Multi-tasking. As a word, we either love it or hate it.
In response to a blog post on Jeremy Harmer’s blog, back in November, I wrote a long response, which I revisited yesterday. Having waded through my own words (dismayingly opaque, but too quickly written – always a good excuse) I decided to add blog to the top of my To Do list – a list which theoretically keeps me from multi-tasking too much and maintains my focus (haha, does it ‘eck).
Essentially Jeremy’s post (and some of the comments) suggests that we can’t multitask efficiently, and that maybe this has implications for the classroom. He had written his post after finding himself “listening to Shaun Wilden talking at the IHWO online conference at the same time as … trying to create a handwritten sample for a new book…. The news was on too, and (he) was also tweeting about the conference and other things. (He) was MULTI-TASKING! … The thing is, (he) wasn’t doing any of it very well or very efficiently…”
The question Jeremy then posed, quoting Rodney Batstone was: “do tasks which require simultaneous processing of form and meaning ‘overload the learners’ system, leading to less intake rather than more’? (‘Key concepts’ section of ELT Journal 50/3, 1996)” and he went on to wonder “Perhaps if … language learning is focused, uni-directional and uncluttered, then it will be more successful. Perhaps by restricting the input we would give (kids) a better start, a better chance – and perhaps many of the more exciting and excitable activities that we all love so much may actually get in the way. … MAYBE …..maybe we should simplify things down? Back to substitution dialogues? Restrict rather than amplify? Get kids on-task, one task at a time. Only one.”
Cut to the chase.
Having read Jeremy’s post, my initial reaction screamed at me “Too simplified!”, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. It took an hour or so of cooking while washing dishes, answering sons’ questions, listening to a running commentary on a basketball match (also from sons), and humming along to the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack all at the same time to provide me with some perspective on the matter. Some perspective and three key issues: automaticity, control, and similarity of tasks (ie that require a similar type of processing).
By this, I mean familiarity with a task.
When you learn something new, like reversing a car, playing a musical instument, salsa dancing, or (in my case) spinning (trying to listen to instructions, copy what others are doing, work out how the bike works and do everything in time to music), none of the tasks involved are familiar, so the intense feeling of pressure and the chances of making a mess of things are high. But with time and practice, it all becomes automatic and – well, like riding a bike (a perfect case of multi-tasking).
An example of seemingly impossible multi-tasking activities becoming doable is simultaneous translation. Interpreting. At first, it is nigh-on impossible to do, but with training and practice, it’s a doddle. Almost. It is, of course, tiring, and one thing you can’t do while interpreting is think your own thoughts, but the rest becomes automatic. When I studied interpreting, British sports presenter Desmond Lynam was the example we were given of someone who could efficiently concentrate on four or five things (auto-cue, earphone, in-coming results on the teleprinter, self,..) at a time and still be ‘in control’.
The bottom line is we can’t do several new things at the same time efficiently, as none of them are ‘automatic’ yet and all need ‘full’ focus and processing. You can listen to the news while making an omelette, can’t you? And maybe even tweet as you beat. But if you listen to the news and a conference talk at the same time, both imply newness, new and totally unrelated information; concentrating on both at the same time is virtually impossible and would require that intense, stress/mess-inducing effort.
Focusing on form and meaning in language, on the other hand, is something we do at least since birth, and probably before as far as suprasegmental pron features are concerned. It’s second nature, particularly for children, who are closer to that Total Learning stage, or where the alphabet used is familiar. (Adult or post-writing learners from a culture with a different writing system will need to separate form at some stage.) Also, in language learning, newness of form and meaning can be interrelated, you can use the one to support the other via mnemonics or similar. In some languages, separating form and meaning is a meaningless task anyway; where much of the grammar is carried by morphemes, you have to process form and meaning simultaneously.
Ultimately, for children to have meaning and form separated, or to meet form and meaning independently of any other activity is to underload, not the opposite. Learning language while busy with something else is just part of life, whether discovering the world around them (eg we all learn the term primary colours while learning what they are and how we can mix them – imagine teaching a child the ‘sound shape’ first, drilling it, THEN letting them discover what it means?) or later, through video games, superhero names, buzzwords, or, say, experiments like Sugata Mitra’s (imagine how that would’ve gone if he’d attempted to focus on language forms, then meaning, then let the kids loose with the computers). Adults might feel they need the language first (though I’ve only ever once had a student state that she ‘needed all the words‘ before she could speak) but that is related to self-esteem, image of inner selves issues etc, not because of any other type of limitation. When learning a language, at least through choice, first comes the desire to speak, surely, then the words fall in naturally. With children (tho not teens) first comes the desire to speak whether learning a language or not. Communicating experience. Making sense of the world.
(This is why I struggle with pre-teaching vocab, sometimes – it’s disembodied blah until the students have encountered the context. It seems to assume they can’t focus on forms while focusing on meaning, that they need to go from the little picture to the big, not vice versa. But that’s a different thread. Back to multi-tasking.)
I can ponder blog posts, rehearse talks, sing, listen to the radio or hold entire conversations in my head while driving, but it’s statistically proven that we’re not good at arguing behind the wheel. When I’m holding my internal conversations, I can tell myself to shut up when I need to increase concentration in heavy traffic, bad weather conditions etc. but in an argument, you have no control over the other speaker and it takes sang froid to be able to suddenly blank it all out and just drive. When listening to a conference speaker and a newsreader, you can’t ask either of them to be quiet a mo so you can focus fully on the other. Control over information intake and processing affects our capacity for multi-tasking. The Woah, sssh, lemme think a minute factor. Think of those activities which require students to listen to a CD and do something else at the same time; they can get lost in the comprehension activity, and consequently lost re the (non-stopping) recording – it’s worth thinking hard about the execution of listening tasks and how much control students would need to multi-task efficiently.
In processing language, if given enough ‘time-space’, we can focus on the aspect (form or meaning) we feel we need to focus on, we can note the form first then the meaning or vice versa; it’s in our own mind, so we control the focus. I guess what happens isn’t strictly multi-tasking, as we probably do shift focus, but those shifts may take micro-seconds, and from the teacher’s point of view – and the learner’s – it’s as good as doing the two things simultaneously. But we do need that ‘time-space’, to be allowed to process at our own pace, to find our own meaning from context. To attach our own ‘story’ to the piece of language so that it finds its own retrievable place in our mind. Of course, if you’re in a class and your teacher is determined to get to the end of his/her plan by the end of the lesson and rushes you…. Well, that’s another story. That’s not teaching, that’s following a plan with blinkers on. So control is another key factor and interrelated to the time available to achieve the tasks in hand. And both are vital to carrying out multi-processing tasks in the language classroom. The arguments for why this multi-processing needn’t be in isolation from other activities are the same as above. We can process while playing a game or learning our part for a play or… any number of things.
Similarity of task
Obviously, although I can think about blog posts while I drive/cook, I can’t write them down. Both tasks require the use of both hands. You can sing in the shower, but can you clean the bathroom window while you soap yourself? It’s like that trick of patting your head while rotating your other hand over your paunch / abs. And see if your average teen can watch TV, do homework and listen to a parent all at the same time (efficiently or not….). Of course they can’t.
Ever sent an email/text message to the wrong person because you were thinking about them while writing to someone else? If we multi-task, trying to use the same part of the brain for each task isn’t going to work, whether it’s the part that operates our hands, the part that we use to process aural input, the one that thinks of people’s names, the one for oral output or visual input,… can we react to two completely different danger signals at once? No, we tend to prioritise. I once cracked my spine trying not to smash a pile of plates belonging to my ex-mother-in-law….
Listening to and processing the news and a talk obviously both use the same parts of the brain, they’re both about making sense of aural input. Focusing on form and meaning at the same time is a different case: the processing may seem similar, but form is (obviously) ‘shape’ either sound or sight, whilst meaning is conceptual, they’re stored in different places in your brain (recall slips and stroke sufferers’ language recall difficulties show this), though if your teacher decided to teach you a word in Japanese and a totally different word in Thai at the same time, you’d probably not be at your most efficient when trying to learn them. Too much going on.
Some of those listening activities that involve filling in text boxes while you listen to a recording are examples of potentially inefficient multi-tasking activities for language learners, as students have to process meaning, and focus on both ‘shape’ forms at the same time. The argument is that they replicate taking notes in, say, a university class – but I studied in two ‘foreign’ countries, and took notes phonetically when words were unfamiliar, as I could process them or look them up later. Not the case in your average language learning class – and misspelt words are not acceptable…. However, if you take the time to think about what you expect your kids (or adults) to do, no problems. Songs with familiar gestures and TPR with younger kids, using images, picture dictations, drama, projects especially designing something or reading then going from information input to output (eg in CLIL classes), writing journals (I hate all this ‘follow a template’ writing stuff that abounds in coursebooks, nowadays, where students are required to memorise some fixed text structure as well as the language, so the check list in the wretched exam is far too long – as an ‘as well as’, maybe, and for older teens, but not an instead of), blogs, unplugged classes, no complex use of faffy games etc.
So. Much longer response than the original post! I reckon we all multi-task sometimes, and efficiency has to do with the tasks and what they require of us as individuals; paring your classes down to substitution drills and the likes is not efficiency – it’s not THAT simple.