We know texting while driving has consequences, but what about texting when doing homework?
It’s something almost all kids do, and most parents have also been known to check their text messages at their desk. If we’re being honest, most of us have our cell phone within arm’s reach when we’re at work, and we will glance at it from time to time. When we’re defending the practice we call it “multitasking.” How bad could it really be?
Pretty bad, according to a recent study that found the mere presence of a smartphone reduces a person’s ability to focus. In the study, undergraduates asked to leave their phones in another room did better on cognitive tests than those who were asked to silence their phones and leave them face down on their desk or in a bag.
In the experiment, even students who said they weren’t thinking consciously about their cell phones still experienced a loss in ability, which means some of this distraction is happening on an unconscious level. This is bad news for those of us who think we’re pretty good at not being distracted by the phone when we’re working.
“I hear about these issues about technology all the time,” says Matt Cruger, director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. He says that with the kids he works with, he isn’t concerned about their capacity to be able to do homework, but with “the capacity to really get in the mindset of thinking about homework-related activities.” In other words, they could do their work if they were able to focus on it. And while trouble focusing on homework is hardly something new for children, captivating new technologies aren’t making it any easier.
Why are tech devices so distracting? For starters, most apps and web content are engineered to be as user-friendly and addictive as possible. They ping us with notifications when we get a new message or when someone has posted something we might be interested in. They are reliable sources of validation that tell us when someone likes something we’ve posted.
And we know there is always something new to look at. Even if we haven’t heard the buzz alerting us to something new, we might find ourselves restlessly reaching for the phone to scroll through the constantly updating feeds full of pictures and headlines and jokes curated just for us. We might also feel some pressure to keep up.
But there are also some less-obvious reasons why kids may be particularly hooked. Phones are where young people do a lot of their socializing now, especially as they reach the pre-teen and teenage years, when their major developmental goals are to start crafting an identity separate from their parents and to prioritize forming friendships with their peers — goals that are made for spending hours on social media.
Compared to adults, kids also have a less developed ability to control their impulses. If it’s sometimes hard for their parents to unplug, imagine how hard it is for a child who struggles with impulsivity or a teen with a new BFF to resist checking her phone. Prioritizing getting started on a book report or even studying for tomorrow’s test won’t be nearly as compelling.
Many adults and kids share the idea that when we are texting or monitoring feeds while we work we are still being productive — we are able to juggle everything at once. But neuropsychologists aren’t optimistic about how productive multitasking really is. “Having multiple sources of technology at your fingertips and available at all times probably is almost a guarantee of a reduction in performance and productivity,” says Dr. Cruger.
For one thing, there’s what experts call “resumption lag.” That’s the period of time between when you were interrupted from a task and when you resume it. Transitioning between tasks isn’t seamless, and the time spent collecting your thoughts prior to resuming a task add up.
A study out of Stanford in 2009 examined how well multitaskers are able to process information. People considered heavy media multitaskers were found to have more difficulty ignoring irrelevant but distracting things in their environment. As a result they actually performed worse on a test of task switching ability when compared to people who were lighter multitaskers.
Multitasking means working less efficiently even when you think you’re applying yourself. That’s because people dividing their attention aren’t able to engage in their work with the fluency they might otherwise have. “They’re not free to think about what’s the best way to do something,” Dr. Cruger explains. “Kids will start a task, try to get the task done, but not take the time to travel along and figure out how to do the task best.”
While the work might still get finished, multitasking adds up to shallower thinking and more time spent actually working. But it’s hard for kids to see it that way. “If you haven’t really established a disciplined routine for learning and thinking, it’s hard to have a sense of what to compare your current performance against,” notes Dr. Cruger.
Kids who struggle with attention
There’s a kind of myth that kids who have ADHD are uniquely suited to multitasking.
At a Child Mind Institute event about how children are affected by technology, Ali Wentworth, actress, comedian and host of the event, described how she found her teenage daughter the evening before: She was doing her homework on one screen, texting on another, with Gilmore Girls playing on a third. When Wentworth protested, her daughter told her, “I have ADHD. This is how I do my homework.”
In reality, multitasking during homework can be particularly difficult for kids who have ADHD.
“There’s pretty compelling literature that suggests that nobody is actually good at multitasking, but I think kids who have ADHD also have a set of cognitive distortions about their skills and capacities,” says Dr. Cruger. “They’re probably worse at multitasking than people without ADHD, but they often think they’re better at it.”
That might be because the constant stimulation offered by tech devices is very appealing to kids with ADHD. Short bursts of attention, with immediate rewards, are easier for them than paying sustained attention. But trying to do both at the same time — juggling homework and Snapchat — would be particularly difficult for them.
That’s because people with ADHD struggle with executive functions, which are the self-regulating skills we use to do things like shift between situations, control our emotions and impulsivity, and organize and make plans. These are all skills that are integral to doing homework and they are weakened further when we are dividing our attention across multiple platforms.
“One of the psychological impacts for people with ADHD is they have to make smart decisions about how to use their resources wisely because they have limited attentional resources and they have limited capacity to do the hard work of learning naturally,” explains Dr. Cruger. “It just takes more effort for them.”
Given that kids with ADHD are particularly susceptible to the stimulation that tech devices provide, and that focusing on homework is already harder for them, successfully doing both would be incredibly difficult.
Related: What Is Working Memory?
A distraction-free mind
Setting up a homework routine that minimizes distractions is important, especially if your child struggles with attention, or seems to be finding that her homework is taking much longer than it should.
Let her know that the goal is to make doing homework easier and less stressful. Removing those distractions should improve her homework experience and leave her with more actual free time.
If it’s difficult to get your child’s buy-in, establishing regular homework breaks where she gets to walk away from her homework and check social media or check her texts can make this an easier sell. But to be effective, the breaks should be planned and discrete — they shouldn’t bleed into homework time and ideally they should happen away from her study space, which should be a place for focusing.
This sort of discipline might not come naturally to kids or adults, but learning to unplug from distractions is a life skill that will become increasingly important as technology becomes more absorbing, and the need to learn and stay focused doesn’t go away.
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Homework – is it an unnecessary evil or a sound and valuable pedagogical practice? The media coverage of the debate often zeroes in on these two seemingly polar opposite views, even though they may not be all that far apart. Homework can be good until – well, until it isn’t. Assign too much or the wrong kind (or both) and the law of diminishing returns kicks in, says Dr. Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, resulting in undue stress for students, aggravation for parents and no academic pay-off.
But as Cooper, author of “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents,” recently told NEA Today, homework levels and parental attitudes haven’t really changed dramatically over the years. Cooper also concludes – perhaps a shock of those who are convinced that very little in our classrooms is working as it should – “the vast majority of educators have got it right.”
There’s a lot of focus on homework now, but has it been scrutinized so heavily in the past?
Harris Cooper: Throughout the 20th century, the public battle over homework was quite cyclical. You can go back to World War I or a little after, when it was considered important for kids to exercise their brain like a muscle and that homework was a way to do that. During the 1930s, opinions changed. In the 1950s, people were worried about falling behind the communists, so more homework was needed as a way to speed up our education and technology. During the 1960s, homework fell out of favor because many though it inflicted too much stress on kids. In the 1970s and 1980s, we needed more homework to keep up with the Japanese economically. More recently, as everything about education and teachers is being scrutinized, homework has come into question again.
What’s interesting is that the actual percentage of people who support or oppose homework has changed very little over the years. And the actual amount of homework kids are doing has changed very little over the last 65 years.
But haven’t we seen an uptick in the amount of homework assigned to elementary students?
HC: There is a little bit of an uptick in lower grades. But when you look at the actual numbers, we’re talking about the difference between an average of 20 minutes and 30 minutes. So you’ll find some people who say the amount of homework being given to 2nd graders, for example, has increased 50 percent. But If you look at the actual numbers, it’s ten more minutes per night.
And probably a driving force behind that is obviously end-of-grade testing and accountability issues. Perhaps more legitimately is the importance of early reading. As they say, in third grade you learn to read, and in fourth grade you read to learn. So this has led to more reading assignments.
While most high school students are still doing approximately the same amount of homework on average, there’s a great deal of variation. That’s due to choices some kids make about how rigorous an academic program to take and the increased competition over college admissions. So there are a lot of kids out there taking four or five advanced placement and honors classes now, which might not have been the case a while back.
According to the MetLife Foundation national homework survey, 3 out of 5 parents said their kids are getting just the right amount of homework. One said too much and one said too little. That survey is a few years old now but I doubt that’s changed.
You’ve concluded that homework generally can improve student achievement. At what grade levels do we usually see this effect?
HC: There’s very little correlation between homework and achievement in the early grades. As kids get older, the correlation gets stronger. But there are experimental studies even at the earliest grades that look at skills such as spelling, math facts, etc. where kids are randomly assigned to do homework and not do homework. They show that kids who did the homework performed better.
But we’re really talking about correlation here, so we have to be a little careful. It’s also worth noting that these correlations with older students are likely caused, not only by homework helping achievement, but also by kids who have higher achievement levels doing more homework.
But at a particular point more homework is not a good thing. You’ve heard of the “10-Minute Rule,” where you multiply a child’s grade by 10 to determine how many minutes you assign per night. This rule fits the data. So 20-minutes for a second grader is where you’d start. In middle schools, it’s between 60-90 mins for 6th through 9th graders, about two hours later in high school. When you assign more than these levels, the law of diminishing returns or even negative effects – stress especially – begin to appear.
Have school districts coalesced around the 10-minute rule?
HC: From my experience, I have never seen a school district that recommends anything that isn’t consistent with the 10-minute rule. They won’t use the term “10-minute rule” usually, but they’ll say, primary school grades will be assigned up to 30 mins., grades 4-6 up to an hour, things like that. But If you translate the policy to the 10-minute rule, it’ll be very similar. Nobody has a policy that says you can expect your second-graders to bring home two hours of homework. The only place you’ll see a warning about it is in high school: you can expect half an hour a night per academic subject. Again, if the kid is taking AP, expect more.
What don’t we know about homework? Where are the gaps in the research?
HC: We need to know more about the the differing impacts by subject matter. Regarding the 10-minute rule, one question I am frequently asked is, “Does that include reading?” Generally, the answer would be yes, but if we’re interested in kids’ stress level, for example, they are more likely to burn out quicker doing math worksheets and studying vocabulary than if they were doing high-interest reading. So we really need more work on subject matter, on homework quality, on the level of inquisitiveness that it engenders and the way it motivates. Also we need to know more about the use of the Internet, especially as it relates to potential disparities between rich and poor and the ability to research at home.
Parental involvement is a huge homework-related issue. How can educators work with parents to keep their role constructive?
HC: Parental involvement is more important in the earlier grades and teachers should try to make sure that parents have the skills to teach the material so to avoid any instructional confusion. Educators should also remind parents to not place great pressure on their child and to model behaviors, especially with young children. For example, when the child is doing math homework, a parent could balance the checkbook to demonstrate how the skill can be used in adult life, or they can they read their own book while their child is reading.
Homework also keeps parents aware of what their child is learning. I’ve had some very emotional parents come to me about having been told by teachers that their child is struggling, that there might be a learning disability. The parents don’t necessarily see it until they see their child work on homework.
If homework is going to have its intended affects, teachers should ask parents to take part less often as kids get older. If support from parents is withdrawn slowly, it can promote autonomous learning – teaching kids that they can learn on their own and they can learn anywhere.
Do you think overall the current debate or controversy over homework has been helpful and what, if anything, should educators take from it?
HC: Well, I recognize that the debate will always be there, but I generally choose to ignore it, or at least the people who, as the old saying goes, use science the same way a drunkard uses a lamp post – more for support than for illumination.
Homework is probably the most complicated pedagogical strategy teachers use because it’s open to variations due to child individual differences and the home context. But the vast majority of educators have got it right. They’re not going to satisfy everyone, because kids take homework home to different environments and to parents with different expectations. But, like I said before, three in five parents are satisfied and there’s one in each direction – too much homework or too little. That probably means teachers are doing their job properly.
Photo: Associated Press