My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a pyschology professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Why Don’t Students Like School?"
By Daniel Willingham
How often have you heard someone say “kids today learn differently—they multitask constantly.” The implication often drawn is that kids "need" to multitask in order to be engaged, or perhaps we should even say that that’s how they think best.
The data suggest otherwise.
It is true that kids today multitask a lot, usually with media. That is, they have music or videos on while they do other things.
It’s also true that kids are better at multitasking than older people. That advantage is supported by better working memory, and young people have better raw processing speed on those sorts of functions.
So it’s not likely that young people are better at multitasking than old people because they have practiced it a lot. It’s likely that young people have always been better at multi-tasking than older people.
If doing a lot of multitasking made you better at it, we should see differences in multitasking ability among kids who do a lot and kids who do very little. But those differences are not observed.
In fact, college kids who report being chronic multitaskers are actually somewhat "worse" than their peers at some basic components of cognitive control (like switching attention).
There is not good evidence that students today “must” multitask. But there is good evidence that multi-tasking is seldom a good idea, if you really care about the task you’re working on.
Doing two things at once usually is detrimental. No big surprise there.
Somewhat more surprising is that even just having the television on as background noise produces negative effects.
The impact of background music on cognitive tasks is more complex: Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it doesn’t. Whether the differences are due to the type of music, type of task, type of person, or a combination of factors is still unknown.
Kids today may "want" to multitask because they are used to doing it. But that doesn’t mean they should.
I’ve produced a video to spread the word. See above, or click here: