Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Cycling Our Attention

I had a great conversation with someone today who was talking about helping his son to locate some information online. The first part of the conversation had to do with teaching students the skills of the research process. He was amazed at his son's difficulty in dealing with the whole search process but that's another topic for later.

Then he remarked about what else was going on while he and his son were working on this task. He said that while they were working, his son was IM'ing three other friends of his. I said something about multitasking and that brain research tells us that we can't truly be multitaskers because the brain can really only pay attention to one thing at a time. Then he said that his son wasn't trying to multitask - it was more like he was cycling through all of the different things he wanted to pay attention to. The son was working with his dad on the research, then when an IM popped up his attention cycled to that and then cycled back to the research and then on to another IM and another and then back again to the research and so on.

I had to stop and think about that process for a minute. With basically 4 different things competing for his attention, this young man (about 14 years old) was able to cycle through each one paying attention to what he needed to each time it was demanded of him. Would he have stuck with just the research task if IM wasn't open on his computer? Probably, because his dad was sitting with him. But he had 4 things competing for his attention and, by all accounts, was able to handle it quite nicely.

How many times do we cycle our attention from one thing to another whether in front of or away from the computer? Are our brains flexible enough to handle all of that ongoing input/output of information? Or does it depend on the level of engagement we have with all of the things that are demanding our attention? I'm not sure what the answers to these questions are but I think this whole notion of cycling our attention is something we all do more than we realize. Are we/our students developing habits that will hinder learning or skills that will support learning?

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Terri Lieberman said...

You pose several valid questions. I think that our brains are capable of cycling from one task to another, but I'm not sure you always want to be doing this. It depends on what you are doing and how much time you have to complete the task at hand. When concentration is of utmost importance, say for example, in trying to understand concepts that are new and difficult, I would want to concentrate on just that task and turn off my instant message window. This is another area where we need to educate our students in information literacy. Students need to be aware of the situation and their own capabilities. They also need to be able to prioritize what tasks need more attention than others and when cycling our attention just isn't a wise choice. Just because our brains can do something, doesn't always mean we should. I hope that when my doctor of the future learns how to repair damage to hearts, he isn't cycling through anything else at the time! :)

Diane Quirk said...

You've made some good points Terri. I agree that students need to be aware of the importance of the learning task and the attention that needs to be paid to it. After I had posted this, I had a conversation with my 20 yr old daughter who is an engineering student. She frequently does homework with IM running but she finds that she has to block it out or turn it off when the content of the IM's she's receiving are taking her off the task she's trying to accomplish at the time. So...good to know that our tuition dollars are being spent wisely by our little student! :)