In her book, Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber Savvy Teens, Nancy Willard cites a reference to a research paper in the journal Child Development (citation is below. Full article may require subscription) when dissing the ability of adolescents to effectively multi-task and retain information necessary for adequate school achievement. In short, can you do homework, IM, check email, and watch TV at the same time AND still do well on schoolwork. She says no.
This has been a hot topic at our center. Some educators feel kids today just know how to do it, and seem to exemplify they can. But I wonder. Are they really capable of higher order processing when so much demands their cognitive attention?
Monica Luciana and others conducted some experiments with adolescents at the University of Minnesota. The test weren’t specifically related to multitasking per se, but from the results you can draw some conclusions.
She had a sample size of 135 nine to twenty year olds. Test and results (age related differences in performance) show: Nonverbal face recognition memory (no significant difference), spatial delayed response (better performance with age), spatial memory test and spatial memory span (performance increases up to age thirteen then holds steady), spatial self-ordered search (similar to previous results where performance increases up to age thirteen, then holds steady).
So what does all of this mean? In the context of previous findings which are detailed in the paper, the authors were able to come to a few significant (if not expected) conclusions:
As compared to 14-year-olds, 20-year-olds exhibited more accurate performance on all delayed response trials. The two groups did not differ in their performance on no-delay trials.
That is, when you’ve got to hold a bit of information in your head, who do it significantly better the older you get.
The most demanding task described here is the spatial self-ordered search task, which requires response selection, memory, continuous updating of information, and a high degree of executive control…The development of these skills, when demanded simultaneously, shows a protracted and extended course up to age 16.
Combined with a previously sited study, 16-29 y/o’s perform similarly. So, complex task management sets in around age 16.
Here’s the gist: Yea, you can do complex problem solving pretty well by age 16, but you’re ability to concentrate with increasing distractions only grows with age. Nancy Willard does a pretty good job of spelling out how this should be handled: no multitasking while doing homework. I’m glad she made this simple.
We are in an age when media demands are rapidly increasing. Brain evolution is not. In fact, it’s quite surprising how little our brains have evolved. We still function best when concentrating on a single task. So why is it we feel external stimuli can sometimes help us think? Perhaps it’s because we are not actually using our full mental capacity to engage the problem at hand and a little external stimuli keeps our mind from disengaging. Let’s go back to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and flow. When we are really into the game, a little external stimuli is moot. You’d never even notice it. But you would notice if your phone buzzed you. The flow would be broken and re-engaging is not as simple as you might think.
In the classroom, I suspect kids rarely engage in a stage similar to flow. Plugging an iPod in one ear might actually help them pay attention. But homework, and any singular isolated activity, should be acted upon with full concentration. As always, more on this later.
I don’t care how good you are at multitasking. It’s time to do your homework.
Citation: Monica Luciana, Heather M. Conklin, Catalina J. Hooper, Rebecca S. Yarger (2005)
The Development of Nonverbal Working Memory and Executive Control Processes in Adolescents Child Development 76 (3), 697–712.
Image taken from UCLA Magazine.