Multi-tasking vs Self Control

We live in a world of instant gratification, exemplified in the oline world with a growing obsession with attending to the demands of email notifications, instant messaging and 'tweets' etc., illustrated well when we think of the friend who cuts you off mid-sentence because their mobile phone beeps with a notification of another message being received. 

There's been much written in recent years about the emergence of the Net Gen learner, and the assertions made about their ability to multi-task, including claims that those with this ability can be more productive. But similarly, there is a lot of doubt being cast around whether this is, in fact, the case, and whether multi-tasking has a negative effect on how we live. 

A recent EdWeek article titled Studies on Multitasking Highlight Value of Self-Control makes this conclusion:

The pervasiveness of technology and social media, coupled with a fear of missing out on something important, has led students to pay "continuous partial attention" to everything, but has resulted in their having difficulty concentrating deeply on anything.

I'd have to say that, from my experience, this rings very true for me. I see this playing out in a number of circumstances in my professional life, for example,

  • At conferences where a Twitter back-channel is being used – very successfully by some who are using it to productively record notes about what they're listening to and then use the hash tags later to review what the community has collectively recorded – and poorly by others who become so caught up in the moment of the back-channel conversations that they lose connection with the speaker. 
  • In face-to-face meetings where some will prefer to have their laptop open to record notes and look up information as the meeting progresses – but then become distracted responding to the relentless emails and twitter feeds that come through on the automatic notifications, and then end up placing a post on their facebook account when the discussion becomes 'boring'. 
  • In classroom inquiry activities, when students begin by looking up material related to what they are searching for, but end up following embedded hypertext links to the extent that they end up completely distracted and 'off-task'. 

Of course, none of the original uses of the technology listed above is inherently bad, but in each case, the differentiating factor is the extent to which self-control is exercised.

This thinking was reinforced for me when I cam across the cool video at the top of this post of a New York City teacher explaining how he uses the 'Marshmallow Test' to teach self-control in his classroom.

So the key thought for me is, the importance of teaching self-control within the framework of experiences we provide for students. This shouldn't be too much of an ask, after all, it fits well within the concept of managing self which is identified as one of the key competencies in the NZ curriculum.



3 thoughts on “Multi-tasking vs Self Control

  1. Kia ora Derek
    I found this post particularly interesting! I have noticed much of what you commented on both in a professional context, and in my personal life with teenagers at home! I do agree that this distractability isn't necessarily bad, but as educators, it is important that we explicitly make the links for children so they learn the skills of "managing themselves" as you suggest. We have also introduced a "laptops closed" moment during our teacher meetings now. It is all very well using the technology to improve what we do, but it is important that we maintain respect for the people trying to share with us as well!
    Thanks for the fabulous posts, I am a regular follower 🙂
    Regards,  Myra

  2. I imagine I should learn the self control first before I require it of my students! The amount of information we have access to is overwhelming and very enticing. I know when I go to "quickly" search something on the web, I too often find myself an hour or two later completely off task because of things I find interesting (and often very useful). I know this is not completely the same as multiple tools begging for attention, but it helps me relate to what these students are experiencing. I have two teenagers at home and have somehow helped them gain self control with multiple tools. Since I teach lower el, I do not have many of these issues, however I can imagine that in high school it has to be a very real concern. In our high school, the students each have their own netbook and most learning is done in this way – not much paper and pencil anymore. What a great post – I will need to visit again – thanks!

    I first saw this on Child of Our Time, Robert Winston used the marshmallow test to explore the concept of delayed gratification…demonstrating the type of self control that ultimately brings with it more rewards in the long run.  I call it 'my carrot' .  When I consciously make a decision to focus on something or work towards a goal knowing that in the end it will reap multiple benefits or rewards. (Was one of the techniques I used when studying for my Masters)
     Once upon a time was multi-tasking viewed as a skill? I have been thinking that multi-tasking today often implies lower levels of productivity/thinking, more so now because of the increase in 'things' that can distract us  i.e. The "multi-tasking is over rated" idea which I can relate too especially as you describe in your examples. I am wondering though…what it is when I am using these technologies to be more productive? Maybe it is still multi-tasking but the 'ability to concentrate deeply' is a reflection of an individual's self control than the level of distraction induced by the technologies.  
    Great post Derek…will definitely be thinking more on this, thanks.

Leave a Reply to FionaCancel reply