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?

7 comments:

PEGGY said...

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Tyler Tuveson said...

Hi! My name is Tyler Tuveson. I'm in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class at South Alabama. He assigned us your video about the networked student so I thought I'd check out some of your blog.

I liked this post in particular because of the part when you said, "Isn't part of our job as teachers to help students learn HOW to learn?" I feel like my teachers in high school did not teach me how to learn. If I can make learning more accessible for my future students, I'll feel like I'm being an effective teacher.

I think this tied in with your video because teaching a student how to network is teaching him or her how to learn.

I'm looking forward to more of your posts and hopefully I'll pick up some tips on how to be a good networking student and teacher!

Leah said...

It was so intriguing to read the article "Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price". I’ve constantly mentioned in my blog how our brain “chemistry” is shifting as a result of technology. I enjoyed the study about multi-vs.-non-multi-taskers. The shift makes it more difficult for us to block out irrelevant information. This is my concern when it comes to collaboration on the web. Are we now experiencing more “thinking” and less “doing”? Our time is so wrapped up in seeing (and maybe absorbing?) information, that we have a harder time transferring to the “action” stage.

I’m jumping all over the place here, but at some point we could insert the growing statistic of “ADHD” children. Could this dramatic increase simply have to do with the fact that our brains cannot shut off “multitasking tendencies” even when we’re not multitasking?

How do we balance the benefits of constant connection (greater brain activity) to the negatives (increased stress levels and lower short term memory)? We now live in a world with greater amounts of collaboration and communication, but empathy is diminished. How much of a connection does that really create?

You are correct when you say there is very little in today’s educational system that prepares future educators (or any students, for that matter) for this new reality. I am pleased that you’ve actually included simple ways to show students how to multitask, and how to find their strengths and weaknesses. There should be “tech time” and “traditional time” because our brains are still in a shift between the two. The realism you express in teaching in a technology age is refreshing. Of course overhauls are wanted and needed, but it is necessary to evolve incrementally and methodically.

Here is Dr. Strange's EDM 310 Class Blog if you are interested. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.

Leah DiVincenzo

Morgan said...

Your post caused me to stop and think about how technology does change our teaching. The two articles you mentioned sound interesting. I will be reading those. I am curious to read the research about technology and the brain changing.

What struck me the most is your thoughts on the balance of technology use and traditional teaching methods. I agree that there must be equilibrium between the two. All too often teachers are to the left or right. It is hard to find the right balance at all times. But it is an important challenge for teachers to help our young learners, because we really do not know what their future holds. Therefore, it is necessary for educators to show and teach learners how to be flexible thinkers and careful problems solvers in the digital world and “traditional” world.

I like to use the motto “show not tell” when working with my first graders. If I can show them how to help a friend, find a sharp pencil on their own or even how to create a power point, I will save a million questions. If I simply tell my students how to do something they will never learn on their own. Instead they will look to me for the answer each time. Showing kids that they hold the power to solve their own problems will impact them for life in regards to technology and life in general.

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Steve said...

You said, "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."

Holy cow. I love that. Even allowing for the varying ways to define multitasking, you make a great point. Kids will do it. It's a given in their digital culture. You did a great job of capturing the need to use it as a learning opportunity.

Great stuff. Love your videos and other sites as well. Thanks for this.

skbteacher said...

I think your study, MRI, sounded intriguing....would like to know more how to better meld multi-tasking and sustained focusing and doing it successfully!