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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 05/24/2010

Data shows kids shouldn't multitask -- Willingham

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a pyschology professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Why Don’t Students Like School?"

By Daniel Willingham
How often have you heard someone say “kids today learn differently—they multitask constantly.” The implication often drawn is that kids "need" to multitask in order to be engaged, or perhaps we should even say that that’s how they think best.

The data suggest otherwise.

It is true that kids today multitask a lot, usually with media. That is, they have music or videos on while they do other things.

It’s also true that kids are better at multitasking than older people. That advantage is supported by better working memory, and young people have better raw processing speed on those sorts of functions.

So it’s not likely that young people are better at multitasking than old people because they have practiced it a lot. It’s likely that young people have always been better at multi-tasking than older people.

If doing a lot of multitasking made you better at it, we should see differences in multitasking ability among kids who do a lot and kids who do very little. But those differences are not observed.

In fact, college kids who report being chronic multitaskers are actually somewhat "worse" than their peers at some basic components of cognitive control (like switching attention).

There is not good evidence that students today “must” multitask. But there is good evidence that multi-tasking is seldom a good idea, if you really care about the task you’re working on.

Doing two things at once usually is detrimental. No big surprise there.

Somewhat more surprising is that even just having the television on as background noise produces negative effects.

The impact of background music on cognitive tasks is more complex: Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it doesn’t. Whether the differences are due to the type of music, type of task, type of person, or a combination of factors is still unknown.

Kids today may "want" to multitask because they are used to doing it. But that doesn’t mean they should.

I’ve produced a video to spread the word. See above, or click here:


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 24, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Research  | Tags:  can kids multitask?, daniel willingham, data on multitasking, multitasking and kids, research on multitasking  
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Really multitasking just seems like it would result in less quality work overall with the worker or student not even realizing how poorly they had done.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 24, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I think so many kids think multi-tasking is possibl for two reasons. First, much of what they are doing is mindless. I remember doing my homework in front of the TV. I either worked during the commercials, which everyone tunes out mentally anyway, or the homework copying a list of words I knew perfectly well, copying a chapter by hand, or doing the odd-numbered math problems which were just like the even-numbered I had done correctly the day before.

Second, if they don't multi-task, they won't get everything done, even poorly. In high school, I had to prop my summer reading in the bookholder while I shelled peas--my mother and I were also taking college classes, and I simply wouldn't have gotten everything done if I hadn't done two things at once. (Whether the reading or the shelling was the mindless work sort of depended on the book!)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 24, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I have a son that studies scientific material of a complicated nature. He must have quiet to be able to analyze and process the info. Now, if there is bothersome background noise, he prefers listening to classical music to help block the noise, which doesn't seem to be detrimental to the overall effectiveness of his study. As a young child, his appreciation of a quiet place to study was noted as well.

Posted by: shadwell1 | May 25, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

No one can really "multi task", anyone that claims they do is lying. They are doing multiple things at once, but not really getting anything done. The best approach is to focus on one task at a time and complete them one by one.

Posted by: tmi1 | May 25, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Maybe it depends on the task. I know that for me personally, I find that white noise, such as the dryer going, or a noisy cafeteria, (where I hear people but no conversation in particular), a baseball game on the TV or radio can help me to settle down and get working.

I tune out the "noise" and work very well. But, if I am doing math that I have to concentrate on, reading in another language or reading something very difficult, quiet works better.

One year I had a really fidgety third grade class. They were very noisy and always moving around. One day music blared out of the PA system for about the length of a song. The kids all started to work quietly. When the song ended we all started laughing and one girl said "You should play music for us everyday! We were good!"

I have noticed that music helps some people to pay attention, like it calms them down somehow and seems to make it very difficult for others to concentrate.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 25, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

It is one thing to have music on in the background while doing a repetitive task or something that is creative - like painting or sculpting. I don't really think that qualifies as multi-tasking as the music may enhance a brain-shift from left to right or vice versa.

But to actually have 2 or 3 things going at once, and to achieve a high degree of quality, let alone focus,seems generally detrimental unless a student is so ADD that he/she has to continually shift.

When I taught art to many highly distractible students (sometimes the product of our highly fragmented and distractible society), one of my goals was to give the students projects where they
HAD to slow down to achieve a product that showed both thought and careful execution, which required focus. An example of this would be making a beaded bracelet using a Native American design; you have to focus to string the loom,you have to focus to carry out the pattern for each line of beads strung, and you have to focus using a beading needle or you will stick yourself! I didn't tell students they couldn't talk in art class, but when they had projects that required sustained attention, the talking diminished - AND the kids created projects they were proud of.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 25, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

I see this debate similarly as the one discussed in many other blogs about whether or not we should allow competition in schools.

The issue isn’t a yes or no debate and in fact when we discuss it in these terms we lose sight of the fundamental discussion.

We live in a multi-tasking society and chances are that the need to learn to multi-tasking will only increase. So the discussion shouldn’t be restricted to yes/no, good/bad, right/wrong but how do we teach our kids to learn, think, and grow in this multi-tasking society.

This relates back to the competition debate as again the discussion should not be restricted to yes/no. Again we live in a world where competition exists and we should help teach our kids how to live in a competitive world.

In both cases it does not mean that we close the door to either multi-tasking or competition but we introduce each as we teach students.

We actually do this subconsciously. We don’t place (or at least shouldn’t) babies in front of a TV, with the radio blaring, toys buzzing, people shouting and then try to talk to them. We isolate then them from many of these sources of attention initially. As the child grows they are introduced to more sources of information/distraction.

So the topic we should be discussing is not is we should force multi-tasking or ban it but how do we help the child learn to operate more successfully in a world that will require multi-tasking.

Posted by: arlington101 | May 25, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

arlington101: No, we don't isolate babies from "sources of attention"; many babies are put in a hospital nursery with music playing over a p.a. system. (Muzac boasts about their use in hosptital nurseries.) Even those in their mothers' rooms are subject to all the jarring announcements and alarms in a hospital; last January, my father was in intensive care and it was anything but quiet. They probably go home in a car with a radio playing. The presence in a car of a video player to distract children is a selling point (God forbid their parents should actually talk to their kids about where they are going.)

Kids today have never known silence. Schoolwork is punctuated by announcements, many of which are unnecessary. One principal signed off the morning announcements and added to the office, "If anyone's listening." The library in one school is located directly above the band room. There may be two TVs on at the same time in their home--or someone may be outside mowing the yard while someone else is trying to sleep. They see their parents talking on cell phones while "listening" to the kids. A police officer I know says almost every time he has investigated why someone didn't yield to an emergency vehicle, the excuse--offered as a reason the driver shouldn't get a ticket--is, "I didn't hear the siren because my radio was on."

The only time from birth on that the majority of people are not exposed to distractions is when too much exposure to loud noise has ruined their hearing!

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 25, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that when we multi-task one of the tasks we are accomplishing gets less attention than it should. I truly think letting kids relax and not be overburdened by so many tasks at once is important.

And yes, learning to enjoy silence would be beneficial as well. People might be surprised by how unfamiliar silence is because of all the sounds we are surrounded by daily.

Posted by: stockwellapril | May 26, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

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