Teacher’s Corner By Megan Graham

Cultivating “Slow Scholarship” with the Media Multitaskers of ‘Generation M’*

“If you practice something slowly, you forget it slowly. If you practice something fast, you forget it fast” – Itzhak Perlman**

“Good scholarship requires time: time to think, write, read, research, analyze, edit, and collaborate. High quality instruction and service also require time: time to engage, innovate, experiment, organize, evaluate, and inspire.” – Alison Mountz

Focus during the music lesson and home practice is a challenge for many children. It is becoming increasingly difficult to resist distraction when there are so many things that need to get done. Teachers, parents, and students are all part of a society that demands high productivity in a compressed time frame. These ever-increasing demands on our time are not small matters. They are big tasks that cannot be ignored. The pressure to multitask, to do even more in less time, is strong. It is fuelled by the rapid pace of the technology in which we are immersed.

Teaching Music to ‘Generation M’

It’s an hour before dinnertime at home and a 4th grader and 6th grader both have to complete violin practice and homework for school the next day. The problem: They also want to finish an ‘important’ online game with their friends that they started the night before. Can they do all of this at the same time? Can it be done accurately?

This predicament was adapted from a scenario proposed by child development researchers. The children in the scenario are part of the generational cohort of media multi-taskers that follow from Generations X/Y/Z/Net/Digital Natives. They have been coined “Generation M” for “multitasking” by Time Magazine. Gen-M is growing up with a relationship to technology that begins at birth. This is a “mobile culture” where laptops, cell phones, and iPads are used all the time, accompanying every activity.

Homes have become “media multitasking environments,” where adults and children simultaneously watch television, use the computer, and engage with the cell phone, and other electronic devices. The youngest generation in society carries out the most media multitasking on a daily basis. This multitasking happens both in school and at home. The music lesson and home practice both require uninterrupted attention to be successful. Learning an instrument requires repetition and focussed attention that engages the working memory and executive functions of the brain. Media multitasking may be training children’s brains to switch tasks frequently and orient to distractions in a way that is detrimental to learning music well.

Creating an Environment of “Slow Scholarship”

Learning and teaching take time. Itzhak Perlman is known for his saying, “If you practice something slowly, you forget it slowly. If you practice something fast, you forget it fast.” Perlman also recommends that young violinists [and all musicians, I’m sure] practice in small sections with an approach that is thoughtful, purposeful, and patient. The idea is to cultivate an attitude of quality over quantity. This can be challenging because it is the exact opposite of what multitasking has been proven to achieve (i.e., quantity over quality). It takes time to engage, to innovate and experiment (as Dr. Suzuki often did), to organize to evaluate and to inspire one another.

Explain the benefits: Share information about the impact of media multitasking on learning. Explain to students that lesson and practice time is not a time to multitask in the way they might do elsewhere. Perhaps like yoga, practicing is a time to draw attention inward to the task at hand and enjoy the pause in the day’s frenetic pace.

Out of sight out of mind: Eliminate technology from the learning environment. Even if the phone is on silent mode, its presence can be distracting. I have made the mistake of leaving my iPad visible during a lesson. I did not realize the student even noticed the devices until they started pleading with me to show me their favourite game that they promised was related to the music. It is simply better to put it away.

Put it in writing: Decide what will work for your home environment. Create and reinforce house rules around mobile device use during practice time.

A Contemplative Way Forward

As technology becomes increasingly present in our lives and the lives of our students, we as teachers need to consider ways to work with it productively. That can mean integrating technology into our studio practice through digital music tools. It can also mean restricting the presence of digital technology in the lesson and practice environment. When the presence of technology promotes a rapid switching activity in our students that is detrimental to their focus and careful practice, then the environment needs to be changed. Fueled by the rapid-speed technology in our environment, multitasking becomes a habit that our students may have difficulty leaving outside the studio and practice rooms. As teachers, we may also have difficulty bracketing music lessons and practice as a time for slow, contemplative work. However, it is to our benefit to ground ourselves and resist the frenzied and distracted cycle of multitasking. With deliberate effort, we can create environments of focused, self-determined, slow work four ourselves and our students.

*This article is excerpted from my larger article submitted to the American Suzuki Journal
**Reference sources available upon request