Can multi-taking be mindfulness-making?

In Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer outlines four myths that hurt education. Of the four myths, the one that most immediately spoke to my own journey to become a better teacher was myth number two — “Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.”

I’m one of those children of the 1980s who had parents who went to great lengths to raise me away from TV and, later on, the Internet. But practice sitting still and being quiet isn’t a prerequisite for learning. When we worry about our students being distracted in class, it is because we assume they need to focus their attention completely on one thing to be able to learn.

For better or worse — and I think there is room for debate there — that isn’t the background of today’s undergraduates. For the simple reason that the pace of our culture has changed, today’s students are equipped to change topics, mediums and multi-task much better than their parents.

So, breaking this myth helps us to think about teaching in a new way. How can we use our students’ ability to quickly move between mediums and multi-task? I often combine lecture, writing assignment or project, a video/audio piece and discussion in every class. But each of these are done consecutively. I’m left wondering how I could use multiple mediums at one time.

For instance, if students had an essay question that required them to respond to a video, could they record their reactions in real-time and then tidy up the essay afterward?

As a reporter, I live tweeted meetings I’ve attended and use those tweets to help reconstruct my articles. If every student were live-tweeting a lecture, using a hashtag, might they be able to use their collective tweets in lieu of note-taking?

Would having an activity to accomplish during what are typically passive moments in the classroom help them be more mindful learners?

I’m not sure, but I think it would be worth trying. And I think student feedback will be key. I find that students are very honest about what works and doesn’t work when asked. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown summarize this struggle succinctly in “A New Culture of Learning”: “The challenge is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new” (49). But the first step to creating something new is being willing to try.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

27 Responses to Can multi-taking be mindfulness-making?

  1. baileyfood

    I really like the idea of live tweets in lieu of note taking! I agree that offering different modes for learning can help keep students engaged and interested in the topic material – especially because most generally aren’t accustomed to doing only one thing for a long period of time.

  2. Amy Hermundstad Nave

    What a great idea! I really like the idea of having students work to accomplish something during more passive moments in a class. I would love to hear about your experiences if you try this out in a class! Your post also reminded me of a talk I was at last year at CHEP that talked about doodling as a way to take notes. We tried it out in the conference session and it was really fun and engaging and encouraged me to think about the material and pick out important aspects and show relationships between ideas. It was really great!

  3. Brittany H

    Great post. I am one of those people who tend to have difficulty focusing on one thing at a time. I voice record meetings with my advisor because I write too slow and sometimes miss things. If I record then I don’t have to worry about forgetting things–which I usually do because I’m also thinking about other things.

  4. Yan

    Thank you for sharing this interesting idea! I can study mathematics, listen to music and maybe read some interesting posts from phone at the same time, but I definitely cannot read an English article when I also try to do something else. So maybe the effectiveness of multi-task depends on what the tasks are and also has some individual differences (?). But using tweets as a note-taking worths a try!

  5. Mary

    This is a very interesting potential approach to note-taking. I agree, it is definitely worth a try. I have had an internal debate about using social media platforms, not because of the platforms themselves, but because of the way they are used by our students. What has stopped me previously has been my thought: “Get your head out of the sand- your students don’t want to tweet about class content. They want to tweet about whatever will make them socially accepted.” If we offer this as an option, will students really take it or think we are just desperately trying to be “cool”? But, I do agree- I think they would tell us the truth. Maybe we should poll all our students to see!

  6. I think we should definitely give live-tweeting a try! I use tweet-chats a lot in the cMOOC I co-facilitate, and find them really engaging and fun. And I appreciate all of the terrific reflections here about the kind of multi-tasking we can — and can’t — do. Brittany’s method of recording important conversations so she can consult them later sounds good too.

  7. arash

    You raise an important point. We are not, as human beings, (evolutionary) wired to be able to deeply focus on a subjects for two long. We should acknowledge and adopt our classroom practices accordingly. I think your examples are great instances of that.

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