Multi-tasking: Unavoidable? Necessary Evil? Myth?

While enjoying the Heads Conference at Mohonk last week, I became familiar with the work of Tony Schwartz, one of the terrific speakers at the conference whose work on The Energy Project is making me rethink the school day and schedule. He spoke to us about multitasking and about the power of human energy. He also gave us some terrific data on the myth of multi-tasking.

I had the opportunity at the conference to practice “task-shifting.” Since I often multitask, this seemed a bit old school as I thought about the work of schools and how I spend my days. But by the end of the three days, I had come away with a better understanding of the following notion: there are moments in our lives when focusing for sustained periods of time on one thing nets better results and more thorough understanding.

Conversely, multi-tasking when one of the tasks does not require cognitive functioning is also okay. So I am successful at knitting and listening, and working on calligraphy letters while watching a video, but as soon as I try to accomplish two tasks, each of which requires cognitive firepower, then one and often BOTH of the tasks suffer: answering email while being pinged by new messages that I then try to read; speaking to someone in my office and retrieving a text message from a colleague; listening to a speaker at a conference and composing an email at the same time.

Mr. Schwartz ran us through a series of exercises designed to show us how faulty our output can be when we are not singularly focused on the task at hand. Again, this makes me think about our students and their world. What does this mean for us here at school? For how students learn best? For how we teach best? When it matters, we need to create opportunities for all of us that are distraction-free–for students, for teachers, for parents.

The work of Tony Schwartz dovetailed nicely with a speaker on multi-tasking that I heard present to students last year in California. Dr. Karen Bradley gave the students much to think about in her presentation on brain research with regard to the myths of multi-tasking. She has done in depth research on this topic and has some great points to make. Click here for a link to part of her presentation.

Now, I recognize that for you to read this article and look at the attendant links, I have, in essence, asked you to multitask: to move from text to online links to text to YouTube video. This is the reality of the way we now process and synthesize information, but it is also important to understand the mindset of our children and how they move–often much more seamlessly than we do–between media. Check out the links I have enclosed and see what you think. As I prepare for the faculty professional day on Friday, I am thinking about how to approach this topic with all of us together in a room, how to delineate when we want to task-shift and when we need to “multi-task.” More to follow…

About Kathleen McNamara Head's Up!

an educator in Independent Schools for over 28 years
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