Thursday, January 5, 2012

Multi-tasking: are we doing more or are we doing less?

When we first moved to Thailand, seven years ago, my son was one of the first students to be part of the tablet programme at our school.  He’d had a laptop for three years before this to help him with his work at his old school, but we hadn’t had wireless internet at home and there wasn’t really the issue of him multi-tasking or of being constantly connected and constantly distracted.  Once he had his tablet the expectation was that he would be using it at both at school and at home for almost all his work and as a parent I did initially worry about how being constantly online would affect his concentration and the standard of his work – whenever I saw him using his tablet I could see multiple windows open and all sorts of messages popping up.  In retrospect, these worries were completely unfounded.

In The Shallows, Nicholar Carr writes about how the growing use of screen-based technologies has led to the development of our visual-spatial skills, but a weakening of our capacities for deep processing.  He writes that what we are doing when we multi-task is that we are becoming more skillful at a superficial level.

Actually I disagree.  The IB diploma is probably the hardest programme for 16-18 year olds in any educational system around the world.  I don’t think I would have coped well with the demands of it at that age.  It’s the sort of programme where to do well you have to be an all-round student, dedicated and hard working for the entire 2 years of the programme:  there are constant deadlines for internal and external assessments as well as studying for the final exams.  The programme also requires time spent in action and community service, an awareness of the theory of knowledge and the writing of a 4,000 word extended essay.  I don’t think it’s possible to gain the IB diploma if everything is just surface and superficial.  Perhaps the tablet programme didn’t work for all the students who used it during their final 4 years of school, but for my son it did.  Yes there was a lot more multi-tasking, yes there was a lot more distraction, but there was also a lot of deep processing going on too.  I think the tablet did help my son to multi-task, and as I result I think he ended up doing more, and doing it deeper too, and definitely getting better results than he would have without it.

I’m seeing the same thing with my daughter too.  While her school doesn’t have a 1:1 programme, she’s online most of the time she’s at home and multi-tasking most of the time too.  What I notice is that she’s working hard and thinking deeply.  With both my children, I’m seeing that multi-tasking is something they are doing with relative ease, and something that is leading to them becoming more rather than less productive.  For myself, too, I’ve found that the more I multi-task the better I get at it.   Often I’m not trying to do two things simultaneously (for example I couldn’t have a skype conversation at the same time that I’m answering emails, or read a blog post at the same time as sending a text message), but I do things in shorter and more focused bursts.  For example I may read a blog article, then I may check my Twitter stream, then I may check my email, then I may send a text – all in the space of a few minutes.  Perhaps, though, this is “serial-tasking”, doing lots of short, single things one after the other, rather than true multi-tasking.

We have stripped out some of the things that did cause us to be distracted while we were working (for example we don’t have a television and that’s probably the single best things we’ve done to remove mindless distraction at home while we’re working - when we had a television we definitely did less – it was much more intrusive than always being online).

Therefore on a personal level I disagree with a lot of what I have read about multi-tasking.  Over the past 5 years or so I’ve multi-tasked more than ever before in my life.  I’ve read more than before too, and I’ve written more.  For me, I’m sure that multi-tasking has led to me doing more.

Photo Credit:  My Second Eye by Jenny Spadafora AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike  


  1. Ahhh Maggie, NOW you've grabbed my interest as you as a question which is VERY near and dear to my heart for many reasons. I am glad that its holidays because I have the time to add my thoughts.

    I am a huge proponent of all things technological and see how these help with multi-tasking but I also think that the problem for many over us is that we have created a monster by overly relying on technology to function in todays world.  As Godbey points out, 'the stress we feel arises not from a shortage of time, but from the surfeit of things we try to cram into it'.    "It's the kid in the candy store" he says. 'There's just so many good things to do. The array of choices is stunning. Our free time is increasing, but not as fast as our sense of the necessary. 
    A more successful remedy may lie in understanding the problem rather than evading it. Before the industrial revolution, people lived in small communities with limited communications. Within the confines of their village, they could reasonably expect to know everything that was to be known, see everything that was to be seen, and do everything that was to be done.  Today howeve - being curious by nature - we are still trying to do the same. But the global village is a world of limitless possibilities, and we can never achieve our aim.'

    My opinion is that the more information that becomes available as a result of new communication technologies, the less people actually know about anything. So the question arises as to whether today's abundance of tools available to them actually  increases ones knowledge or just adds to their confusion...... Lightening -fast technology and round-the-clock, round-the-world trading gives the system little slack to absorb errors or sudden shocks… Such trends are visible in practically every domain of human activity- be it economic, technological, political or ecological. From the rapid invention of new technologies such as micro-robots and genetically modified food, to our soaring emissions of carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere, we seem to have our collective foot slammed on the world's accelerator pedal. It is time to think creatively about how we can slow things down, how we can ease up a bit on that accelerator pedal.

    As the Financial Times pointed out way back in 1999.... "It is not more time we need: It is fewer desires. We need to switch off the cell phone and leave the children to play by themselves. We need to buy less, read less and travel less. We need to set boundaries for ourselves, or be doomed to mounting despair"

  2. Read less and travel less - I can't think of anything worse!

    However the theme of The Shallows does seem to be "more information can mean less knowledge". I think this could be a good book to read for our professional reading group - it's certainly controversial! (BTW are you coming to the next one - we're discussing Curriculum21?)