Stop what you’re doing.
Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing.
Mute your music. Turn off your television. Put down your sandwich and ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t. But the other rules still apply.)
You are now monotasking.
Maybe this doesn’t feel like a big deal. Doing one thing at a time isn’t a new idea.
Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.
Earlier research out of Stanford revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.
So, in layman’s terms, by doing more you’re getting less done.
But monotasking, also referred to as single-tasking or unitasking, isn’t just about getting things done.
Not the same as mindfulness, which focuses on emotional awareness, monotasking is a 21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called “paying attention.”
“It’s a digital literacy skill,” said Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ “Note to Self” podcast, which recently offered a weeklong interactive series called Infomagical, addressing the effects of information overload. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”
Ms. Zomorodi prefers the term “single-tasking”: “ ‘Monotasking’ seemed boring to me. It sounds like ‘monotonous.’ ”
Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, lecturer at Stanford and the author of “The Willpower Instinct,” believes that monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced.” She said: “It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”
This is great news for the self-identified monotaskers out there.
Jon Pack, a 42-year-old photographer in Brooklyn, was happy to hear that his single-minded manner might be undergoing a rebrand. “When I was looking for jobs and interviewing, they’d always want me to say, ‘I’m a great multitasker,’ ” he said. “And I wouldn’t. My inability to multitask was seen as a negative. Now I can just say, ‘I am a monotasker. I am someone who works best when I focus on one thing at a time.’ ”
And the way we work can have effects that kick in long after we clock out.
As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Ms. Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.”
The term “brain dead” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.
A good sign you’ve task-switched yourself into a stupor: mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the end of the night or, as in Ms. Zomorodi’s case, looking at couches on Pinterest. “I just stuff my brain full of them because I can’t manage to do anything else,” she said. “The sad thing is that I don’t get any closer to deciding which one I like.”
But monotasking can also make work itself more enjoyable.
“I can multitask — and do, of course; it’s kind of essential — but I prefer to do one thing at a time,” Hayley Phelan, a 28-year-old writer, wrote in an email. “If I keep looking at my phone or my inbox or various websites, working feels a lot more tortuous. When I’m focused and making progress, work is actually pleasurable.”
Ms. Phelan isn’t imagining things. “Almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Attention is one way your brain decides, ‘Is this interesting? Is this worthwhile? Is this fun?’ ”
It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.
This is why, according to Ms. McGonigal, the ability to monotask might be most valuable in social situations. “Research shows that just having a phone on the table is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people who are in conversation,” she said.
Twenty-five thousand people participated in Ms. Zomorodi’s Infomagical project, which started the week with a single-tasking challenge. Upon completion, respondents agreed overwhelmingly that single-tasking was the No. 1 thing they wanted to carry into their post-Infomagical lives. “But they also said it was really, really hard,” Ms. Zomorodi said.
Parents of young children found it difficult for obvious reasons, as did people with jobs that permit them less control over their time. In those cases, try monotasking in areas where you can: conversations with your children, reading a book in bed before they go to sleep, dinner or drinks with friends. After all, monotasking is a good skill to incorporate into all aspects of your life, not just work.
Even those with more flexibility can find themselves going to great lengths for a little bit of focus. Nick Pandolfi, who works in partnerships at Google, once traveled to northern Sweden in what he described as an “extreme” effort to monotask.
“I had to write my business school application essays, and I was having no luck spending an hour here and there after work and on the weekends,” Mr. Pandolfi said. “I just wasn’t inspired. After spending a few days hiking in the Arctic by myself, I was able to get all of them done in just a few days.”
Transcontinental trips aside, Ms. Zomorodi stressed that it was important to find ways to practice. “Start by giving yourself just one morning a week to check in, and remind yourself what it feels like to do one thing at a time,” she said.
Mr. Pandolfi and Ms. Phelan use exercise to aid them, albeit in different ways. “If I need to get through a big project and don’t want to get distracted by my inbox and the minutiae of the web, I hop on the treadmill desk,” Mr. Pandolfi said. Ms. Phelan makes a point of running outside, weekly, “without listening to music or anything else.”
Monotasking can also be as simple as having a conversation.
“Practice how you listen to people,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Put down anything that’s in your hands and turn all of your attentional channels to the person who is talking. You should be looking at them, listening to them, and your body should be turned to them. If you want to see a benefit from monotasking, if you want to have any kind of social rapport or influence on someone, that’s the place to start. That’s where you’ll see the biggest payoff.”
So is monotasking a movement? “It’s not there yet,” Ms. Zomorodi said. “But I think it will be.”
If enough people pay attention to it, that is.
School ended in June 2016 with a crescendo of activity we had worked all year to orchestrate, bringing bigger accomplishments than we’d dreamed of. Our year-end adventure began in Washington, D.C., where my students’ work with design earned us an invitation to the White House for the kickoff of the 2016 National Week of Making. As one of two representatives from New Jersey, I represented not only my students but effectively all K-12 educators in the state for whom making is a way of teaching and learning. Though making is not new—creative individuals in communities and schools everywhere have been doing this work for years—its increasingly high profile certainly is. Making matters. And design thinking matters to makers.
At the beginning of the National Week of Making, I set up our exhibit at the National Maker Faire. Eleven students, including four who had just graduated eighth grade, would spend the weekend explaining how design thinking drove our program’s work and their learning. Kids used student-built prototypes to explain how they employed design thinking to solve problems and make the world a better place.
We set up stations where Faire attendees got to experience prototyping for themselves, tackling design challenges based on the Extraordinaires Design Studio and expertly explained by our kids. The kids’ efforts garnered not one but two awards: Best in Class and Editor’s Choice.
The next day, three teams of seventh-grade students traveled to Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia to present their ideas for making hospitals less scary for child patients.
A group of nearly 70 people, including relatives, friends, hospital professionals, fellow educators, and members of the press, watched the student teams present their ideas and recommendations. It was a very good day. And it was just the beginning, as these students would work with JeffDESIGN over the summer to learn valuable lessons about what it takes to get an idea from concept to production in the real world.
In the span of four days, our kids met and conversed with hundreds of people about their accomplishments as designers, experiencing a level of personal and professional validation that many adults rarely get to enjoy. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic year.
So how is our program growing, changing, and adapting this year?
Initiative One: The EPICS Curriculum and Processes
We have adopted the free and fabulous EPICS—Engineering Projects In Community Service—as the heart and soul of our program this year. I attended a summer training at Purdue University; it was exhaustive and a great investment. EPICS is all about documenting design thinking processes. To that end, they have assembled a massive library of resources, including fully editable and customizable documents teachers can use to plan projects.
I love that the EPICS framework is just that—a framework. It provides a flexible structure I can modify as necessary to suit our processes and needs. As of this writing, we are still deep in that customization process; I expect that it will take most of this year to finalize. When we are done, we’ll have a powerful, document-driven, human-centered methodology to guide our work in design.
Initiative Two: Bringing the Outside In
Last year, students connected with professional designer Meghan Holliday, who spoke about her life and work as a designer. This year, we’ve got Andrew Coy, senior advisor for making in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, sharing why making is critical in schools today; Alixandra Klein, a Vermont-based entrepreneur who makes jewelry using a laser cutter and upcycled materials, talking about the importance of art and creativity; and Dr. Jorge Valdes of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office(and also a high school science teacher here in New Jersey) discussing intellectual property, patents, and the inventor’s mindset. And all of this is just for Design Experience One.
Initiative Three: Changes to the Instructional Environment
We were fortunate to acquire an Epilog laser engraver last summer. It has quickly proven to be a game-changer for our program, capturing imaginations and literally igniting creativity like no other tool previously. Our new “soft seating” area includes a SMART Board 6000 interactive display, an Ikea coffee table (donated), an Xbox 360 (also donated), and a leather couch I found for sale on Facebook for $75. The combination of these items has made a terrific small group instructional area, while providing kids who have lunch in my room a chance to enjoy some gaming.
The new school year has gotten off to a good start. We’re creating an entirely new understanding of design thinking in Digital Shop, an amalgam of our shared past experiences and the practices of some of the world’s best design thinking practitioners. It’s ridiculously hard work, alternatively frustrating and exhilarating, but totally worth it.
As a general rule, I front load my units/projects by previewing and discussing the end product first and then using the following weeks to provide instruction and practice to ensure success criteria.
Since we’re starting our new unit now, we’ve been spending time looking at the assessment, modifying it together and now discussing how students can find success with the skills being assessed.
Rather than just provide a rubric and a sample, students were split up into groups focusing on a particular standard.
Students needed to review the assignment (which they annotated yesterday) and the rubric and align past learning with the standard they were responsible for.
As they worked together to determine what success will look like and why they were working on these skills, I walked around the room answering questions and listening to their conversations.
After we shared out and developed a list of skills from the standards, students were asked to answer an exit ticket (that was emailed to them) that asked the following:
Based on the success criteria established and the work we’ve done in class thus far, what skills and/or content do you feel you’re already proficient in or mastering? How do you know? Which areas do you feel you need the most help with? What lessons will you need to find success?1. What skills and/or content do you feel you’re already proficient in or mastering?2. How do you know?3. What areas do you feel you need the most help with?4. What lessons would be helpful to find success?Thanks! Make sure to check your email and “pupilpath” regularly for feedback.
Finland’s education system is considered one of the best in the world. In international ratings, it’s always in the top ten. However, the authorities there aren’t ready to rest on their laurels, and they’ve decided to carry through a real revolution in their school system.
Finnish officials want to remove school subjects from the curriculum. There will no longer be any classes in physics, math, literature, history, or geography.
The head of the Department of Education in Helsinki, Marjo Kyllonen, explained the changes:
“There are schools that are teaching in the old-fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginning of the 1900s — but the needs are not the same, and we need something fit for the 21st century.“
Instead of individual subjects, students will study events and phenomena in an interdisciplinary format. For example, the Second World War will be examined from the perspective of history, geography, and math. And by taking the course ”Working in a Cafe,” students will absorb a whole body of knowledge about the English language, economics, and communication skills.
This system will be introduced for senior students, beginning at the age of 16. The general idea is that the students ought to choose for themselves which topic or phenomenon they want to study, bearing in mind their ambitions for the future and their capabilities. In this way, no student will have to pass through an entire course on physics or chemistry while all the time thinking to themselves “What do I need to know this for?”
The traditional format of teacher-pupil communication is also going to change. Students will no longer sit behind school desks and wait anxiously to be called upon to answer a question. Instead, they will work together in small groups to discuss problems.
The Finnish education system encourages collective work, which is why the changes will also affect teachers. The school reform will require a great deal of cooperation between teachers of different subjects. Around 70% of teachers in Helsinki have already undertaken preparatory work in line with the new system for presenting information, and, as a result, they’ll get a pay increase.
The changes are expected to be complete by 2020.
Cardboard Creators: Reusing to Learn
That’s a good mantra for my students as well. Some students have never swung a hammer, threaded a needle, or made a model that was not outlined on card stock. Common day experiences have been digitized in our world, and access to extra materials is extremely limited for others. My solution: create a makerspace in my classroom and offer design challenges students can do with little more than string, glue, and cardboard. Cardboard, my makerspace material of choice, is available in every home in America.
From mac and cheese boxes to a shoebox, cardboard is a material that puts students on a level playing field. It’s free. Students can cut thin stuff with scissors or score corrugated material with a pair of safety scissors, and tape is cheap enough that I can send a partial roll home with a student who needs it. Kids in families who cannot afford clay or craft kits or have little money for additional classroom supplies can still imagine something using materials that belong to them. That equals the playing field among students who ‘have not’ with students who ‘have’ adequate resources.
Sure, many educators say, but this is learning time. How can cardboard be transformed into learning strategies benefiting students across disciplines? Here are four sample cardboard projects to get started.
1. Three-dimensional thinking by building artifacts. While it may seem unusual to us as educators, take the time to ask students how many have been in a barn, gone to a zoo, camped in a tent, or taken care of an animal. So many readings describe experiences for which students have no background knowledge. For example, Finding Winnie, the winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal, is filled with unfamiliar venues. It took the illustrator, Sophie Blackall, over a year of research to visit all the places referenced in the book. My youngest middle school students are trying to build a single item model for just one scene in the book, ranging from an ocean liner to a tree to an antique car.
2. Imagining a Character. Middle school students love the idea of cosplay. Designing cardboard armor to imagine a warrior or superhero in a story is a simple way to use materials to portray their vision. The prompt can be as simple as, “Design a character to defend the castle.” It’s powerful to have the ability to create even an imperfect vision, instead of a project executed primarily by an overly helpful parent. Student processes are best remembered when the mistake or chance for failure becomes the driver for the learning.
3. Design thinking prototypes. The goal of design thinking is to solve a problem using a process of listening and developing empathy. Students struggle with this because they often design for themselves, rather than for a specific audience. After reading spooky stories that tie into both the Halloween season and the idea of justice, my students still struggled with the idea of putting themselves in another person’s shoes. How America is dealing with the idea of ‘liberty and justice for all’ is an example of a difficult idea. We used design thinking as the introduction to a conversation on empathy. Before the extended conversations at the end of the unit, I wanted to know if students could listen carefully. For one assignment, I asked them to set up a display prototype that combined scary elements from the stories and a building to contain a prisoner. While the artist of the classroom created a skeleton playing a trumpet by using scissors, this student didn’t follow directions, and his client (the teacher) was unsatisfied with the result. In contrast, the winner of the challenge created two ghosts out of cardboard shoulder pads and a turret out of thin cardboard, creating a powerful classroom lesson about utility versus perfection as well as listening.
4. Modeling. How does osmosis take place? What caused the creation of the universe? These are powerful questions, deep questions, and ones for which a teacher might not have the answer; however, they are just the type of questions my gifted students might ask. I pair students with an outside mentor via Skype or Google Hangouts by using the power of social media to find willing experts. To help students process difficult ideas, the Next Generation Science Standards recommend models as tools. Students often don’t think about making their own models unless teachers expose them to the idea as a strategy. Cardboard models are one way to go deeper in visible thinking and to augment visual notetaking. As described in Harvard’s Project Zero, initiatives like Agency by Design requires students to look closely at what they are doing to help discover complex ideas. When the students push back, I remind them of James Watson and Francis Crick, and how the cardboard models they created led to an understanding of DNA.
Tips on Creating a Cardboard Makerspace
- Collect one or two plastic tubs of materials for your classroom.
- In the first tub, start saving oddly-formed shapes of cardboard packaging from the IT department, or even toilet paper rolls. Corrugated cardboard is especially hard for younger students to cut. Resist the temptation to put full boxes in the box, or students will simply use them without modification (something I learned in this challenge).
- In the second tub, place tape, string, and remnants of duct tape. I simply placed a box at my local church and asked for donations of half-used tape, white glue, and crochet thread.
- Find donated materials. Reach out to close friends on Facebook, or check with a hardware store or custodian for unwanted materials.
- Get a grant or donation from a big box store, or organize a campaign onDonorsChoose.
- Build rubrics so students have a framework of expectations, but be willing to revise them as needed. The first creations may not be as rich as you expect, but this provides opportunities for further learning.
Building creations and making cardboard artists will also build memories in the journey of learning. Along the way, new skills and collaboration will help us become better learners.
Follow this link for an interesting video
Addressing four teenagers standing at the front of the classroom, Gary Hook, a history teacher at Nashville Big Picture High School, told them, “I’m going to give you $100,000 for 20 percent equity in the company. I need to know right now, though. I need to know whether you’re in or not.”
A panel of four additional 11th-grade teachers sat beside Hook, and each of them took turns making different investment offers based on the product, potential revenue, and investment request that the students initially pitched.
The power switched into the students’ hands when they chose an offer, and all of their classmates erupted in cheers. They were participating in a two-week Shark Tank project — based on the show of the same name — where entrepreneurs pitch investors to fund their company.
What began as a classwide math project to learn about the profit function equation and quadratic functions culminated into a grade-level presentation to imitate the show Shark Tank.
Each student was tasked with joining a group to create a fictitious business, which included developing a product and marketing plan, choosing a location and work space, and identifying how much money they would need for startup costs and what the return would be for investors.
“One of the things you hear all the time as a math teacher is, ‘When am I ever going to use this?'” says Derick Richardson, a Nashville Big Picture math teacher. “I try to bridge that. And so through this project, the kids were able to see, ‘Oh, man, we’re talking about stuff that I hear on the news and that I see on this TV show that I like, and it actually makes sense.’ Everybody got involved, even the kids that are not good at math. I’ve never seen these kids get this excited about a math project.”
“When you’re able make learning relevant to a student,” adds Chaerea Snorten, Nashville Big Picture’s principal, “it helps them want to do it and not just because that’s what’s expected. The whole focus of personalized learning is that students see the relevance of what it is that they’re doing. The outcome is students are engaged, and they’re enjoying the learning process.”
If you want to engage your students in personalized learning projects, here are six tips from Nashville Big Picture High School for how you can get started.
How It’s Done
1. Make Your Projects Simple
Not every project has to be a grade-level collaboration like the Shark Tank project. Instead of the traditional paper or PowerPoint presentation, give your students choices in how they show their learning. They may choose to make a video, act out a skit, or create a painting.
Kristin, a Nashville Big Picture junior, was asked to depict slavery in any way that she wanted for her history class. She chose art. Her painting depicted Harriet Tubman and a slave girl against a backdrop of words.
These words — ranging from “kidnapping” to “hope” — depicted a slave’s journey from slavery to emancipation. She appreciated not only being able to choose how she would express her learning, but also the public display of her art — alongside other students’ work — in the school hallways. “My art is a part of me,” shared Kristin, “and so for people to walk by and see a part of me, it feels great.”
When Harley, an alumnus, entered Nashville Big Picture in ninth grade, he was given the choice in how he could approach his first project. “I made a video documentary about myself,” Harley recalls, “and from that assignment, I realized that I loved making movies.” From that moment forward — from his exhibitions to his senior capstone project — Harley expressed his learning through video. “I wouldn’t have put in as much time and effort if I had to write a lot of papers, but by making a bunch of videos, I was able to do awesome work because it was something I cared about,” he says.
Watch Harley’s short video for Edutopia about student voice and choice (and read his four tips on how teachers can engage students).
2. Let Your Students Choose What They Learn (It’s Not as Scary as it Sounds)
In place of a quarterly test, Big Picture history teacher Gary Hook assigned his students a mini-project to research, investigate, and present on a topic within modern U.S. history. He gave them a list of topics from the ‘80s to the present — ranging from movements (like gay rights and Black Lives Matter) to the impact of social media on modern-day society. If there wasn’t a topic on the list that his students wanted to research, he let them choose their own topic as long as it fit within modern U.S. history.
Give your students a list of options from which they can choose, whether it’s a book to read in language arts, a topic to research in history, or a business to create in math. “With project work, I try to give them a menu of options that they can choose from to show their learning,” explains Hook, “as well as a menu of options that they can choose to research. This allows them to operate in a space where they are comfortable.”
3. Give Your Students a Project Framework
Giving your students choice in what they learn and in how they express their learning doesn’t mean that content or standards get thrown out the window. Hook was able to give his students choice while still meeting his content objectives. Nor does giving your students choice mean that your assignments lack structure or planning. “When it comes to personalizing our learning, we have to look at what our content and standards are. We start there,” says Snorten.
“The essence of personalized learning is understanding where the student is and where they want to go, as well as where you need them to go,” adds Hook. Give your students a project brief to make sure that they cover the content and skills you need them to learn. Hook gave his students a project brief outlining the objective, topic options for research, guidance on how they’ll carry out their project (such as working in groups and presenting their topic), and details on what needed to be included in their process.
4. Use Temperature Checks to Assess Your Students’ Work
When assessing personalized learning projects, do one-on-one or group temperature checks with your students. Are they hot or cold? Are they way off or close to grasping what they need to understand? When Richardson’s students were working on the Shark Tank project, he would go from group to group, checking in on their profit functions.
Richardson also checked in on their progress with their product, their marketing campaign, and the elements of their project that were less tied to math. “Sometimes you have a project, but you don’t follow up,” he explains. “You hand out a sheet of paper, they go do it, and that’s it. I really wanted them to get excited about this, be passionate about it, and create something that they really might be able to use outside of the classroom.” Student choice about their project brings relevance to their learning. By showing interest in the whole project, you show interest in their passions and in your students themselves. They’ll become more engaged in their work if they believe that you’re excited and engaged in what they’re doing and in who they are.
5. Get to Know Your Students
“We need to understand who our students are and how they learn,” stresses Richardson. Once you understand your students’ needs, you won’t waste time delivering content in a way that they won’t comprehend. “It saves you a lot of time and effort,” he says.
“Like adults,” adds Courtney Ivy Davis, Big Picture’s school counselor and internship coordinator, “their passion is what drives them. It’s what gives them excitement, and we want them to be excited about their passion and tie that to their education so that they can be successful lifelong learners.” Students don’t walk into your classroom with their passions and interests written on their forehead. You have to uncover these things while giving your students the opportunity to explore and discover their interests for themselves. By offering them choice in what and how they learn, you allow them to figure out how they learn best. Building intentional relationships with your students will allow you to guide them in this discovery. Here are 22 ways that Nashville Big Picture builds intentional relationships with their students. (Note that these strategies are applicable even if you’re at a bigger school.)
6. Ask Your Students What They Want and Need
“Student voice is number one,” emphasizes Snorten. “Hear it, learn it, ask for it. ‘What is it that will help you do better? How can we help you improve? What do you need from us?'” Building personal relationships with each of your students is important, but it also takes time.
If you have a class of 40 students, and want to know their needs and interests now, ask them.
See Related Resources: When We Listen to Students and Student Surveys: Using Student Voice to Improve Teaching and Learning
Help Your Students Figure Out How They Learn Best
Rather than opening a textbook, memorizing steps to an equation, or learning the teacher’s method on how to understand something, personalized learning allows your students to figure out how they learn best. They also get to see how their peers learn best, showing them that there are many ways to problem solve and reach the same solution. “At other schools, they might know one specific way to do things,” explains Richardson, “but our students are prepared to be more creative in how they figure out the solution. They learn how to learn on their own, and they take that into college.”