Thursday, 22 May 2008

Is multitasking a myth?

I recently read an article in The Australian by Ruth Ostrow about the need to slow down, that we are leading busier lives and need to "flick the off button."

She quotes research by Hewlett-Packard that shows that IQ falls by 10 points when people multitask or get distracted by electronic communications, which is the "equivalent to smoking a joint or not sleeping for 35 hours."

Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Sharar, who was in Australia for a Happiness and its Causes conference in Sydney believes most people suffer from what he calls TBD (Too Busy Disorder). Rostrow's article goes on to say that Ben-Sharar described a controlled experiment that showed the majority of participants felt "overwhelmed" by the things they needed to do, half of them to the point of feeling depressed.

"People today are chronically busy and then they front up to therapists, asking: 'why am I not happy? I have a wonderful family, great work, friends? they are suffering TBD."

In another reference Ostrow refers to Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz's book The Power of Full Engagement, which discusses being completely present as the way towards productivity. They suggest 'working in focused spurts ... as opposed to doing marathons that exhaust us. ... we take pride in our ability to multitask and wear our ability to put in long hours as a badge of honour. As a result, we never have full attention or peak energy.'

Is multitasking is a myth

As often happens when you begin thinking about a topic such as multitasking a serendipitous connection occurs. In my case it was coming across a blog about multitasking by John Medina.

Here's what he says in his opening paragraph:

Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. At first that might sound confusing; at one level the brain does multitask. You can walk and talk at the same time. Your brain controls your heartbeat while you read a book. Pianists can play a piece with left hand and right hand simultaneously. Surely this is multitasking. But I am talking about the brain’s ability to pay attention. It is the resource you forcibly deploy while trying to listen to a boring lecture at school. It is the activity that collapses as your brain wanders during a tedious presentation at work. This attentional ability is not capable of multitasking.

Students often claim that they can do more than one thing at a time but the evidence that the brain focuses sequentially one concept at a time should give us reason to think about the overstimulation that kids experience.

But more of this later, after I've had time to let the ideas wash around my brain and then, to paraphrase E.M Forster, write another blog post to find out what I think.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Thinking of the big idea

Photo by Millicent Bystander

There is a fascinating article in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell about big ideas and the importance of someone looking at a familiar fact with a fresh perspective. It's about thinking. The following extract from the article is about Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures, LLC--the idea that cancer can be detected long before a tumor is formed. Myhrvold, one of Microsoft's pioneers, brings intellectuals from different disciplines together to brainstorm new ideas--in this case physicist Lowell Wood meets with a group of doctors:

Last March, Myhrvold decided to do an invention session with Eric Leuthardt and several other physicians in St. Louis. Rod Hyde came, along with a scientist from M.I.T. named Ed Boyden. Wood was there as well.
“Lowell came in looking like the Cheshire Cat,” Myhrvold recalled. “He said, ‘I have a question for everyone. You have a tumor, and the tumor becomes metastatic, and it sheds metastatic cancer cells. How long do those circulate in the bloodstream before they land?’ And we all said, ‘We don’t know. Ten times?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘As many as a million times.’ Isn’t that amazing? If you had no time, you’d be screwed. But it turns out that these cells are in your blood for as long as a year before they land somewhere. What that says is that you’ve got a chance to intercept them.”
How did Wood come to this conclusion? He had run across a stray fact in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. “It was an article that talked about, at one point, the number of cancer cells per millilitre of blood,” he said. “And I looked at that figure and said, ‘Something’s wrong here. That can’t possibly be true.’ The number was incredibly high. Too high. It has to be one cell in a hundred litres, not what they were saying—one cell in a millilitre. Yet they spoke of it so confidently. I clicked through to the references. It was a commonplace. There really were that many cancer cells.”
Wood did some arithmetic. He knew that human beings have only about five litres of blood. He knew that the heart pumps close to a hundred millilitres of blood per beat, which means that all of our blood circulates through our bloodstream in a matter of minutes. The New England Journal article was about metastatic breast cancer, and it seemed to Wood that when women die of metastatic breast cancer they don’t die with thousands of tumors. The vast majority of circulating cancer cells don’t do anything. “It turns out that some small per cent of tumor cells are actually the deadly ones,” he went on. “Tumor stem cells are what really initiate metastases. And isn’t it astonishing that they have to turn over at least ten thousand times before they can find a happy home? You na├»vely think it’s once or twice or three times. Maybe five times at most. It isn’t. In other words, metastatic cancer—the brand of cancer that kills us—is an amazingly hard thing to initiate. Which strongly suggests that if you tip things just a little bit you essentially turn off the process.”
That was the idea that Wood presented to the room in St. Louis. From there, the discussion raced ahead. Myhrvold and his inventors had already done a lot of thinking about using tiny optical filters capable of identifying and zapping microscopic particles. They also knew that finding cancer cells in blood is not hard. They’re often the wrong size or the wrong shape. So what if you slid a tiny filter into a blood vessel of a cancer patient? “You don’t have to intercept very much of the blood for it to work,” Wood went on. “Maybe one ten-thousandth of it. The filter could be put in a little tiny vein in the back of the hand, because that’s all you need. Or maybe I intercept all of the blood, but then it doesn’t have to be a particularly efficient filter.”
Wood was a physicist, not a doctor, but that wasn’t necessarily a liability, at this stage. “People in biology and medicine don’t do arithmetic,” he said. He wasn’t being
critical of biologists and physicians: this was, after all, a man who read medical journals for fun. He meant that the traditions of medicine encouraged qualitative observation and interpretation. But what physicists do—out of sheer force of habit and training—is measure things and compare measurements, and do the math to put measurements in context. At that moment, while reading The New England Journal, Wood had the advantages of someone looking at a familiar fact with a fresh perspective.
And not a Thinkers Key or Green Hat in sight.

Malcolm Gladwell, "In the Air," The New Yorker, May 12, 2008, pp. 58-59.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Training in real life systems

All right, allright, I get the message, I need to write some blog entries. so here's the first one for 2008. What a slackarse I've been!

I've begun a new job called a Teaching and Learning Coach - raa, raa go get 'em. The job is to work with teachers in schools to develop their teaching skills in order to improve students learning, which is why we teach, although some of us seem to forget this. The system has at last recognised that the most effective professional learning takes place in the workplace, the classroom. Here's a couple os snippets from McKinsey research 2006/7 'How the world's best-performing school systems comeout on top':
...despite substantial increases in spending and many well-intentioned reform efforts, performance in a large number of school systems has barely improved in decades... you could define the entire task of (a school) system in this way: its role is to ensure that when a teacher enters the classroom he or she has the materials available, along with the knowledge, the capability and the ambition to take one more child up to the standard today than she did yesterday. And again tomorrow.

...despite the evidence, and the fact that almost every other profession conducts most of its training in real-life settings (doctors and nurses in , clergy in churches, lawyers in courtrooms, consultants with clients) very little teacher training takes place in the teacher's own classrooms, the place in which it would be precise and relevant enough to be the most effective.
There you go. Makes sense doesn't it.