The cognitive downside of electronic media deserves leaders’ attention

Photo/Dennis Sparks

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers. —Matt Richtel

A couple of years ago I taught a “Leading for Results” workshop in an Asian-Pacific country with a group of about 30 principals. It was impossible not to immediately notice that every minute or two a cell phone somewhere in the room was alerting its owner and the rest of us to an incoming text message. Hands leapt into action so quickly that it almost seemed like the phones jumped into their owners’ outstretched fingers. After an hour of this I realized that unless I intervened this would be a central feature of our two days together, a thought I didn’t relish given my responsibility for the group’s learning.

I decided that at the first available opportunity I would broach this problem with the principals. I offered my assumptions that learning can only occur when we are fully present in the moment and that the professional learning that was the purpose of our gathering required their full and uninterrupted attention. I explained that even a seemingly brief diversion would shift their brains away from the demanding cognitive processes that were essential to the deep understanding of complex leadership ideas and practices.

I wasn’t surprised that that the principals had another point of view, particularly given that several text messages had broken into the flow of my explanation. In a respectful give and take they insisted that text messaging didn’t seriously affect their attention and that because they had adapted to multi-tasking, their brains were more effective because of it, a view I have often heard expressed in the United States both before and after that event.

I didn’t agree with their conclusion, particularly when the learning objectives require sustained, higher-order thinking processes. But given that texting seemed to be a national obsession, I decided to desist and make the best I could of the situation, which overall seemed to be a beneficial experience for all of us.

So I was pleased but not surprised in recent weeks to see several articles that summarize research on the cognitive and behavioral downsides of electronic multi-tasking.

Leadership implications

Perhaps the most fundamental school leadership implication of these findings is the importance of holding deep and sustained conversation among educators about both the benefits and cognitive costs of various forms of digital media, particularly in situations in which close sustained intellectual engagement and interpersonal attention are desirable.

The outcome of such conversations would not only be a shared understanding about the appropriate use of various media in classrooms, but also group agreements about how smart phones, iPads, and laptops will be used in small and large-group meetings of educators and during adult learning events in which we want participants to be fully present and engaged.

This process begins with leaders reflecting on their own use and abuse of digital technology. As always, important changes in school culture and instruction begin with changes in leaders themselves.

4 Responses to “The cognitive downside of electronic media deserves leaders’ attention”


  1. 1 ROb Abbott September 6, 2010 at 8:11 am

    I agree Dennis, my cell phone and other digital media devices are too distracting. I would like to throw them out, but turning them off would be a better solution.

  2. 2 Kim Gadsdon September 6, 2010 at 10:27 am

    You present quite a societal conundrum as the multi-taskers believe they are sharpening a skill, but the research is showing that the opposite is actually taking place. Thank you for bringing Matt Richtel’s name into your Blog as a resource.
    I was happy to hear a very eloquent presenter’s reaction to a cell phone bleeping in the middle of a meeting. She simply said, “Oh, I see that someone forgot to turn off their cell phone.” This was a lovely, non-combative way to send a message of what her expectation was regarding cell phone use, without causing the user too much embarrassment.
    At the same time, I was curious (but not surprised) to read your response, Dennis, to your group of principals. It is a very good reminder of the importance of prioritizing the creation and maintenance of a collaborative spirit amongst colleagues in order to create an effective working and learning environment where the policies and practices of the group are created by the group. Thank you!

  3. 3 Jim Knight September 6, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Winnifred Gallagher’s book Rapt makes exactly the same point: we focus on one task at a time.

  4. 4 Katharine September 8, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    I really appreciate your “pov” and grounding research, Dennis. Another of my mentors, Meg Wheatley, offers a similar perspective. And from both my personal and professional experiences, I know unequivocally, that to be fully present and engaged – which is my commitment – I need to attend to what is at hand, now. That poses its enough of its own challenges…as anyone who does a regular practice in stillness and silence knows.
    I reference you and Leading for Results when I recommend to leaders they cultivate this skill and practice. And too, Otto Scharmer’s Theory U: practices needed to sense the emerging future, and to be aware that the interior condition of a leader, often one’s blind spot, is from where the intervention comes.


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