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Classroom Management: The Truth About Multitasking

Jordan Catapano

It’s relatively common knowledge that multitasking when it comes to classroom management doesn’t work the way we’d like it to. Originally, multitasking was considered a plus. After all, if someone could do two classroom management (or other types of) tasks at the same time, isn’t that better than just doing one? With so many responsibilities and so much technology, doing just one thing at a time seems awfully wasteful. Employers used to look for individuals who marketed themselves as skilled multitaskers, and we still might often believe we’re serving our students or families better when we’re juggling multiple tasks at once.

But now, the research reveals a very different picture. Our attention does not possess the dexterity that we’d like it to. We’re actually at our top performance when we’re focusing on just one item at a time. And even though we’d like to try and push ourselves to doing two or more things at once, it just doesn’t benefit us to do so.

So maybe it’s time to reflect on how we go about our tasks. And it’s definitely time to teach students the truth about multitasking, too.

The Cons of Classroom Management Multitasking

So multitasking is bad. But why exactly is that the case? It’s simple.

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The brain is really designed to focus on just one task at a time. So when we focus on two tasks, that greatly diminishes the amount of attention and quality we can devote to both tasks. Think of your brain like an Olympic weightlifter: it’s very strong, but works best when its entire system is devoted toward lifting one set of weights. If suddenly it’s asked to lift two different systems of weights in two different ways at the same time, it’s going to struggle no matter how strong it is. Add a third task, and it’s almost impossible to successfully accomplish any of them.

Technically speaking, it’s impossible for our brains to do two major tasks at once. What we’re really doing when we think we’re multitasking is “task switching,” which means we alternate between tasks. The effect of this on our brains is devastating: Switching back and forth between tasks actually wastes time and makes the final products far inferior. When we switch, our brains need to “reset” themselves each time we initiate a task again. This reset process takes time, and our brains never really get into the groove for either activity.

It’s far better, research tells us, to focus on doing one task completely, then moving onto the next. This is called working in “batches” or “chunking.” If you have papers to grade, for example, grade the whole set at once without interruptions. If you have emails to respond to, do them all in one intentional sitting.

When you try to multitask, there are consequences.

  • You’re more likely to produce errors. When you aren’t giving a task your full attention, then mistakes may occur that you’re less likely to catch.
  • Your stress levels may increase. Multitasking means overloading your brain with stimuli and commands. That creates stress, and may even lead to health consequences.
  • You’re probably going to miss noticing additional items. If your brain is already overloaded with multiple tasks, then it’s far less likely to take in additional information that you weren’t looking for.
  • Your memory of the work and events may be reduced. Switching back and forth causes a reduction in our brain’s ability to fully encode our experiences, so our memories of multitasked events grow blurry.
  • You’re hurting any possible interpersonal interactions around you. Trying to multitask – especially if it involves looking at screens – means that you’re less engaged in the relationships around you. Effective face-to-face interactions take time and focus, but are ineffective when you’re only giving partial attention.
  • Your creativity is diminished. Your brain has little opportunity to come up with spontaneous, “aha” moments of insight when it’s already overloaded with multiple responsibilities. It’s far less likely that you’ll generate good, original ideas if you’re focusing on more than one thing.
  • Your IQ actually decreases. Yes, research says that since there’s less cognitive power devoted to individual tasks, your actual intelligence quotient diminishes while multitasking. So if the work you produced while multitasking seems dumber, it’s because you literally were dumber while working.

The Multitasking Teacher

Many teachers feel like multitasking is a way of life. After all, there are an increasing number of responsibilities that we have to tackle each day. Can we really get to it all without multitasking?

For example, we’re very guilty of reading and sending emails during meetings. Or while collaborating with peers we’re fine-tuning our day’s lesson. Or while conferencing with a student we’re thinking through our evaluative observation coming up this week. Or while teaching in front of the class, we’re trying to monitor what students are doing on their tech devices. Or while grading papers we’re also checking our social media. Or … well, you get it. And I’m just as guilty as the rest of us.

But if the research is accurate, then each of these behaviors may cause us to do a disservice to our colleagues, our students, and ourselves. So a few tips for us overloaded, multitasking teachers:

1. Live by the “One-Touch” rule: The One-Touch rule says we’re allowed to touch a task only one time. You pick it up, complete it, and put it down. Multitasking means that you’re picking up a task perhaps a dozen times before it’s completed, and that does no good. Become extremely intentional with your tasks, only beginning them when you know you can proceed without interruption until you’re finished.

2. Eliminate the interruptions: To execute the One-Touch rule, you’ve got to manage your interruptions. Sure, it’s difficult to entirely anticipate every interruption, but focus on what you can control. Go to a location where others are less likely to need you. Plug earphones in your ears (even if you aren’t listening to music). Turn off the notifications on your laptop, tablet, and phone. When in a meeting or collaborating, fully tune in. Train yourself to focus singularly on your task. You’ll find that you work both faster and smarter.

3. Improve teaching by being “all in”: These principles relate to your actual teaching methods, too. When instructing students, be entirely engaged with that task. Put away unnecessary items. Block out your other thoughts. Become entirely engrossed “in the moment” so that your students fully benefit from your best engagement. Even if you’re just working with one student, make yourself completely present and attentive.

4. Consider how to promote focused, attentive learning tasks in our classrooms: And now, as you consider your lessons and classroom management, be sure to apply the same standards to your students. Teach them about multitasking, encourage them to be fully engaged on one task, and work on having them identify the difference between “collaboration” and “distractions.” This will lead to both better classroom outcomes for them now, and better long-term work habits later.

We may feel like we’re getting lots done while multitasking. We may even feel like we have to multitask. But the research doesn’t lie: Multitasking just doesn’t work, and we shouldn’t pretend that it does. The new rule is to focus, focus, focus on one task at a time. And our ability to produce work that is both better and faster is undeniably beneficial for everyone.

What are your tricks to increase focus and limit multitasking with yourself and your students?

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.