Multitasking: Are Net Geners Better at Switching Attention?
Media multitasking is a quintessential characteristic of the Net Generation brain. Three out of every four Net Gen students claim to instant message while doing their homework.10 Moreover, in a national study of over 2,000 young people, aged 8 to 18, researchers found that participants were able to squeeze the equivalent of 8.5 hours of electronic media into 6 chronological hours because of multitasking.11 Most parents can't understand it. Boomers usually have trouble focusing on a complicated task if the TV is on, the music is cranked up, and friends are checking in every few minutes. Are Net Geners any better at it than boomers are? Have they learned to be top guns of multitasking?
When I look at my own children, their friends, and legions of other Net Geners, this is what I see: They're faster than I am at switching tasks, and better than I am at blocking out background noise. They can work effectively with music playing and news coming in from Facebook. They can keep up their social networks while they concentrate on work; they seem to need this to feel comfortable. I think they've learned to live in a world where they're bombarded with information, so that they can block out the TV or other distractions while they focus on the task at hand.
Back in 1992, P. David Pearson, a comprehension theorist at the University of Illinois, set forth the skills that a good reader uses to understand a text. The good reader activates prior knowledge, makes sure she understands what she's reading and reads it again if necessary, makes inferences, and synthesizes or summarizes what she's learned. It turns out that searching for information on the Internet requires those same skills -- and then some -- according to a study in the September 2003 issue of the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.12
Searching for information on the Internet is obviously a different exercise than reading a book. You read or scan until you have found what you wanted, and then you click on a keyword to hunt for more information. Unlike the journey you take when you read a book, no one is holding your hand or serving as your guide. You're on your own. But it requires the same skills you need to read a book -- plus the ability to scan, navigate, analyze whether information is pertinent, synthesize, and remember what question you're trying to answer as you click on the links. The RAND Reading Study Group put it this way in 2002: "Accessing the Internet makes large demands on the individuals' literacy skills; in some cases, this new technology requires readers to have novel literacy skills."13
Kids Aren't Paying Attention in School?
So why do some Net Geners seem to have attention deficit disorder in class? Isn't it possible that the answer is because they're bored -- both with the slow pace and with the content of the lecture? Researcher Marc Prensky thinks so. "Their attention spans are not short for games, for example, or for music, or rollerblading, or for spending time on the Internet, or anything else that actually interests them," he writes. "It isn't that they can't pay attention, they just choose not to."14
Donald Leu, co-director of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut, has found that the skills needed for effective reading of books are different from those you need to read effectively online. To read online, you need all the skills of the off-line reader-plus the ability to search, locate information, and evaluate how pertinent or credible it is. You have to remember what you're looking for -- what question you're trying to answer -- so you don't get lost in the morass of information. You have to synthesize what you're learning from multiple sources, and usually communicate your findings to someone else. Online, you are creating your own narrative, instead of following the writer's journey. These are different experiences, Leu says. His research shows that conventional text readers are not always good online readers. Sometimes kids who are poor readers of textbooks turn out to be among the top performers in terms of online search and reading skills.
The old model of pedagogy is what I call broadcast learning. It was a one-size-fits-all one-way model designed for the Industrial Age when industry needed workers who did what they were told. The teacher was the sage, and he or she was supposed to deliver knowledge to the grateful students who were expected to write down the sage's words and deliver it back to them, often word for word, in exams if they wanted to score an A.
In the old model, the teacher is the broadcaster, sending information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. It goes like this: I'm a teacher (or professor) and I have knowledge. You're a student and you don't. Get ready, here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory and through practice and repetition build deeper cognitive structures so you can recall it to me when I test you. As I often tell educational audiences, the definition of a lecture is the process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either.
So is it any surprise that teacher-broadcasters and TV broadcasters are both losing their audience? Kids who have grown up digital are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. Sitting mutely in front of a TV -- or a teacher -- doesn't appeal to this generation. But unlike the entertainment world, the educational establishment doesn't offer enough alternatives to the one-way broadcast.
If schools were a business that was routinely losing one-third of its customers -- and half in some places -- I suspect the board of directors would insist on some fundamental changes, or simply fire the CEO. So why doesn't the school system do what some of the leading customer-faced companies are doing today? Focus on the customer, or in this case, the student. It sounds simple, but as many companies have found, focusing on the customer requires a deep change throughout the organization. This means changing the relationship between student and teacher in the learning process.
Films like Waiting for "Superman" don't help much. They blame teachers and suggest that charter schools are the answer, when what's needed is an entirely new model of pedagogy and educational modus operandi. To focus on the student, teachers have to step off the stage and start listening and conversing instead of just lecturing. In other words, they have to abandon their broadcast style and adopt an interactive one. Second, they should encourage students to discover for themselves, and learn a process of discovery and critical thinking instead of just memorizing the teacher's information. Third, they need to encourage students to collaborate among themselves and with others outside the school. Finally, they need to tailor the style of education to their students' individual learning styles.
Some leading educators are calling for this kind of massive change, such as Richard Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He says the education model has to change to suit this generation of students. Smart but impatient, they like to collaborate and they reject one-way lectures. While some educators view this as pandering to a generation, Sweeney is firm: "They want to learn, but they want to learn only from what they have to learn, and they want to learn it in a style that is best for them."
The Kids Are All Right
Over my career, I have listened to thousands of people make dire predictions about what technology will do to young brains. TV was supposed to melt their minds. Video games would turn them into zombies. It hasn't happened. So I'm skeptical when I read that digital immersion is making kids stupid. And I've yet to see any convincing evidence.
The Times article was just the latest in litany of pieces. Take Mark Bauerlein, the English professor who wrote The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. The premise of his book is that youth today are stupider than any preceding generation because they spend so much time immersed in digital technology, especially the Internet. But even Bauerlein has to admit that raw IQ scores have been going up three points a decade since World War II, and that screentime's ability to improve certain visual processing skills may have played a role in the rise in recent years.15 After noting that inconvenient fact, the professor acknowledges that Net Geners may be "mentally agile" but says they are "culturally ignorant." They don't read the great works of literature, he complains, and their general knowledge is poor -- they suffer from what he calls "vigorous indiscriminate ignorance." So now he's arguing that they're not mentally slow, just ignorant. But are Net Geners any more ignorant than boomers were at their age? Again no evidence is provided.
The professor hunts for more evidence to support the grandstanding title of his book from school test scores. "No cohort in human history has opened such a fissure between its material conditions and its intellectual attainments," he thunders. "None has experienced so many technological enhancements and yielded so little mental progress." In other words, they should be doing better, presumably because of the Internet. So which is it? The Internet is a force for stupefication or enlightenment?
The Times piece ends with the story of Vishal, who after a long Sunday on his computer is finally getting to his homework at 11pm. But we learn that Vishal's time online was in fact editing his new film. Vishal is a budding film director! Sure, he should get to his homework earlier. But the reader is left wondering how Vishal's passion for his craft, and his laser-like focus on editing over a 12-hour period is somehow evidence that he has lost his intellect or his attention span.
Sure there are unknowns and challenges as this media revolution extends out into every aspect of human existence. And all of us need to better design our families and our own lives to ensure that this smaller world will be a better one for all of us.
But the evidence suggests that many young people today are using technology to become smarter and more capable than their parents ever could be; and, like Vishal, to accomplish important, perhaps great things. Rather than kids losing their attention spans there is a stronger case to be made that growing up digital is equipping today's youth with the mental skills, such as scanning and quick mental switching, that they'll need to deal with today's overflow of information. The superior performance for many of them, as evidence by university graduation rates show they know when they have to focus, just as the most intelligent members of my generation did. They may think and process information in a different way than most boomers do, but that doesn't stop them from coming up with brilliant insights, new models of doing business, new ways of collaborating; or, for that matter, creating a carefully edited film as a teenager.
Don Tapscott is the author of Growing Up Digital (1997) and Grown Up digital (2008) and most recently with Anthony D. Williams Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World (2010).
10. Hesham M. Mesbah, "The Impact of Linear vs. Non-linear Listening to Radio News on Recall and Comprehension," Journal of Radio and Audio Media, vol. 13, no. 2, December 2006, 187-200, www.leaonline.com.
11. Donald F. Roberts et al., "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds," Kaiser Family Foundation Study, March 2005, www.kff.org.
12. Elizabeth Schmar-Dobler, "Reading on the Internet: The Link between Literacy and Technology," Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, September 2003, www.readingonline.org.
13. Catherine E. Snow and RAND Reading Study Group, Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension, RAND Corporation, 2002.
14. Ibid., Prensky, Digital Game Based Learning
15. Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You, New York: Riverhead, 2005. "Think of the cognitive labor--and play--that your average 10-year-old would have experienced outside school 100 years ago: reading books when they were available, playing with simple toys, improvising neighborhood games like stickball an kick the can, and most of all doing household chores--or even working as a child laborer. Compare that with the cultural and technological mastery of a 10-year-old today: following dozens of professional sports teams; shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching."
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