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The Price of Multitasking in the Classroom

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Business vector designed by Freepik According to TeachThought, the average teacher makes 1,500 educational decisions per school day. That’s four decisions a minute! No wonder teachers work harder than just about any other professional. Teachers are the ultimate multitaskers. They’re not only responsible for student learning; they also act as a surrogate parent, discipliner, assessment expert, mentor, administrator, and occasional court jester. Probably all before lunch. Of course, teachers aren’t the only multitaskers. A typical teenager often listens to music while surfing online and texting a friend—all while doing homework. Younger kids also model this behavior. If you’re like other multitaskers, you brag about getting so much done. But all that multitasking comes at a price.

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According to TeachThought, the average teacher makes 1,500 educational decisions per school day. That’s four decisions a minute!

No wonder teachers work harder than just about any other professional.

Teachers are the ultimate multitaskers. They’re not only responsible for student learning; they also act as a surrogate parent, discipliner, assessment expert, mentor, administrator, and occasional court jester. Probably all before lunch.

Of course, teachers aren’t the only multitaskers.

A typical teenager often listens to music while surfing online and texting a friend—all while doing homework. Younger kids also model this behavior.

If you’re like other multitaskers, you brag about getting so much done.

But all that multitasking comes at a price.

Your Brain on Multitasking

According to psychologists and neuroscientists, the brain changes focus in two ways: goal shifting and rule activation. Essentially, the brain stops one task and starts another while turning off the old-task rules and focusing on new-task rules.

But when people tell their brain to perform two tasks simultaneously, the whole process slows down.

In a 2001 University of Michigan study, four young adults were asked to switch between a variety of tasks (some simple, some more complex), which yielded measurable switching-time costs. In other words, even a few seconds of brain delay added up to lower overall productivity.

At its worst, that lost time spells disaster in certain situations (e.g., texting while driving or doing several tasks at once in an air traffic control tower).

Even in less critical circumstances, those smaller delays add up: multitaskers can lose up to 40 percent in productivity during their most productive period of the day.

In short, multitaskers take longer on their combined tasks than those who focus on one task at a time.

A Better Plan

So, what does all this mean for a busy teacher?

Without a magic wand in hand, most busy teachers will feel compelled to multitask. That said, teachers can be more efficient—and less trapped in multitasking—by following these tips:

  1. Lower expectations. Look at your daily class plan. Have you included time for breaks, meals, and re-teaching? Be realistic. Meanwhile, delegate when possible. Say “no” to outside projects.
  2. Shut out distractions. Teachers may see this as a ridiculous notion, but even something as simple as muting the computer can promote better focus. Mute your phone as well, use natural lighting when possible (fluorescent light can be distracting and tiring), and focus on one task at a time.
  3. Keep a small notebook nearby. When you’re tempted to multitask, write the other task down, along with a later time when you can better attend to said task.
  4. Allow more time for complex tasks. For example, if you’re teaching a new math concept in your 40-minute period, devote at least half of that time to teaching, demonstrating, giving examples, and asking questions. The rest of the time is for checking student comprehension.
  5. Ask more process questions. By asking students to explain their reasoning about how they found an answer, you can find out ahead of time if they really understood the lesson.
  6. Ask students where they struggled. By asking class members what they found difficult now, you can plan a more focused lesson for tomorrow (with less multitasking).
  7. Structure a better blended learning model. If your students know exactly when (and for how long) they will rotate to computer stations for extra reading practice, your classroom environment will feel calm instead of frazzled. Here are a few extra ideas for success.
  8. Consider mindfulness techniques. Meditation studies suggest that even a few minutes of focused, deep breathing (eyes closed) can help both teachers and students feel more calm and alert afterward. Try it first; if you like the result, use it in the classroom.
  9. Drink enough water. If you rarely even have time to use the restroom, you’re not only shorting yourself a few minutes of quiet(er) time, you’re also neglecting your brain and body health. Set a timer if you need a reminder. Adequate hydration also helps you think more clearly and have more energy.
  10. Don’t try to be superhuman. Just remember, multitasking slows productivity in the end. Allow yourself to be human and set human limits.
Begin small by trying just one suggestion from this list. Better yet, decide what you can cut from your current task list, both inside and outside the classroom. You’ll feel more productive, and life will be just that much less hectic.

 

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