I wonder if you’ve felt in recent years that life is constantly overwhelming — that there’s so much more to deal with than you have time for, and that you are always in ‘catch-up’ mode?
Welcome to my world. In fact, welcome to our world: an increasingly-digital world of multiple demands and stimulations, full of so many challenging, exciting and diverse opportunities that it becomes difficult to decide what to do. Perhaps we feel a little like the proverbial children in a sweetshop, but faced with much more complex situations. And as educators, we are tasked with the additional responsibility of helping the next generation to navigate this world.
Does it make your head whirl? Do you sometimes find yourself so busy being connected and available, that you fall into the trap of thinking of ubiquity as:
‘everywhere, all the time’
‘anywhere, any time’?
Does the mental fog sometimes descend and paralyse you temporarily? Do you feel the slight panic and fear of missing out, if you don’t feel up-to-date or on top of everything? I know that I do!
Recently I found myself discussing this very issue with members of my book discussion group. Among our number are several educators, businesswomen, and psychologists, so the conversation ran deep and drew on wide bases of knowledge and experience. This powerful social context for learning led us to discovery of a taonga – which, if you did not already know of it, I now pass on to you.
So, say “Hello” to Dr Daniel Levitin — renowned behavioural neuroscientist and author from the Psychology Department of James McGill University. His response to the challenges of our information-bombarding age is refreshing, informative, useful, and makes absolute sense.
Levitin (2014) confirms that we are, indeed, exposed to massive increases in daily data compared to previous times. For example, we are now coping with more than five times the volume of daily information than was the case in 1986. His study of the body of neuroscientific research leads him to three key ideas about:
- Attention and the myth of multitasking
- The use of ‘brain extenders’
- Decision making.
Our brains work extra hard these days…
It turns out that multitasking doesn’t actually exist – really it’s extremely rapid sequential tasking. Our brains switch so quickly between attentional focuses that it appears seamless and we don’t notice. BUT – this fractional attention can release the stress hormone, cortisol, leading to that familiar unwanted sensation of mental fog and time wasting.
There are times when we are fully immersed, focused and engaged in a task (task-positive attentional mode) and others when our minds flow creatively and wander, mixing thoughts and almost subconsciously mulling ideas over, in a non-hierarchical way (task-negative attentional mode). We often call this ‘daydreaming’. Both modes are necessary and we need to go backwards and forwards between them.
So that’s all well and good. Except that our glucose stores (which neurons need to function) are depleted by every change. And it has also been found that making decisions, however, large or small (which shoes to wear, which email to answer first, which task to address next, which staff member to promote…) also drains this mental energy source. The good news is that the stores can be replenished by entering the task-negative (daydreaming) mode.
Twenty-first century technologies and demands involve much more attention switching and decision-making than in the past. Social networking (both face-to-face and digital) brings us enormous benefits — but we also need to be aware of the mental energy costs. Too much attention mode switching or decision making leads to reduced productivity. New anxieties such as FOMO (fear of missing out) have added to this pressure. Levitin suggests that we can learn to manage these more effectively by:
- Taking breaks — and even short naps
- Using ‘brain extenders’ (such as Google tools and establishing habits) to reduce the memory load energy drain
- Actively establishing non-interrupted periods of focused, fully-immersed task work at times that work best for us
- Allowing the build-up of glucose levels by taking restorative breaks (holidays, brief walks, enjoying natural environments, reading good literature)
- Putting guilt aside
These are the common, recommended strategies used by the many successful CEOs, artists, musicians, scientists, Nobel Prize winners, military leaders, and government leaders, Levitin interviewed in his book. They are not new, but now we understand much more from neuroscience about why they work.
You might like to take a look in more detail at this video of his Google talk. Or read his book.
So, what has all this got to do with New Zealand schools and education centres?
It’s not just adults who are inundated daily with a flood of information and choices. Our children need to be equipped with the tools to understand and deal with them. It’s part of learning to learn how to swim, not sink.
So as we transform our pedagogical practices and environments, we can help our young people by:
- Providing learning environments and opportunities conducive to replenishment of mental energy levels – allowing some daydreaming!
- Creating learning and assessment systems that do not over-demand or create stress
- Teaching them about the impact of frequently switching attention
- Reducing interruptions at times when learners have purposefully entered periods of focused learning
- Avoiding frenetic pace and overstimulation of senses
- Encouraging them to self-regulate against distraction of attention
- Helping them to learn how to filter and sort the mass of information that will come their way – building their information literacy skills
- Showing them how to use learning tools as ‘best fit for the job’
- Asking them to reflect on their own attention patterns and to consider ways to reduce attention-switching and volumes of trivial decision-making
- Reviewing what is happening for our learners; discussing how the environment, structures and systems we design might be altered so they have the best chance of managing themselves
- Leading the way by modelling and talking with them about any relevant changes in our own habits we make and how that has helped us to cope.
All of these things are possible with thoughtfully-designed environments and learning opportunities. How might that look in your place of learning? What active choices and coping mechanisms might come into play for your learners to support their own learning?
My book-group friends and I had all recognised the pressure we felt under. We knew that we had to somehow come up with ways of coping with the information onslaught. The cognitive neuroscientific work that Levitin explained and built on has been extremely helpful. Now we find that even just being more aware of attention patterns, and reducing our attention switches, is starting to work for us.
Not jumping instantly to the demanding ‘ding!’ of an incoming text as I wrote this blog post, and going for a quick walk in the garden when I felt bogged down, are tiny signs of my own growing ability to ‘think straight in this world of information overload’. It makes me feel calmer and much more productive. Levitin has given me permission to take heed of our natural instinct to ‘make haste slowly’ (and mindfully). Our children deserve no less.
Levitin, D.J. (2014) The Organized Mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. Dutton, Penguin: New York.
Levitin, D.J. (2015) The Organized Mind: How to better structure our time in the age of social media and constant distraction. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) blog, January 23rd 2015.