Thursday, July 24, 2014

Exploring the Myth of Multitasking and Homo Zappiens or the "Where Was I?" Effect

Whether we call them digital natives, the iGeneration, homo zappiens, the net generation, Generation i, or the Google generation, an underlying premise informs our treatment of students born to a world of technology: They learn differently than the generation that preceded them.  

Yet we must ask: Does being born into a world of technology equate with the ability to use multiple technological platforms simultaneously in an effective manner? What evidence exists to affirm or negate the question?

An article in Educational Psychologist challenges conventional wisdom about technology and students' ability to use it in complex cognitive tasks. "Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education" by Paul A. Kirschner and Jeroen J. G. van Merrienboer (2013). By reviewing numerous studies, Kirschner and Merrienboer challenge the notion that digital natives exist and by virtue of their digital nativeness have the skills needed for using technology well without training and those necessary for multitasking. 

I learned about Kirschner's and van Merrienboer's research via a Slate article my friend Caitlin posted on Facebook: "Bill Gates is an Autodidact. You're Probably Not." As often happens, an anecdotal example leads to generalized claims about learning. The digital native one goes something like this: "Bill Gates dropped out of college, and he did just fine." Gates, of course, is the proverbial exception to the rule, and occasionally we encounter such students--although not typically of Gates's caliber--in our classrooms. 

Yet rather than considering the exceptional student as one for whom we need to make exceptions, too often the one leads to all-encompassing claims about the many. These propositions grow as individuals seek to innovate and claim a niche in the ed tech (or other) landscape. 

Ideally, our lives as teachers and the lives of students would be so much easier if the promises of technology in the classroom lived up to their lofty goals. If only. 

In 1998 Salomon and Almog coined the term butterfly defect to describe the generation of tech users who flutter from one site to the next, from one hyperlink to another, and from one platform to the latest without developing the deep thinking necessary to master either content or the digital platform. 

What we may actually be seeing is a generation where learners at the computer behave as butterflies fluttering across the information on the screen, touching or not touching pieces of information (i.e., hyperlinks), quickly fluttering to a next piece of information, unconscious to its value and without a

via Google search "free to use or share" wiki image
Simply, the ability to use technology well is not a question of chronology. It requires training. To think students understand technology's myriad application to learning without proper training is akin to thinking one is born with the ability to drive merely from having been driven home in a car from the hospital as an infant. We do not learn via osmosis. Our skills depend on our training and our practice in using the technological resources available to us. 

This is also true of teachers. New teachers entering the profession are limited in their ability to use technology and empowered by it depending on both their training and their practice. This is a point my colleague Caitlin Chiller in the Master Teacher Project and I discussed last November in Boston as we gathered for the NCTE annual convention. Despite being a teacher with 33 years experience compared to Caitlin's seven years, I was able to show Caitlin some tech tools she had not yet learned. 

A salient side note here is that although the concept of the digital native explicitly and/or implicitly assumes that the current generation of children is digitally literate, many curricula (e.g., Iowa Department of Education) see information and technology literacy as 21st-century skills that are core curriculum goals at the end of the educational process and that need to be acquired.

An unfortunate outcome of the false premise of the digital native is another egregious belief: Students have the ability to multitask. That is, they can text, snap-chat, post to Instagram, and complete complex cognitive tasks such as reading and comprehending their reading simultaneously. 

Rather than multi-tasking, the simultaneous and/or concurrent performance of two or more tasks requiring cognition or information processing students engaged with multiple and competing tasks vying for their attention are actually switching from one to another without fully concentrating on any one cognitive complex performance task. Simply, it's impossible for two things to occupy the same space at one time. 

Task shifting diverts a students attention away from one project to another. This results in shallow thinking and redundancy as students must often backtrack before moving forward with the reading or writing that necessitates uninterrupted attention. 

It has been broadly shown that rapid switching behavior, when compared to carrying out tasks serially, leads to poorer learning results in students and poorer performance of tasks.

I call this phenomenon the "Where Was I" effect. We've all experienced it, that moment when a call or child or other interruption distracts u from a task in which we are immersed. Returning to the task, we wander, "Where was I," and we find ourselves retracing our steps or rereading a passage just to find our place so that we can move on toward completing our goal. 

Juggling tasks leads to mistakes and prolongs completion of important projects. It's a myth, an urban legend, a vampire lie with which students delude themselves to think that homework can be completed and skills learned just as well when we text while researching a topic for English. 

Kirschner and van Merrienboer extend their analysis to include doctors and pilots and note that multitasking and diversions lead to increased mistakes in both professions. They also review the research suggesting that texting and driving is just as dangerous as driving under the influence. 

Simply, the digital natives, iGeneration, homo zappiens, Generation I, and multitaskers among us don't exist in the idealistic incarnation envisioned among supporters of educational technology that chant, "Let my people text." 

These are the 21st Century equivalent of Big Foot and unicorns. As teachers, our job necessitates we teach students to recognize the tech fairy tales and learn accordingly.


  1. Excellent post, Glenda, on a topic that I think is so important given the current zeal for completely student-driven curricula, lessons, projects, etc. I read Kirschner's and van Merrienboer's paper last year and was relieved to have my questions regarding digital natives, multitasking, and self-directed learning addressed so thoroughly. The notion that students do always learn best by self-directed study makes sense to me, as, like any novice in a specific domain, they do not have sufficient knowledge of the subject matter to guide themselves through the learning.
    Thanks for sharing the Murphy Paul article, another excellent read.

    1. Thanks, Mardie. I think we're seeing and living through a resurgence of the Summerhill paradigm and the failed open-concept pod classrooms of the 1960s.

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