Reflections on Multitasking

Yesterday afternoon, Matt Hillmann and I attended a presentation at Carleton College called “Museum in Your Backpack: Museums, Digital Technology, and the Future of K-12 Education.” The presenter, Shana Crosson, is a Carleton alum and web designer at the Minnesota History Center.

The presentation was billed as interactive, so Matt brought a spare iPad from school for me to use. There were some technical difficulties at the beginning of the presentation, but these went over my head as I sat bent over my iPad, trying to figure out how to get guest access to Carleton’s wifi. Once I got onto the Internet, my attention was divided between the speaker at the front of the room and the unfamiliar device in my hand. But as I fumbled with the touch screen keyboard,  Matt was sitting beside me taking copious notes with Notability, capturing screen shots of websites that Shana mentioned in her presentation, and even taking a moment to pull out his smartphone and tweet about the experience.

Multitasking is one of the skills we’re told that students need to succeed in the 21st century. But in an essay on multitasking, Maggie Jackson (author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention in the Coming Dark Age) cites a study showing that frequent multitaskers “are less able to focus on what’s important than those who multitask rarely,” and cites other evidence that critical thinking skills are eroding as multitasking becomes the norm. She concludes: “[W]e cannot nurture thoughtful, creative citizens in a distracted world. I worry that if we don’t change our path, we may collectively nurture new forms of ignorance, born not from a dearth of information but from an inability or an unwillingness to do the difficult work of forging knowledge from the data flooding our world.”

Jackson calls for a “renaissance of attention” to redeem us from the distractions that fragment our relationships and undermine our capacity for reflection. But the contant flow of information is not going to dry up, and students need to learn effective strategies for filtering information and focusing attention. Howard Reingold (author of Smart Mobs and The Virtual Community) has coined the word “infotention” for the kind of attention students will need to develop in order to thrive in a information-saturated world. He describes it as “a partially mental and partially technical skill at deploying the appropriate attentional style with the appropriate media at the appropriate time.”

Because he was thoroughly familiar with the technical tools (the iPad, the apps), Matt had no difficulty keeping up with the presentation, and the variety of additional resources at his disposal enhanced his experience. For me, the iPad was a distraction. But perhaps one of the benefits of the Transformational Technology Project will be to help students develop “mindful infotention” through the appropriate use of technology. Perhaps it will shape distraction into purposeful and effective multitasking.

For myself, I’m not sure I need to add an iPad to the long list of things that fragment my attention every day—checking three different email accounts, updating Facebook, managing blogs, Googling.  I can no longer read a book without going to the computer every few pages and Googling something for more information. And I’m finding it harder and harder to write poetry, something that for me has always required disciplined and sustained attention.

Wordsworth said that poetry has its origins in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” It’s harder to find tranquility with the Internet always at my fingertips.

Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains), writes: “The natural busyness of our lives is being amplified by the networked gadgets that constantly send us messages and alerts, bombard us with other bits of important and trivial information, and generally interrupt the train of our thought. The data barrage never lets up. As a result, we devote ever less time to the calmer, more attentive modes of thinking that have always given richness to our intellectual lives and our culture—the modes of thinking that involve concentration, contemplation, reflection, introspection. The less we practice these habits of mind, the more we risk losing them altogether.”

Is it possible to do both: to learn more effective multitasking, and to cultivate attentive and reflective habits of mind? I think I know what Matt’s answer would be.

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