The Multitasking Virus and the End of Learning? Part 1

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Josh Waitzkin’s learning abilities–and principles–extend far beyond chess.

Some of you might be familiar with Josh Waitzkin.

He was the subject of the book and movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer and an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth. He also holds a combined 21 National titles in addition to several World Championships in martial arts, and now trains hedge funds and other companies in high-end learning and performance psychology. His cross-transfer of skill acquisition is incredible.

I reached out to Josh after reading his book, The Art of Learning, and we fast became friends. Between practicing kneebars and waxing philosophical or tactical about learning, we now tend to discuss our shared concern for the direction of modern education.

This is part 1 of a 2-part article written by Josh about what he calls the “multitasking virus.”

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A few weeks ago, I returned to the classroom of Dennis Dalton, the most important college professor of my life. From the back of an amphitheater seating several hundred students, I realized how much things had evolved at Columbia and Barnard. The lecture hall was now equipped with a wireless sound system, webcams, video projectors, wireless internet. Students were using computers to record the lecture and to take notes. Heads were buried in screens, the tap tap of hundreds of keyboards like rain on the roof.

On this afternoon, April 16, 2008, Dalton was describing the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, building the discussion around the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British colonial soldiers opened fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian men, women and children trapped in Jallianwala Bagh Garden. For 39 years, Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu. His lectures are about themes, connections between disparate minds, the powerful role of the individual in shaping our world.

Dalton is a life changer, and this was one of his last lectures before retirement.

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban Outfitters.com. She had finally found her shoes!

When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom.

Students defend this trend by citing their generation’s enhanced ability to multi-task. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot, in fact, multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of our processing. Brain activation for listening is cut in half if the person is trying to process visual input at the same time. A recent study at The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment 10 points. That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours—more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana. But to be honest, on the educational front, multi-tasking feels to me like a symptom of a broader sense of alienation.

I know what it is like to be disengaged. In fact, the crisis that played a large role in ending my chess career was rooted in becoming disconnected from my natural love for learning…

[Continued in Part 2]

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Posted on: May 25, 2008.

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83 comments on “The Multitasking Virus and the End of Learning? Part 1

  1. WOW! Killer Post. Does this multi-taking connect or have any relevance with the so called ADD? They seem like they would go hand in hand. Is any multi-tasking good?, or should it be strict all around? I myself have noticed that sometimes it may take me 20 mins to brush my teeth due to the fact that I am either getting a call or being texted. My guess would be to remain focused regardless of the small distractions that cause huge interruptions. How do you remain focused all the time? Does the mind not have a natural tendency to want to gravitate towards other things?

    Best

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

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  2. Multitasking isn’t the problem, it’s only a tool after all. Of course it reduces the quality of your work, but if you’re competent enough, most of the time you don’t need your full attention. The real problem is that if the stuff you’re doing most of the time don’t require your full attention then you’re doing unnecessary stuff that shouldn’t be done (at least not by you). In economics we know that every worker should be doing the job their best, even if worker A is better than worker B at both job A should keep doing its own job, because the overall efficiency increases. Multitasking usually is a symptom of task mismanagement, you should use it only in times of crisis, as a last resort, not as normal operation mode.

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  3. As a current student at UCLA, I see this “viral multi-tasking” everywhere. Fighting it won’t solve the problem. That is why teachers whom say “No texting” always have more of it in their classrooms. What we need in schools are Accelerating Learning techniques, which I’m sure you’re familiar with Tim. For example, being physically active, actively responding back to the teacher, and using whole brain thinking. This will 1) increase retention of material, 2) keep students fully engaged and interested, thus no desire to multi-task. Couple this with more practical and relevant subjects in school. There was a well known study that stated each individual is a genius in at least one way. Things like spacial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, verbal/communicative, bodily kinesthetics, and a few more. In our schools we need to foster the gifts that each individual innately possesess. Our school system today teachers us how to be teachers and only tests us on one kind of intelligence. Personally, I believe that LeBron James doing kicking butt on the basketball court makes him an incredible genius just as much as Josh Waitzkin is with chess.

    I’m with you Tim…our educational system needs a major re-vamp. The intention of school should not be to “get out as fast as possible” and not care about learning, which is the mass mentality here at UCLA. I’d love to know your thoughts of re-inventing education.

    I’d like to know your opinion on Paul Scheele’s programs, such as Paraliminals and PhotoReading. Have you used any of his products, or know those who have? Thanks!

    Aaron

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  4. Good Lord. I understand the importance of getting computers into the classroom, but it sounds like some students are abusing the concept. Perhaps the professor needs to ask for “laptops down” during lecture, and open them only if you have an idea you want to share and research with the rest of the class. It’s like passing notes on steroids :(

    ~Marcie

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  5. We increasingly live in an Attention Deficit World – too much information, to many distractions.

    Strictly speaking, yes it is a personal choice to stay focussed on a task, a lecture or anything else. But it can be difficult.

    Suppose it requires a) more self awareness to realise you are distracted and multi tasking b) the ability to hit the breaks and c) some old fashioned discipline

    Great post, thanks for helping me hit the breaks

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  6. I completely agree with you about the scourge of multitasking. It beggars the question though why colleges still bother with lectures; given the complete lack of attention paid they would be better off videoing the lecture and making it available on YouTube for the students to watch whilst they’re doing ten other things at the same time.

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  7. The last line said it all.

    “…disconnected from my natural love for learning.”

    I disconnected in 7th grade. And it took me about 20 years to figure out one of the reasons why:

    Ridiculous homework.

    “Read pages 278 to 332 of Intro to Geology and write a minimum of 5 pages by tomorrow.”

    First, I am given something I don’t really want to read, in a class I am forced to take, on a subject that has no immediate or future relevance to my life. Second, I am told that I must write a “minimum.” That just takes the love of writing 20 pages right out because now I feel that, hey, if there’s a minimum it must not be fun. Repeat cycle 200 days for 12 years and there you have it, a Facebook surfer doodling through a riveting lecture on civil disobedience.

    Folks, the problem is beyond simply reforming schools. What is necessary is a complete revamp of how and why we learn. Galileo said ““You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.”

    How have we succeeded in revamping learning in our own family? Our kids don’t go to school, pretty much play and read all day (whenever they want), and are reading several years ahead of their school-going peers.

    It’s not that homeschooling is so wonderful. It’s just that ordinary schooling is so bad. And the human mind has a very natural inclination towards learning that can only be suppressed by years of irrelevant nonsense.

    It was Noam Chomsky, the polymath and great contemporary linguist, who once commented that he knew there was something wrong with schools when his friend got an A for handing in a mediocre paper on time, and he got a B for something he really put his heart into but was late.

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  8. Just to present another side of the argument, I know that many college lectures totally suck. Also, some people may not be good auditory learners.

    I went to school in New Orleans, and during Mardi Gras week, people would show up to lecture with a beer!

    I’m just not sure how much is *really* changing. If anything, I’m noticing an increase in the caliber of fresh grads joining the workforce (for engineers at least).

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  9. Thank You! I love this post and I am looking forward to the second part….I’ll be ordering ‘The Art of Learning’ from Amazon…

    Something that came to mind after reading this article was that the essence of Zen has been described as ‘doing one thing at a time’. Sounds simple, and it is, yet it is extremely rare for anyone in our culture to do this. Even if a person is not distracted by their laptop or blackberry, they’re usually still lost in thought, never focusing their attention fully on the moment. This is how a person gets to their deathbed and feels like they missed their life, because their attention was never focused on the present moment, on life itself.

    But obviously “The Multi-Tasking Virus” has much more far-reaching repercussions–the fact that these students were deadened to the moving description of their fellow human beings’ intense suffering—that’s incredibly disturbing.

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  10. I saw a lot of this in Law School. After one particular bad class of out of control IM, the laptop didn’t come to class again. Plus, I just felt more connected when I was taking notes by hand, without the computer between the professor and me. (and I felt that transcribing my notes close to finals times really helped my memory of the subject matter revive).
    I’m not heard that some Law Schools are disconnecting the wireless service in classrooms and some professors are even banning laptops. Given the interactive nature required by law instruction (via the Socratic method), I can’t say I blame them.

    I have to admit, that weak as I am with the enticement of the interweb, I will sometimes disconnect my laptop at work, lest I be tempted. It kills me that I lack the discipline to do otherwise, but whatever works.

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  11. Amen!

    As a college professor I can attest to this problem. Unfortunately most students are not able to multi-task effectively and their marks show it.

    I have the blessing and the curse of teaching at a small school with small class sizes. That means it is easier to prevent students from surfing the web, but when they do it causes more of a disruption.

    This year I’ve had to add a line in my syllabus putting limits on the use of cell phones and laptops in the classroom. We will see if it works. Until then……

    Thanks for the post!

    Like

  12. If this is the case then surely education is a results based environment and these students will not succeed in passing their courses. If they ARE passing their courses then either you can up the passmark or accept that they have learned and accomplished enough.

    As much as it distresses me that the correct level of respect is not being paid to the lecturer, I don’t think that level of respect has been apparent in western culture for a long long time.

    When you are young you know it all, and it is a rare case that a student thinks otherwise. It is only with wisdom and experience that one realises that opportunities were missed, and if you had only listened to your mother….etc

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  13. As a university student myself, I have to admit that I have (on many an occasion) been guilty of multitasking during lectures, and am ashamed to say that my multitasking included the majority of Josh’s list.

    Fortunately – near the end of my previous year of schooling, and recently moreso, I’ve started to realize the impact of multitasking. Besides the drop in IQ (interesting stat!), I now find myself unable to concentrate on one thing at a time – to concentrate, I need more than one source of stimulation. That scares me a bit, to be honest, and I am working on getting my ability to focus back.

    I can’t wait for the second half of this, and to start classes again in September to try out my new & improved focusing skills…

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  14. This is one of the issues addressed in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.

    http://www.brainrules.net/attention

    I haven’t actually read the book yet (though I plan to) but from what I’ve come across, the book elucidates certain rules on how the brain works – based on supposedly verified scientific studies – and how much of what we do today doesn’t follow those rules, for example, the prominence of multitasking. I’ve definitely noticed the detrimental effect of multi-tasking on my own thinking, so I try to avoid it, but not always with success. Multi-tasking is one of those great ways to feel productive without necessarily being productive.

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  15. Sounds like kids being kids to me. Is it ideal? No. Is it something that some people beyond a certain age will never really accept/understand because the option wasn’t even there when they were at school? Possibly.

    If the Hipster PDA has taught us anything, it’s that eventually these things will come full-circle.

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  16. Hey Tim,

    when will the next book be out ?
    I think I know what some of the chapters will be about :)

    Thanks for your great blog !

    Like

  17. This is, without a doubt, my favourite thing i’ve been lucky enough to read on here.

    It’s symptomatic of an entire change in the education system.
    Here (in Australia), it’s an economic rationalist imperative to view education as a tool for increasing individual wage/benefits later in time.

    The problem is, that it’s not viewed as good for society at large. Education is the best single indicator of personal happiness and an educated populus can better provide for itself and not rely as heavily on government hand outs.

    But this individually focused environment eschews these benefits. In return I think that many students reflect this back – displaying a sense of individual entitlement that’s pretty offensive to some. I know I do it.

    But after reading this – i’m going to leave my laptop in my bag during lectures now (Honestly i’ve never touched the internet in a lecture though).

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  18. I doubt most people are truly aware of how much time they spend on these small distracting activities. I’ve started using rescuetime to monitor what I’m doing on the computer minute-to-minute. When you can see what you’re doing you can take steps to change it.

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  19. Thing is Tim, these students aren’t multitasking! They are just sitting through the class, bored.

    Do you get bored Tim? Do you think Josh does? It’s a rhetorical question because I know every good, dedicated and passionate learner doesn’t get bored. There is always more to learn – even if you know more than anyone else…

    These students are just spending their time there in case the lecturer makes a comment like “this will be on the finals”. Of course, you, like me, know finals are a poor test for adequate learning, and a great test for what the lecturer wanted to hear…

    Education is broken, in many places; Not just by the students, but by the teachers and institutions as well. As humans we learn fast; so how is it that after 4 years of high school most students still can’t speak the basics of another language? How is it that primary kids are still taught ‘fonetic’ spelling when there are better systems available? How come if you are doing a science experiment and don’t get the same results as in the lab guide, you’re wrong, rather than making a new discovery?

    There is much to do to rectify the problems. Thankfully, there are many of us already out there doing it…

    Enjoy,
    Michael.

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  20. Hi Tim,
    Just to tell you that your book has been read also in Italy :-)
    Your chapters about the Pareto theory and the problem of the multy tasking active during the work life, have saved me from my daily job. I’m an “office lady” ;-), and the the strucutre of the italian company are different from the international one. I’m trying to adapt your suggest to our standard also because I’m finally changing my job! my new company should be more modern and international then the old one.
    Many thanks.
    Regards
    sonia

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