Kerry Hart: Reading, writing and multitasking
October 14, 2007
Educators continually sing the praise of this new millennial generation for their technological and multitasking skills. Go to an education conference of any type at any level, and there will certainly be sessions on how to understand and keep up with this new generation. Veteran teachers learn new pedagogical and technological methods to capture attention, teach in short bursts and move quickly to new and varied activities because students think faster and grasp information much more readily than their parents’ generation.
The traditional lecture is out, group activities are in and information-gathering skills have supplanted memorization. In fact, a number of teachers eliminate exams and replace the traditional demonstration of knowledge-acquisition with a demonstration of information-gathering skills on the Internet. This break from traditional education is not necessarily bad. It’s just different, and a valuable skill for some things. But we need to be cautious that we don’t supplant important time-tested learning theories with what may be perceived as an enhanced brain function in the younger generation.
Students can text-message a friend while participating in a conversation as they’re watching television and performing other tasks, all at the same time. But it’s a different story if you ask these same students to write an essay while doing another task. Teachers have told me that when it comes to the basics of reading and writing, students cannot excel unless they can focus on the single task at hand – a skill that is increasingly being lost in this high-tech era.
If students approach literature the same way as they approach the Internet, they will skim through the words of Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, and Tennyson for the factual information. They will lose the meaning of a story or a poem. Reading can’t be reduced to data and figures. Literature, like the performing and visual arts, is a process – a sensual process in which the experience of reading, contemplating the symbolism and getting beyond the literal interpretation of the story is really the whole point. It is an experience in developing insights into the human condition – something that can’t be acquired from the Internet while watching television and text-messaging at the same time.
Research supports findings that the brain needs a relatively long period of time to perceive and understand. Multitasking and the ability to gather information in record time are great skills in certain circumstances. But enabling students to focus on a single task in order to develop perceptions and understanding is a long-standing and time-tested methodology that can’t be supplanted by technology. In the final analysis, there is no substitute for the value of developing contemplative thought with a single focus when it comes to reading and writing.
Kerry Hart is dean of the Colorado Mountain College Alpine Campus in Steamboat Springs. His education commentaries appear in the Steamboat Today.