Is it Multitasking or Filtering?

There has been a lot of talk about multitasking in the past year.  Students (and some adults) think they can do it and parents and teachers say there is no way.  Brain scientists have study this as well with varying results.  Where does that leave us?  I don’t think there is any concrete answer to this – can we multitask?  Well sure, we do it everyday when we drive our car – we drive forward at the same time as we check our rear view mirror, shift gears, and then talk to our children in the back seat.  Certain tasks, however, distract us from our main task – if you are talking, I’m a much better listener when I’m not updating and checking my Facebook status.

I have followed Howard Rheingold and I like what he has to say on the subject especially in this post:

We are in charge of which information we pay attention to, but if we don’t actively construct, tune, and manage our own information filters, the raw flow of info, misinfo, and disinfo around us will take charge. It’s up to each consumer of information to make personal decisions about what to pay attention to and what to ignore. That decision-making is a mental process that all humans have always deployed in the world, but the world that we evolved in through pre-digital eons has been hyper-accelerated recently through our use of the media we’ve created.

I also enjoyed reading Henry Jenkins post after the release of PBS Frontline, Digital Nation, where he takes issue with the statements made about multitasking:

The film makes the point that they are often multitasking in the classroom and that they believe they are better at multitasking than current lab research suggests. I certainly encountered situations where most of the students had a lap top open in my class. In some cases, they were performing quite mundane tasks, such as compiling code, which required very little of their attention and would be mind-numbing if performed with their full attention. They are multitasking in the same way that a faculty colleague would knit during faculty meetings: the actions were routinized, most of the time they didn’t require much thought, but they absorbed a certain amount of nervous energy.

I highly recommend reading that post, he makes some great observations about tasks and how they are not all “created equal”.  I think we cannot just push multitasking aside and say it cannot be done.  I think we do it all the time.  I DO think we need to teach students the skills of filter their attention – knowing when and what they need to pay attention to. The world and learning is just going to get messier.

Now, I need to finish this post so I can answer my phone, post to twitter, and turn up my music!

Photo credit: Secret Blue

3 thoughts on “Is it Multitasking or Filtering?

  1. Pingback: The Daily Find- Feb 15, 2010 « NAIS Annual Conference 2010 Community

  2. Greg Graham

    I think there are two skills or disciplines that apply. One is knowing how to filter out and manage distractions that we don’t have control over. The other is having the self-discipline to remove distractions that we do have control over whenever we need to do some intense mental activity, e.g. turn off the TV and cellphone while studying Calculus. Learn what helps you concentrate, such as a certain kind of music, and what is distracting, such as text messages from friends, and construct an environment that allows you to make the most of your time.

    Multitasking is a necessary skill, but there are times when we need to concentrate, and students need to learn that skill, too.

    1. plennig Post author

      Thanks Greg. I agree with the filtering skill – kids really need to be aware of what they are doing and how much these distractions affect them. I often times think they can handle all of the distractions successfully but really, they aren’t aware of what they are missing. As for multitasking, I guess I’m not so sure how much we can develop it as a skill. Can we improve our multitasking skill? Or can we just be aware of what tasks we can multitask with (like driving, or doodling, or chewing gum and walking :-). Thanks for your thoughts here,


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