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Art Markman, Ph.D. Headshot

Create a Distraction-Free Zone

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One of the most frequent questions I get when I talk about thinking to groups is whether technology is making us smarter or dumber. In particular, many parents are worried that Google or Wikipedia are making kids less likely to want to learn.

The easy availability of the answers to many simple questions may make kids feel less motivated to learn the details of things that they can look up easily. But, I think that technology has a more insidious influence on kids' ability to learn.

Technology creates distractions.

Almost every kid these days seems tethered to some set of technological devices. There are iPods with music and apps, and games; phones with calls and text messages; computers with IM, Facebook, and Skype; and of course, the ever-present video game systems.

These devices are fun. And, used properly, they can provide some fun and enjoyment.

Because they are fun and easy, though, they also get in the way of learning.

As I discuss in my book, Smart Thinking: Three essential keys to solve problems, innovate, and get things done, effective learning has to be difficult to be successful. Research by Robert Bjork and his colleagues demonstrates that successful learning involves creating desirable difficulties for students.

Think about what happens when you have a child struggling through a science project. It can be frustrating to keep track of all the steps of the scientific method and to understand what the results of a lab might mean. Often, this learning comes along with a feeling of frustration. Though kids don't like frustration, it is often a sign that real learning is going on.

Here's the problem. At those most frustrating moments, there is a desire to look for a sanctuary to escape the difficulty. That is where technology comes to the rescue for kids. In the middle of that frustration, they are prone to turn to a smart phone app, to start texting with a friend, or to take a break and play a video game.

This multitasking is a killer for complex learning.

There are two problems. First, fleeing from learning to technology creates a habit. A little frustration during learning should be a sign to work harder. If kids begin to associate frustration with technology, though, they create a habit to dive into the smart phone or onto Facebook when they really need to be working.

Second, whenever you try to do two things at once, your performance suffers. Human beings don't really multitask when doing complex thinking. Instead, they switch back and forth between the things they are doing. That comes at a cost. Every time children switch away from a project toward technology, it takes time when they return to the project just to remember where they were when they left. All of this switching makes them less effective overall.

What can you do?

I recommend creating a technology-free zone for a few hours every day. Set up a place at home for your kids to deposit their phones and other devices for safekeeping. If kids want to listen to music while studying, that can be OK, but they can return to the old-fashioned technologies of CDs and the radio for a couple of hours. Restrict Internet use to websites directly related to a project going on, and keep the computer in a public place so that you can see what is going on.

And set up that technology-free zone for times when kids aren't doing homework as well. After all, there are lots of great things to do in life that don't involve the Internet.

In the end, this is a simple way to help your kids develop smarter habits.