Tempering the Pull of the “Urgent”

Reflections on “Outdoors and Out of Reach” in the New York Times and PBS Frontline “Digital Nation.”

I have been pondering what it is that we need to teach students about multitasking, and the pull of wanting to stay connected and engaged with so many people, jobs and mountains of information all that the same time. As my son commented, “What used to be a shout down the hall from a colleague has become the entire world shouting at us, all with a volume of urgency.” There are always messages coming at us, and we have to figure out how to work the most effectively in the midst of them all. The barrage is not going to stop, so we have to create spaces for ourselves where we can work to our best ability. And we have to teach our students how to create those spaces for themselves. We, and our students, are multitasking all of the time. We talk and text; write blog posts and check our email or the weather; we walk the dog and respond to phone messages. We have been and are creating a world where there is access to everything all of the time.

The challenge for teachers, however, is teach students who love to multitask to work effectively. As we are moving increasingly into a technology filled world, we must learn to work to the best of our abilities within the cacophony that surrounds us, especially since, the current research is showing that we do not actually multitask as well as we think we do. To quote an Stanford professor, Clifford Nass, “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we’ve done suggests they’re worse at analytic reasoning.”

One of the fascinating parts of the report was that those who were tested to see if they worked as well while multitasking refused to believe the results. They were convinced that they had done just as well when doing many jobs as when doing simply one. This is a powerful mythology that we need to address in ourselves and in our students.  We imagine that there is no difference in our work when we flip our eyes up to our Tabs to see if we have a new email or switch to quickly check the weather or the ballgame score.  It takes up space in our Working Memory to be thinking about checking those Tabs, space that no one can afford to lose. “To the extent you have less working memory, you have less space for storing and integrating ideas and therefore less to do the reasoning you need to do,” says Art Kramer from the University of Illinois.

So how do we teach students to focus on one task at a time, when the shift in their email from nothing to (1), will scream “Urgent” to them?  The slight pounding of their curiosity will begin, taking up valuable space in their memory. While the email may simply be that they have received a coupon from Staples, there is no way for them to know that without clicking over and seeing what has arrived. The call of that (1) on the Tab is so powerful. It might be important; it might be life-changing, creating a powerful the Siren call.

My first thought is to start the year with a discussion of these studies, perhaps have the students watch the Frontline show. I also want to give them 2-3 minutes at the start of class to check their email and then close it, acknowledging that their desire but modeling how to control it. For the first few weeks, I want to check all of their screens before continuing on. While I know that some of them will easily reopen whatever they close, it will set a standard for those who want to learn and connect with the class. I am thinking of showing them Google Tasks, in their email and suggesting that they begin to keep lists of what they want to do and when they want to do it, as a way to identify what is important and why.

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