The latest edition of CPA Australia’s In The Black comes with a wake-up call for anyone out there who still believes that multitasking is a viable way for any workplace. Amanda Woodard’s Pinball Effect targets, with some sympathy, how the circumstance of ‘pace and pressure’ may have turned most professional people into multitaskers. Unfortunately, the truth is out, that multitasking is highly flawed. Instead, what is needed in a digital age of finding ways of creating ‘a culture of deep focus.’
Woodward’s article is thick with facts from academic research, including Nobel prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, whose findings have been responsible for differentiating types of thinking into
System one – the fast, automatic thinking based on existing knowledge, and System two, the slower, effortful, deep thinking that requires some quiet space for the mind and is difficult to access when we are in busy autopilot mode.
What impressed me most about the article was its discursive style that grappled with the contradictory issues we face in a modern workplace. There’s opportunity all around us to do good work, as well as technological tools like we never imagined even a decade ago. Yet, in stark contradiction, as Vanella Jackson Hall, of Hall and Partners, observes about her own eleven years as a CEO, work “has become more demanding and faster. The technology that was meant to liberate us has made life more hectic and challenging”.
The evidence has been stacking up for awhile
In a similar vein, Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why we expect more of technology and less of each other (2013) is stunning in its implications. Based on 30 years of Turkle’s research at MIT, the epilogue of the book required several re-readings because of its density and paradoxical views on living with forms of technologies that seem to take on a life of their own. Turkle concludes,
Now we know that once computers connected us to each other, once we became tethered to the network, we really didn’t need to keep computers busy. They keep us busy. It is as though we have become their killer app. As a friend of mine put it in a moment of pique, “We don’t do our e-mail; our e-mail does us.” We talk about “spending” hours on e-mail, but we, too, are being spent. Niels Bohr suggests that the opposite of a “deep truth” is a truth no less profound. As we contemplate online life, it helps to keep this in mind.
Even more direct than Turkle’s claims of the levels of human dysfunction brought on by digital technologies, John Hattie and Gregory Yates (2014) devote an entire chapter on multitasking in Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. The book carries a clear message that multitasking is nothing more than “switching between demanding tasks”. Unfortunately, laboratory tests show that such switching produces lapses in performances, otherwise known as ‘switching costs’.
Interestingly, they argue their case by using ‘driving a car’ as part of the proof that automaticity does allow drivers to converse and listen to music. However, achieving automation “does not imply that driving is unaffected by whatever else is going on within your nervous system. Holding a conversation, listening to the radio, or talking upon a mobile phone, are events that drain attention away from driving.” They conclude that if this is multitasking, then it is achieved at a major cost. Furthermore, they say, that the same laboratory tests “also reveal how people remain unaware their performances are deteriorating under multiple demands” (2014, 188)
So much more than about multitasking
And so I notice how any discussion on multitasking has us discussing theories of learning, human cognition, neuroscientific research, the cognitive load and a number of emerging educational issues for which we have barely begun to have an adequate response. One such issue is ‘screen addiction’.
For instance, Richard Aldrich (2013) names teenagers ‘screenagers’ in “Neuroscience, education and the evolution of the human brain” as he quotes from research obtained from the Computer Addiction Center at Harvard’s McLean Hospital and the Institute for the Future of the Mind with regards to how
young brains are being re-wired to promote a two-dimensional screen existence concerned with the sensory thrill of the moment. Such an existence is devoid of human contact and feelings and promotes a brain dominated by raw sensations in the here and now, with little concern for the future or for the consequences of actions. This loss of responsibility leads in turn to a loss of identity and has a negative impact on creativity and learning. It may be wise to limit the use of screens and to reclaim the time and space to think, in much the same way as at times it is salutary to put away the car and walk.
Such a bleak view of the effect of screen addiction on young minds brings me crashing back to my own here and now. I currently live in a State (one of two in Australia) in which the Education Minister has banned the use of mobile phones. As I’ve come to expect from reading Neil Selwyn’s work of education technology, his article in The Conversation on 26 June 2019 provides me with many insights on the short and long-term gains and risks of such a ban.
Perhaps the most profound are his views on similar experiments, such as a ban in New York between 2006 and 2015 which shows that there is no getting away from addressing the effects of digital technologies on human cognitive development. This is the hard work that is required for the sake of our children.
Show empathy – we’re all struggling
Therefore, when Certified Practising Accountants say we have a problem with multitasking in the workforce, it might be wise to listen and become active solvers for how we are going to create ‘a culture of deep focus’.
I was viscerally reminded of the challenge as I launched a philosophy for children (P4C) program last Monday (10/2) based on a series of novel philosophical texts by author Clare-Rose Trevelyan and illustrator Yongho Moon. The first of the three texts, The Book With No Story, is designed to get children exploring the nature of our first encounters of other people. In the second book, The Fake Dictionary, the exploration turns towards the way words shape thought and visa versa. The book is in the form of an A-Z children’s book but it intentionally disrupts the easy coupling of ‘a is apple’ approach to the lexicon’s formation. In the third book, The One Thing and Anothers, Clare and Yong play with a short story about two aliens who visit our planet and bring with them consequences of epic proportions.
Collectively, the author hopes her small books stimulate many philosophical discussions between adults and children. In practice, they should get children, their parents and teachers reflecting and, possibly, acting on ideas and points of view. As the curriculum developer for the project, I envision what it means to develop Year 5/6 students as ‘philosopher citizens’.
How do we engage children to begin to participate in an Australian democracy as both ‘thinkers’ and ‘activists’? Following the advice of the Foundation for Young Australian, how should upper primary students also begin to imagine ‘the future of work’ in any other way than through the ‘new basics‘ which heavily depends on teachers grappling with cognitive and technological advancement working together?
So, let’s call up ‘deep focus’
And so, I am lucky to be running the first ‘Young Philosophers Project’, out of the Da Vinci Centre at Wooranna Park Primary School, a school which has devoted the last twenty-three years to addressing how its children will meet the future with optimism. By the same token, Wooranna Park, like all schools is not absolved from the challenge of making education meaningful for every student, a fact I quickly woke up to during my first workshop as I foolishly allowed students to sit at seats in a computer lab.
It was amazing to watch the 10 and 11-year-olds use the computer screens to hide behind and the keyboards to play with as I heroically attempted to discuss with them ‘the search for truth’. Don’t think for a moment that the irony was lost on me. I can also hear the experienced teachers ‘tut-tutting’ and shaking their heads at my logistic mistake of placing children in a situation which no human could resist.
Such learning brings me to Amanda Woodard’s final point in CPA Australia’s article on how we cannot take for granted that the spaces in which we work will induce what Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’. We have to create such places if we are to achieve deep learning. Similarly, we have to practice the discomfort and slowness of concentrated thinking. The implications for me as a curriculum developer are palpable as I will see only too clearly when I try to engage 56 upper primary students in viewing themselves as young philosophers.