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Monday, August 25, 2008

'Switchtasking' in the classroom

Just read this interview with Dave Crenshaw, the author of The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done. I haven't read it but apparently, the book makes a distinction between 'background tasking' where you are doing things that do not really require your full attention (like listening to music while you work or exercise) and 'switchtasking' which involves doing things where you must actually shift your attention from one thing to another. Crenshaw's point is that switchtasking actually reduces your productivity, since you are constantly interrupting your flow.

His comments really resonated with me as I've been thinking a lot about multi-tasking lately, both in relation to my own life and in my classroom. As I've gotten more involved in social networks like Twitter and Facebook, not to mention having a growing number of blogs in my feed reader, I seem to have dramatically increased the possible distractions. I'm actually pretty good about ignoring things that I know can wait but there's no denying that I switch between work and my reader or Tweetdeck more often than I probably should (on the other hand, I recently realized that I haven't played any computer games in the last month so it's also possible that I've simply substituted social media for solitaire, which I certainly would consider a life improvement!).

But more urgently (given that classes start in a week), I really wonder about the detrimental effects of students who switchtask in class. A few months back, I wrote about the laptop in the classroom debate. I know that students will argue that they are totally capable of paying attention to the class AND whatever is happening on their screens (of course, even if you believe they can, there is also the issue of whether laptop use affects other students as well, but I'll ignore that for the moment). I'm not unsympathetic to that argument - I believe that the students who say it really do believe that it's true - I just can't quite buy it. Even if students can pick up on the gist of what was just said (that they didn't actually really hear because they were doing something on their computer), I just don't believe that the benefit is the same as it would be if they gave the class their full, undivided attention. Still, since I can't be sure how large the effect is, the economist in me is willing to leave the choice up to the students, at least for now.

Related posts:
Are laptops OK in the classroom?
Are laptops OK in the classroom II

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