Multi-tasking works, until it doesn’t (or, those darn cell phones, again.)

Tonight, I made mushroom bacon cheeseburgers for dinner. While I was doing that, I was listening to CBC. Then I decided to bake an angel food cake for the loads of fresh strawberries and whipping cream in the fridge. I stirred onions, put cheese on the burgers, argued with the person on the radio, set the table, asked my daughter to unload the dishwasher, called my sister, roasted french fries, got the cake ready for the oven. I managed all of it – dinner was tasty, and dessert awaits. Multitasking works!

Except when it doesn’t.

One thing I can never, never do while doing anything else is roasting nuts. There is one specific minute when the nuts must be removed. There is no room for error. I have to remind myself to hold off of the 15 other tasks I may be wanting to do. I have to fight to maintain focus, lest I start measuring out ingredients for the granola I am getting ready to make. All it takes is one small slip, and voila! I am throwing out a batch of blackened almonds.

I was talking to students about cell phones this last week, and the issue of multitasking came up. Students believe they can do anything, while also listening to music, answering texts and chatting with each other. And, they are right. Unfortunately, they will be less efficient, but for the most part they can get away with the distraction. (The angel food cake was slightly overdone, it must be admitted.) Multitasking works, in that sense of the phrase.

Until it doesn’t. It doesn’t work in the middle of a conversation about a complex concept, or in the middle of a reading about something they have never studied or discussed before, or in the middle of a group discussion, or in the middle of a documentary.

Cell phones can be useful for students and teachers in schools. Until they aren’t. It is a complex picture, for which, of course, there is no single response.

Group One: Half the students do not have a device. I have given a few gentle reminders not to text during a class discussion or other important moments, but have never had to make an issue of it because they haven’t. The other day I nodded questioningly toward a student who appeared to be using his device during silent reading. He told me he was downloading an audio book. I had hooked him on The Hunger Games in audio on my iPod. He had gone home and gotten himself set up to download audio books on his own device. Here was this non-reader, with Catching Fire in hard cover in one fist, and another book downloading onto his iPod in the other. It was good.

Group Two: Many of these students are welded to the cell phones and iPods. They won’t leave them alone. When they sit down in class, they put them on the table, and send and receive texts at will, despite ongoing discussion around appropriate use. They can’t live with out a direct feed of music, at all times. They have a right to these cell phones, and no one is going to have anything to say about it. I start collecting them at the door. They are not happy, but that’s how it is.

Group Three: I was down the hallway chatting with one of my students on the way to our class. She lets me know her mom is trying to get a hold of her, and during class, if I hear a beep, it could be her mother. I tell her that is no problem, and I trust her decisions in this regard. She has always been responsible. It’s spotty in this class – they started out very distracted by the devices and I had to collect them, but then they earned them back. For the most part, most of them do okay with the devices now. I have one tough nut to crack.

Yes, I know that “teaching will always be better than banning”, but sometimes you have no choice. Yes, I know that there are some great ways to integrate the use of personal devices in classroom activities.

Cell phones have their uses for students, parents, and teachers.

The rest of the time… well, they just need to get put away. Otherwise, like those burnt almonds, valuable educational time will be thrown out.

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