Sunday, June 13, 2010

Teaching HOW to learn, HOW to Multitask, HOW to Focus

Two articles on how the use of technology changes our brain appeared in the St. Petersburg Times this morning.  Tied to technology, and paying a price (NYT version of article linked) points out our deteriorating ability to focus as a result of our extended use of "devices".  When Technology Takes a Wrong Turn (Washington Post version linked) explains how constant use of GPS devices causes our hippocampi to shrink thus decreasing our navigational sense.  These articles are intriguing to me, and not just because of my general interest in educational technology.

I left corporate eLearning management nearly six years ago to pursue a doctorate in educational technology and return to K12 teaching.  I felt strongly that the coming wave of technology would mandate a change in teaching.  First of all, I knew what would come to be expected in the future workplace because I was already there.  Seven years with IBM and AT&T Network Services led me to believe that the constant multitasking associated with my job had changed my brain.  I couldn't prove an actual physical change at the time.  At the very least, I know it changed the way I think and approach problem solving and work.

I boldly entered my program at the University of Florida stating my plan to conduct fMRI studies on learners' brains to support my hypothesis.  My colleagues did not exactly laugh at me, though they knew the practicality of obtaining the proper equipment, approvals, and cross departmental associations would definitely be a challenge.  Even so, I attended brain conferences and pursued that dream until my passion shifted (ever so slightly as it turns out) to networked learning and personal learning environments.  This was an easy shift as one of the first tasks required when I joined IBM was to set up a personal (professional) learning environment.  Accessing the right information and managing an extensive network of social contacts was critical for success in my role.  It also required constant multitasking and shifts of attention.  All calendars were public and colleagues could schedule your time unless you blocked it out.  I actually had to block out time for focused activities, times when I would power down to study networking documents, create presentations, or design instructional materials.  Nothing in my former education had prepared me for this way of working.  Sadly, very little in our current system of education prepares students for this future reality.

Emerging brain research is important to help us understand the processes necessary for a successful, productive life.  We don't yet know what all of this means for learning.  Brain scientists caution educators from responding to each new discovery with sweeping changes in pedagogy. But, I'll go out on a limb with my gut feeling that successful adults will be required to multitask effectively AND have an ability to focus when necessary.

What does this mean for our students and our teaching?  Isn't part of our job as teachers to help students learn HOW to learn?  Regardless of whether multitasking is good or bad for our brains, the momentum is not likely to reverse in the near future.  Nor is the need for rigorous thinking, problem solving, and focused attention.  We are failing our young people shamefully.  We must help them balance multitasking with focused attention by presenting opportunities for both and providing strategies for shifting between the two effectively.

Some will argue that you can't teach effective multitasking.  I'm not so sure.  As an experiment, try writing a paragraph or working on a crossword puzzle while listening to instrumental music.  Then try the same verbal task while listening to a news program or favorite podcast.  In the latter situation, you will likely find that you cannot attend to both activities effectively.  (Dzubak, 2008)  We have recently learned that different parts of the brain are associated with different activities.  Some people may also be more effective multitaskers than others.  Even with the limited research available, we can help students recognize their strengths and limitations.

Our schooling/teaching should provide a balance of digital connectedness, opportunities to multitask, and opportunities to focus when tethered to technology and untethered.  Achieving that balance should be a thoughtful goal throughout the curricula.  Providing effective strategies for managing this type of learning should also be mandatory.  I believe in both digital and traditional rigor.  While I'm a rabid proponent of effective technology integration in schools, I'm not convinced we should toss out all traditional means of learning.  Writing is thinking and there is great value in thoughtful writing beyond 140 characters.  There is value in listening to a lecture, evaluating that content, and applying it to an authentic learning activity.  There is value in working through math problems, answering document-based questions, and (drum roll please) studying for a rigorous essay test based on 30 pages in your AP History text.  The problem is we're already doing those things.  That's all we're doing and it's just not enough.  Whether we like it or not, our children are on their own in a very complex, powerful, yet potentially overwhelming environment that requires extreme responsibility and savvy to navigate effectively.  How can it be that we're not there to help them?