Poyntz (1933) empirically confirmed toys and the Victrola as “potent distractors”
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Distractions have long been understood to impede achievement, and memory formation (Bailey, 1889; Denio, 1897). Long before smart phones, Poyntz (1933) empirically confirmed toys and the Victrola as “potent distractors” affecting timed responses but noted positive effects on “the fertility of the children’s ideas”.
The term “multitasking” emerged in the late 1980s describing a technological innovation allowing computers to accomplish many functions simultaneously. By the turn of the century, the term was increasingly used to describe human attention to more than one task at a time, often touted as a desirable or essential skill (Chiavenato, 2001; Frand, 2000; Gray, 2000; “Multi-tasking with your baby,” 2001).
Today, however, there is ample evidence that multitasking more than one cognitively engaging activity negatively affects performance in all concurrent pursuits (Bowers et al., 2000; Firat, 2013a, 2013b; Grinols & Rajesh, 2014; Judd, 2014; Junco & Cotten, 2012; Lin, Lee, & Robertson, 2011).
Research suggests that a primary motivator for multitasking is social engagement, or “being” with others (Firat, 2013a, 2013b; Hjorth & Lim, 2012). The epistemology of social constructivism sees knowledge creation as a social activity (Fagan, 2010) with modern communication technology enabling creation of learning communities (Couros, 2009; del Moral, Cernea, & Villalustre, 2013; Kop & Hill, 2014) and means of engagement that are transforming our understanding of humans and human intelligence (Beloff, 2010; Benditt, 1999; Pea, 1993).
It seems unlikely that multitasking behaviours and distractibility will ever be eliminated so it is necessary to find ways of mitigating the negative effects, and possibly find positive applications for rapid task switching and continuous partial attention. Social constructivism and inquiry may offer a milieu in which multitasking behaviours are an asset rather than a liability. I am very interested in determining if multitasking behaviour can be harnessed or directed to serve learning goals within a social constructivist setting.
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Poyntz, L. (1933). The Efficacy of Visual and Auditory Distractions for Preschool Children. Child Development, 4(5), 55. doi:10.2307/1125838