Multitasking Students

I saw a presentation this morning about how kids today learn.  The premise of the talk, and it’s certainly viable, is that today’s students spend so much time with their computers, cell phones for text messaging and phone calls … their familiarity with computers, that they learn differently than people my age did when we were in school.  The presenter, 2009 Duval County Teacher of the Year Lucretia Miller, said student’s today are accustomed to multitasking.  She cited an example of a young woman being asked what she was listening to on her iPod … and she responded “which ear?”  Apparently she had two MP3 devices.  One was playing a teachers’ lecture … the other her music.  I remember listening to music while studying in high school, and younger, but never wearing headphones with something different on each side.  Ms. Miller said kids have physically re-wired their brains to work differently, and that teachers need to utilize the technology to change the way they teach.

She cited some interesting innovations.  Rather than book reports, students at one school are blogging.  They’re writing, which is a good thing, as long as they’re being taught basic grammar.  I can’t tell you how much bad grammar I saw reading and re-writing AP copy over the years.  One class created a “virtual” reality of a classic book with avatars and such.  All well and good.  Innovative, and getting kids interested in the classics that way is pretty cool.  But I had a concern as well.

I often communicate with my daughter via text message.  It’s a great way to stay in touch for mundane, everyday “how’re you doing” kind of stuff.  Sometimes it results in a phone call, sometimes not.  I’ve seen her (she’s 18) carry on hours-long conversations with her boyfriend via text.  I don’t snoop on her texts with her friends.  I know when she texts me, she usually uses complete words and sentences.  Usually.  But I’ve also seen enough of text message syntax to know that it’s not the norm … it’s the exception.  And text message are never more than a sentence or two.

So, along with the multi-tasking comes attention span, or maybe lack thereof.  What began with MTV, and constant quick cuts on music videos (which you never see on MTV any more, but that’s another post) has turned into a generation of people who have to be taught how to pay attention to something longer than a few minutes.  YouTube videos are rarely more than 3 minutes.  A long news story is 90 seconds.  And I’ll tell you, it’d difficult to tell a story in that amount of time.  Even at NPR, where they pride themselves on long-form stories … a long story is 5 minutes.  I often was frustrated feeding stories to the newscast unit, and having the editor tell me that a package (story with a soundbite) could be no more than 45 seconds.  I understand, it’s a 5 minute news hole, but it’s difficult to write stories that short.

All that to say … if this generation of students has trained its self to multitask, and works in 90 second or two sentence burst …. how do you EVER get them to read past the spill in the newspaper?  Or click on the second page of a story online?  If you read the New York Times or Washington Post or any other major paper there’s more than one “page”.  Blogs, too, often split their stories so that there’s a “spill”.  Will an adult who is accustomed to communicating by two-sentence text message, or having the television and an iPod and the computer all going when doing homework … and three of four chat windows open while the homework is being done … take the time to read a story in-depth?  I don’t know the answer to that question.

Of course, there will always be exceptional students.  They’ll use the technology to their best advantage.  There will be exceptional teachers who ALSO use the technology to their best advantage.  And if using technology is what it takes to engage students because that’s their life experience, I’m all for it.  But I’m concerned that as these kids become adults, they may have a difficult time comprehending complex ideas.

Or maybe not.  Maybe their brains ARE re-wired, and it’s just a part of evolution.  Maybe I’m the one that’s being left behind.



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Filed under Education, Technology, Thoughts

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