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


Anonymous said...

"Young people have a wildly inflated idea of how many things they can attend to at once"

This is really a valid complaint, because it's likely true. However, the only way to find out if you're too far spread out is to try it and fail.

Maybe the main thing to teach is how to figure that out for yourself. Basically: Teach meditation in kindergarten. :-)


Unknown said...


You are right, as expected.

"Young people have a wildly inflated idea of how many things they can attend to at once" Because, if they are allowed to grow as healthy kids, "Young people have a wildly inflated idea of almost all of their capabilities." Which is what the job of to be young is, as you say, "to figure that out for yourself."

But school of course likes to tell you what you can and can't do, instead of letting us figure it out.

And therein hangs the tale,

- Ira Socol

Steve said...

Love the idea of the Professor asking what was on his slide. My son just told me of his Electronic Engineering Lecturer - he does not put complete PowerPoints on the University Shared area - he omits key formulae to ensure that students turn up and listen to him! (and I bet he has a little laser pointer as well!) They then copy the missing bits down from his slides. At least he must realise deep down that students don't want to go to his lectures but is in denial as to why. The System must be perpetuated at all cost!

Andrew Campbell said...

I'm wondering about all the students who don't even make it to the lecture because the slides are so boring? I was just reading from a university lecturer who wondered why students go to lectures at all? The learning really happens in study groups and seminars where students can interact and discuss, and for that to happen they only need access to the content somehow. If the slides are posted or someone went, they're fine. It's old-style educational thinking. The better question is why do they have single-tasking lecture formats in the first place?

Unknown said...

Yeah, I read this article too. Perhaps your reaction is a little over the top as much as it's misdirected by the researchers poor choice of language and the limitations of the study from your perspective. You present the concept of "multi-tasking" accurately: Having the capacity to productively switch between a variety of complex and relevant tasks. Unfortunately, the behavior observed in the study, and qualified by your response is neither complex or relevant. They weren't multi-tasking, they were distracted. Now, if they were following pod casts on the subject they were studying, reading texts and notes, searching databases online, and interacting with a social network dedicated to the subject in a manner that produced a better grade, I then might be able to swallow this whole, "that's how we learn now" balderdash.

Oh, and those pure American Puritans you speak of would have spelled [behavior] just like you.

JMitchinson said...

I think there's a big difference between the multitasking you're talking about and the multitasking Annie and Dr. Meyer are talking about. What you're describing is more like continuous partial attention that Linda Stone talks about. Here's an interview I did that explains it in more detail.

Task-switching might be worth checking out as well. Any articles written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are a good read on the topic. There's also a great article put out by Scientific American a year ago on Supermultitaskers-about 2.5 percent of the population can actually multitask effectively.

Just thinking about what you wrote in regards to multitasking with technology. I use a back channel during viewing in class and have found it to be engaging and effective. This multitasking differs as it reinforces and aids in patterning during complex processing in a specific subject area. Technically, Dr. Meyer is talking about two distinctly different complex processing tasks. This isn't at all the same thing.

Unknown said...

Trevor, JMitchinson -

The researchers I take to task in this piece all equate compliance - following directions - with "learning," as Ms. Paul equates "schoolwork" with "learning." Thus, all are way over the top in claims, and in this misuse of research, they threaten children who function differently. That's one issue.

The bigger issue is the debate over "multitasking." We all know that humans "multitask" constantly - we can even measure it (see the MTAT)and, as the Georgia State study indicates, begin to understand its critical value to humans.

There are two, legitimate, brain research questions at hand, none of which are addressed by the researchers I discuss - (1) is multitasking something continuous or is it extremely rapid task shifting? This question has little functional value to those of us in education. Before multi-core processors computers quite effectively multitasked via extremely rapid task shifting. If we do the same, we are still multitasking. In a conversation with an ex-NFL quarterback today we discussed his multitasking as he dropped back from the snap, his evaluation of the movement of 21 other players, the weather, his operational analysis of the play underway... Yes, he might have been shifting tasks, but in actual effect he was multitasking a whole group of complex "reads" in order to do his job. Not much different than, say, driving in traffic and listening to a complex NPR Science Friday report on how multitasking is impossible.

(2) is the issue of whether multitasking is inherent in certain gene conglomerations - the ADHD v non-ADHD, hunter v farmer split so many investigate - or whether it is a natural skill trained out of people through traditional education. This involves many questions. We now know that neurons themselves multitask via rapid task shifting http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/multitask-neuro-0610.html and that parts of the brain encode multiple information streams simultaneously http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130306133804.htm - we also are just beginning to comprehend how the brain's glial cells support this processing http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2011/12/mystery-of-the-human-brains-glia-cells-solved-key-to-learning-information-processing.html a question completely unconsidered when the research behind Dr. Meyer's work was done.

But I'd like both of you to consider a few basic types of situations - those where the most effective multitaskers are sought out: Is the emergency room doctor tracking not just multiple patient condition information streams but all those nurses and paramedics around him or her really performing only one complex processing task? Is the police officer facing a suspect, searching for clues as to the armed or unarmed status while processing a full range of other environmental clues as to the status of his "backup" really performing only one complex processing task? Or do we only measure this by seeing if a person can simultaneously do two calculus problems?

I would suggest that this is where so much academic research fails so miserably - in creating controllable lab experiments, the reality of what they are attempting to investigate is completely lost.

- Ira Socol

Ronald Griffin said...

Hey Ira my name is Colby Ronald Griffin and I was brought to your page through an Education course at the University of South Alabama. I am a Secondary Ed / Science Major and wish to become a High School Science teacher. The following links are to my class blog and individual blog within the class blog http://edm310.blogspot.com/.....http://GriffinRonaldedm310.blogspot.com/.
I found several things very interesting about your blog "The Church Task Believers". "According to Rosen and Paul, there is something 'scary' happening here. According to me, there is something 'human' and 'functional' here." I think that is a very valid point. Throughout many human daily lives one has to multitask to function fully. If one multitasks all the time outside of school then it only makes sense that they would do the same in the classroom. "The egocentrism drips here. Dr. Rosen believes his mere presence assures that students will want to stare at the bullet points on his PowerPoint." I feel very strongly on this subject as well. One of the worst things I have encountered in my schooling career has been the overuse of PowerPoint and the assumption that it is the Holy Grail of education. If I am sitting in front of a mundane slide show with a teacher who assumes every word on the screen is fueling my educational curiosity, than I am more than likely going to answer text messages or drift to the golf course in my mind. I like how you use phones and computers to multitask and hold students' attention in the classroom. Why go against the grain? If students multitask, enjoy computers and phones in their personal lives that same concept can be used to keep their attention in the classroom.