The Myth of Multi-Tasking

by Abby @ Quaver on August 28, 2012

in Around the Web,Music Education News

From time to time we explore research findings that might shed some light on student behavior or patterns in your classroom.

Today, we’re looking at multi-tasking!

Multi-Tasking Myth

Can you really do two things at once?

Yes and no.

  • Yes: if one is a background activity like listening to music while typing. (Look at me, I’m multi-tasking!)
  • No: if you are texting and driving because each task requires much of the frontal lobe of your brain. You really can’t give full attention to both simultaneously.

Don’t believe us? Ask researchers at Western Washington University. They sent a fully-costumed clown on a unicycle to ride around a highly trafficked commons area of their campus. Impossible to ignore? Not necessarily. Check out this video detailing their experiment online.

After passing the unicyclist, students were asked, “Did you noticed anything unusual?” Nearly 60% of those walking with a friend mentioned the clown. Only one in three people who were walking alone or listening to music reported seeing the clown. And a piddling 8% of those talking on their phones were aware of the clown. Even with the prompting of “Did you see the unicycling clown?,” only 25% responded affirmatively.

Researchers have a name for this ability to see without really seeing: “Inattentional blindness.” You’re so focused on one thing that you’re not fully processing other information.

What’s called multi-tasking is actually fast-toggling— switching your attention from one task to the other and back again extraordinarily fast. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, writes, “We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.”

And yet we try, resulting in increased stress and maybe a doozy of a headache.

What does this mean for you and your students?

It’s a reminder to keep personal electronic devices turned off unless they are required for the schoolwork at hand. Advise students that their homework will take longer to complete (and likely be of a lower quality) if they choose to share brain space with a TV show or texting conversation.

Follow-Up Questions to Consider:

  • How can you help students learn to focus?

  • What kind of tools can you teach them in music class that will lead to greater attentiveness?


Some folks at Quaver HQ have found the opposite to be true for themselves and their families. They tend to work better and more efficiently with some kind of multi-media input, and other research supports that approach. What do YOU think?

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