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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

February 07, 2012

Cognitive overload: Is the 'myth of multitasking' itself a myth?

Every child knows that when The Cat in the Hat bounces up and down on a ball while balancing a cake on a cup on his arm, with a fish in a bowl on his head, all while fanning himself with his tail and he says, "But I can do more!" he is going to fail spectacularly. Yes, even very young children can sense that as we increase the complexity of a task the more likely we are to drop the ball.

You know, like those one-man-bands that scour city squares in Europe busking for change, playing five instruments at once. Sure, he might be able to manage musically banal tunes like "When The Saints Go Marching In". But we know he's not going to be up to the task of playing Zappa's 'Inca Roads', finessing his way through microtones in 7/4 time.

Or when my wife calls me at work while I'm analyzing some particularly dense bit of statistical research and wants to talk about details of re-financing the mortgage I'm going to have to put one of those topics aside (and rest assured my wife will not lose this contest).

So yes, we all know that multi-tasking can be limiting. There's nothing particularly surprising about this. In fact I would say that we all understand this instinctively.

"Multi-tasking degrades each task"

This topic arises as a result of my attending Dr. Jeremy Harmer's plenary speech, 'The Myth of Multi-tasking and the Force of Focus" at the Thai TESOL Conference in Bangkok at the end of January 2012. Dr. Harmer appears to endorse, or at least considers very worthy of the attention of EFL/ESL teachers, the notion put forth by author Sherry Turkle (see the video link on Dr. Harmer's website) that when we multi-task we 'degrade' (her word, not mine) each task.

Dr. Harmer (who, by the way, is the author of the highly recommendable Teacher Training textbook, "English Language Teaching") thinks that this notion may be applicable to ESL/EFL teaching as well. He argues that having students multi-task may reduce the quality of their work and that a more pronounced focus on discrete content or specific skill might be better.

I beg to differ for three reasons that will eventually become apparent.

When does task-shifting become multi-tasking?

Multi-tasking, it is argued, is distinct from 'task-shifting' in which we move laterally from task to task as opposed to layering them. I have a semantic problem with this distinction though. Think of the chef who is managing several pots, pans, plates, ingredients, and heating devices at the same time so that the individual parts of the meal will be ready at the same time, or if it is a several-course meal, appear at proper intervals and in the correct order.

Using standard nomenclature most would say that the chef is multi-tasking, because within a short time frame she has to manage several distinct tasks yet all are geared to one final goal or product. But whether we choose to categorize this action as multi-tasking or task-shifting does not negate the fact that any experienced cook can carry this complexity out as a matter of course, indeed it is a necessity on the job.

When we ride a bicycle we are pedaling, a motion distinct from steering which of course we do simultaneously, and yet we are also watching out for traffic and road conditions and adjusting our movements accordingly. Surely this is also multi-tasking yet something that almost anyone can do (and probably while listening to Zappa's Inca Roads on an iPod too). This too is intuitive and, in a sense, unremarkable.

Clearly, multi-tasking is not a can/can't proposition. We can on some occasions multi-task with no ill effect. So what is going on in such cases? Why can we multi-task some things and not others? Perhaps the question should not be whether we can or can't multi-task successfully but rather why in some cases multi-tasking reduces the effectiveness of each task while in other cases this is not an issue.

Developing 'muscle memory'

Obviously the development of 'muscle memory' through practicing a complex action has to be factored in. Riding a bike is a matter of developing muscle memory, as are in fact all motor skills of complexity. Mastering more complex multi-tasks demands practicing them. Richard Thompson is one of the most sublimely skilled guitarists on the planet and yet while he plays complex and dynamic cadences he sings with tremendous power and emotion. This is not only a result of world-class talent but also of having practiced and experienced multi-tasking to the point where it becomes second nature.

And thus comes my first objection-- separating form and meaning in the EFL classroom to lessen the chances of overload will hinder a learner's ability to develop this linguistic muscle memory. Any separation of skills unnaturally divorces discrete language skills from meaning-making. This is precisely why many of our students can do well on a (receptive) multiple-choice, discrete-item English test but can't actively communicate. By dividing up the skills no path for muscle memory to occur can emerge.

When multi-tasking actually enhances skills

In some cases multi-tasking can actually enhance performance. Let me give you an example. Hockey (you knew that was coming didn't you!). Hockey involves ice skating, while manipulating a puck, while also avoiding being plastered by burly toothless men (an out-of-date caricature but what the hell), while attempting to make a strategic play resulting in a goal. Surely this is multi-tasking. But did you know that the discrete skill of skating is actually enhanced when you have to control a puck and avoid being checked? It's true. When you are less conscious of your feet but are focusing on the bigger, wider goal (the competition) you start to perform skating subtleties precisely because you are not so conscious of it.

So, here's a hypothesis: We can't multi-task effectively when the tasks are not complementary and have differing goals or purposes (i.e., the 'interpreting linguistic research stats vs. discussing the re-financing the mortgage' scenario). But we can multi-task, with practice, when we know that each discrete task is part of a larger unit, that they are complementary. And these discrete skills can in fact be enhanced when they are working towards a common goal.

The purpose of communication governs our grammatical choices

Communicative language tasks are such. They demand a combination of discrete skills such as knowledge of grammar/syntax structure/form, semantics, pragmatics, social skills and the ability to cognitively grasp meaningful content. But because these skills are complementary and work towards a united purpose they should not be taught in an itemized way, practiced step by step, as discrete tasks.

In fact, many of these discrete features might be enhanced by focusing on communicative goals first (those of you who speak Japanese well will probably have noticed how the 'difficult' parts of that language- such as the subtle distinction between 'wa' and 'ga'- fit in more easily when the wider communicative purpose is clear). I have noted how my medical students seem to grasp the perfective 'have' better after they have actively engaged it within extended medical contexts. After all, it is the purpose/goal of communication that governs our grammatical and lexical choices.

I wouldn't want to dissuade teachers...

This is not, of course, to say that no explicit focus upon discrete items should occur in the classroom. There is always a place for highlighting, consciousness-raising, and 'noticing' of form within a lesson but until it is subsumed by meaning it will always fall under the category of 'itemized knowledge about a language' as opposed to 'communicating in' a language.

Nor does it imply that sudden, jarring shifts in classroom tasks or trying to combine multiple learning targets in one fell swoop, both of which are hallmarks of inexperienced teachers, does not bear forewarning and caution. But I wouldn't want to dissuade teachers from at least trying to develop cognitively demanding lessons that enhance dealing with language complexity.

'Analyzes paralyzes'

In fact, not being entirely conscious of a discrete skill can help you succeed in more complex endeavors. Look at a golf swing, often referred to as 'the most analyzed move in sports'. Even non-golfers are probably aware that the swing is full of arcane instructions of the "the fingernail on the left ring finger must be pointed down at a 45 degree angle on the follow through" sort. But undue focus on such points when trying to make actual ball contact is likely to result in you spraying the ball about 10 metres at near right angles to your body-- not because the instruction is flawed, but because of the truth of the old adage that "analyzes paralyzes".

And here's where we (in Japan in particular) can easily draw parallels with our students. Having had a lengthy focus upon discrete items and forms in their learning experiences thus far, our students often stumble when having to put form and meaning together into productive goal of communication. They over-analyze, too focused upon form over meaning.

Content-based learning: "What about cognitive overload?"

This also provides, a believe, a suitable response to a question put forward to me at a recent presentation I did in Yokohama in which I was advocating content-based learning. The question was "What about cognitive overload?". After all, the student has to focus upon content as well as form under such instruction. Well, my answer is the same-- that when the goal is meaningful communication, form and content can work in harmony, that they can, and do, complement one another. Learners absorb form by focusing upon interpreting and producing meaningful content precisely because the form can be 'located' in meaningful discourse.

"But learning English will interfere with the mother tongue!"

I certainly wouldn't want advocates of the old school interpreting Dr. Harmer's suggestion as meaning that we should be focusing upon one form at a time until each is mastered and not be concerned with the bigger picture of meaning until then (which will take a lifetime for most second-language learners). But I fear that it could easily be taken that way.

And what about those who argue (wrongly, according to just about every piece of research done on the topic) that if Japanese youngsters start to learn English it will affect their ability to master their mother tongue? That Japanese must be fully mastered first or else it will lead to linguistic confusion? Criticism of multi-tasking seems to (inadvertently) play into the hands of such people. But we can do many things at once without degrading each. It's just a matter of knowing which tasks are complementary and compatible, and which aren't.



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