This post is part of a learning sciences blog series debunking common myths in K–12 education. Read the introductory blog post in the series here.
Have you ever put some food on the stove and then walked over to clean some dishes, all while listening to a podcast (and let’s be honest, there’s probably also some laundry running)? Then, all of a sudden, you notice a burning smell? Fortunately for me, my family doesn’t mind well-done pumpkin pancakes! Although a number of things were happening at once, my attention was actually only on one of those tasks at a given time. As a learning scientist, I know that when I wash the dishes while I’m cooking, I’m really task-switching rather than multitasking. Although we all attempt to multitask, the concept that we can pay attention to two things at the same time is a myth.
As teachers, time is probably your most precious resource, and you are often expected to be master multitaskers. Researcher Philip Jackson estimates that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 interactions with students every hour, resulting in an average of 1,200 to 1,500 decisions each day! Teachers play many roles—administrator, information provider, assessor, discipline controller, facilitator, role model, and even foster parent. Fortunately, educational technology is helping a bit. In HMH's 2019 Educator Confidence Report conducted in collaboration with YouGov more than one-third of teachers indicated the time-saving benefits of technology for delivering instruction and streamlining workflows and processes. However, technology in the classroom may also distract students and teachers to some degree, creating frequent and unexpected task-switching that’s detrimental to learning outcomes.
I recently dug into research on attention and learning to find out more, and I want to share what I learned regarding the truth about multitasking as well as some strategies to create effective learning experiences for students.
What the Research Says About the Multitasking Myth
In Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide, Weinstein and Sumeracki, with Caviglioli (2018) dedicate a section of the chapter focused on attention to the “Myth of Multitasking.” They explain that it’s critical to acknowledge that we can only actually pay attention and process information from one stimulus at a time. The authors add that even though our intuition may tell us otherwise, research shows that “switching between two tasks decreases efficiency and slows down reaction speeds in both tasks.”
In the chapter, they propose conducting a study in your own classroom to demonstrate the impact of task-switching on performance using three tasks and see how long each takes.
- Task 1: Counting from 1-26
- Task 2: Reciting the alphabet from A-Z
- Task 3: Switching back in forth between letters and numbers, 1-A-2-B-3, and so on.
You should find that Task 3 takes more than twice as long as Task 1 or Task 2. Although we are not intentionally designing tasks sets such as this example, the exercise makes me think about the potential for distractions in the classroom, especially during tech-enhanced activities.
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