A recent article in the Baltimore Sun reports on research at Carnegie Mellon and Johns Hopkins universities, suggesting that the new truism “Today’s students can multi-task” simply isn’t true.
The Carnegie Mellon study used brain imaging to show that when people talked on a cell phone the brain activity that is connected to driving a car diminishes by nearly 40 percent, making it more likely those drivers will not perform as well on the road. The study had volunteers simulate driving while inside an MRI brain scanner. They were then asked questions they had to respond to.
[Marcel] Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, said the research indicates that it is difficult for the human brain to operate at maximum effectiveness while doing several tasks. The distracting task, he said, draws away power, creating something like a brown-out in the brain.
Judging from educator comments quoted in the Sun story, many teachers and college profs are reaching to the same conclusion — although others disagree.
Rick Robb, a 12th-grade English teacher at River Hill, has noted the changes in students in his Advanced Placement and gifted-and-talented classes. "I have some of the brightest in the country," he said, but they don't have the same ability to analyze literature. What they lack, he said, "is the patience for delving into the multi-levels of the text."
But Robb isn't sure technology is the culprit. He believes this new generation is more interested in "the product than the process" of education. They are driven to get good grades and high SAT scores, he said, but are not as interested in the process of learning.
This article stirred some good conversation in the Teacher Leaders Network Forum. Several commenters drew a distinction between background music or chatter and the distraction of true “multi-tasking” (working on two or more brain tasks at once). There was some agreement that, as Rick put it, "It’s helpful [to figure] out in what conditions individual students best learn," using inventories and observation.
Others wondered if the effects of multi-tasking in the Digital Age are limited to youth. Several cited a recent essay in The Atlantic magazine titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"
I found this article so interesting and I want to respond right away with a couple thoughts.
I don’t think it is just teen agers who are experiencing this situation. I thought of meetings and professional development with adults and of my own struggle with writing my next book when I read this:
... this constantly plugged-in generation is less able to focus on subjects that take deep concentration. [Teachers] see students who are smart but can't write long papers very well; students who have more trouble paying attention in longer class periods and students who are disorganized. Their observations are supported by more than just anecdotes from the classroom; brain research shows that it is difficult to do many things at the same time.
They are constantly jumping from one thing to another. They can't sit still long enough," said Ilona McGuiness, dean of first-year students and academic services at Loyola College. "You can't think through problems. You can't process. You can't develop the deep thinking skills."
As I read this with dismay, I thought of the times I see teens and adults deeply engaged in a conversation. These comments confirmed my hunch about the power of scaffolded dialogue to hold attention and construct meaningful knowledge.
This statement in the article stood out to me: "Studies have indicated, he said, that the brain processes language automatically. So when a person hears someone talking, he or she can't shut it out."
Well, if this is so, then I must have performed miracles this year, because I would talk to my students and some of them were doing a pretty good job of 'shutting me out’!
Actually, though, while I was reading this and thinking of multi-tasking, I wondered if teachers are setting the multi-tasking tone in our classrooms. If I were being honest, I'd have to plead guilty to that charge. And, in some ways, I even brag about it. I can check the roll, get the class started, sign re-admit passes and answer a call from guidance, without turning my back -- all at the same time!! And I don't think I am unique in having this "talent." The students see this and it sets the pace for the class. Interruptions are just the norm in our lives and in schools.
As an adult, I certainly am no way near as "plugged in" as my students, but I often talk on the phone while doing other tasks--particularly when I am at home. So, I don't think that multi-tasking is strictly a teenage activity.
I really want to second Rick Robb's statement on students who are more interested in "the product than the process" of education. They are driven to get good grades and high SAT scores, he said, but are not as interested in the process of learning.
I find that so true. Many times my students get upset with me if we do an assignment and they don't get a "grade" for it. "Then why did we do it?" they ask. It appears that education, to them, is not a process of gaining knowledge, but more a checklist of tasks that leads to a pay off of a score or grade rather than an advancement in skill or knowledge base. The concept of gaining knowledge for knowledge's sake is foreign to the younger generation. I find that troubling.
Emily followed up with some probing questions:
The points made by Rick Robb also stood out to me. I've just completed facilitating seventeen K-12 teacher focus groups at my school on the subject of 21st century learning. Largely, these teachers report the same observations as Robb. But I have some questions about that.
Suppose students were engaged in learning -- relevant curriculum, project-based (and other student-centered approaches), and various assessments of learning (including performance-based assessment). In other words, they were leading their own learning.
Question: Are/would students be more interested in the process than the product if this was their learning scenario?
More Questions: Is how we as teachers define the process of learning different from how today's students would define it? When students “play the game of school,” are they responding to our expectations? Should we change our perspective of what defines "the process of learning" for ourselves as well as today's students?