before their attention drifted: Students’ “on-task behavior” started declining around the two-minute mark as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds. By the time the 15 minutes were up, they had spent only about 65 percent of the observation period actually doing their schoolwork.

'“We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” Rosen says. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,” adding, “It was kind of scary, actually.”'
- Annie Murphy Paul
According to Rosen and Paul, there is something "scary" happening here. According to me, there is something "human" and "functional" here.

But then, I was not raised to be a dedicated Calvinist church-goer, or a dedicated "school student." Instead, I was raised to be a "learner."

Education and the Cult of Efficiency
"effective," "productivity," "on-task,"
attention-means-gaze, are all the inheritances
of our Puritan past
What Rosen and Paul want are churchgoers. Not just any churchgoers, but Calvinist Protestants of the New England Puritan mode. Sit up straight, stare front, all read together, don't you look out the window! This isn't a Catholic churchgoer, surrounded by images and movement, candles and scents, sculptures and varied light, movement and individual action - it is pure American Calvinism, it is behaviour control, compliance training. It is not about individual learning, but the kind of highly-structured group motion development inherent in our imported Prussian Model of education.

Dr. Rosen's problem, Annie Murphy Paul's problem, is that they are, without even knowing it, rejecting student engagement as an educational core.

"During the first meeting of his courses, Rosen makes a practice of calling on a student who is busy with his phone," Paul writes. “I ask him, ‘What was on the slide I just showed to the class?’ The student always pulls a blank,” Rosen reports. “Young people have a wildly inflated idea of how many things they can attend to at once, and this demonstration helps drive the point home: If you’re paying attention to your phone, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in class.”'

The egocentrism drips here. Dr. Rosen believes his mere presence assures that students will want to stare at the bullet points on his PowerPoint. With a lecture style fully honed during the overhead projector and Kodak Carousel era, he assumes that everyone, not just a few eager teacher-pleasers in the front two rows, is paying attention. My guess is that he could have called on random students in the back ten years ago and found similar blank stares. It's an effing PowerPoint, my dear professor, its already in note form, why the hell would I be listening to you?

So here's the research question Rosen and Paul are asking: "Assuming that the best way for students to learn is to do nothing but listen to "me" and read exactly what "I" have assigned, are students listening to my every word and reading everything I have assigned?" Then they rate "learning" according to a student's ability to repeat every word they say. No, its worse, this "research" measures learning according to the metric of "seat time" - are you sitting there being "a good little white boy or girl"?

"...the promise of educational innovation is less about processing power and software code and more about the opportunity to release ourselves from general assumptions regarding how instruction is organized and delivered," Joel Rose wrote in The Atlantic last year.  "It's why our collective charge in K-12 innovation today should go beyond merely designing and producing new tools. Rather, our focus should primarily be to design new classroom models that take advantage of what these tools can do."

So, if your goal is children sitting still and "Reading, writing, listening," as Annie Paul Murphy tweeted to me, then, multitasking "disrupts" learning. But if your vision of learning looks a bit more active, then these technologies do not disrupt, they connect, engage, expand possibilities, make learning possible for those formerly labelled as "disabled."

It's not disruption, it's learning...

The sad fact here is that this is neither a question of technology, nor a question of disruption and attention. It is a question of quality teaching. In 2007 I wrote, in the Grand Rapids Press and on this blog, about the power of teaching with these tools - and of course, it isn't just a "why," but a "how." In classes I teach phones and computers are how we investigate and share information, we're not dependent on Slide Decks and bullet points. We converse on our devices via TodaysMeet and Twitter and Google Docs. We read on our devices. We use Google and Wikipedia and other search tools for discovery. We Skype with experts.

In other words, we use the communication and information tools of this century to learn, rather than bemoaning the loss of an elitist past.

We, in education, need to be better than this. While the medical profession embraces the "MTAT" - the MultiTasking Aptitude Test - because, "Emergency physicians epitomize what it's like to work in a time-pressured, interruption-based environment. Multitasking is necessary to survive in this environment where you are constantly shifting focus and addressing new tasks or problems as they arise," we have writers like Paul quoting, "David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who’s studied the effects of divided attention on learning," who, she says, "takes a firm line on the brain’s ability to multitask: “Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time."' In other words, according to these "experts" and their "research," the work of everyone in hospital emergency rooms, or in police work, or even in short-order cooking, is impossible... because, of course, their studies prove that.

Let me end by going back to this morning. I have sat in Emergency Vehicles, driving, talking on the radio, communicating with a partner, planning a series of actions on which vast knowledge of both tactics and law must underlie, figuring out a route, knowing if anyone is on the sidewalk if driving there must be an option, and I have watched single-taskers trying to figure out how to get out of the way. I'm sure Dr. Meyer thinks planning out a life-saving strategy and communication and driving fast are all "simple tasks." I'm sure Dr. Rosen thinks I was endangering lives because my brain doesn't work like his. And I'm sure Annie Murphy Paul would think I wasn't attending to what was "important."

Not only do researchers find that multitasking is possible,
they are starting to list the advantages.

But those of us in the real world understand that humans multitask every minute. We are not sharks. We can be in love and eat at the same time. We can read and feel the sun on our skin. We can listen to complex music and still be aware of our surroundings. We can talk on the phone and work on the computer.  I can even type this post while observing a brilliant example of kids proving out a new paradigm of education.

We are multitaskers, or someone has trained us not to be.

- Ira Socol