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Is Multitasking Bad for the Brain?

Thank you to St. John’s for this great article on the potential negatives of multitasking. Multitasking is a great villain in many of our working, studying, and learning lives because it drapes itself in a cloak of usefulness, of productivity, when in fact it creates just the opposite: lowered efficiency, less productivity, poorer quality of work, and so on.

NPR has also recently come out with an article related to this issue: “We’re Not Taking Enough Lunch Breaks. Why That’s Bad For Business.” According to “We’re Not Taking…,” the pressure to not only multitask but to constantly be on-hand and on-the-clock is leading us as employees (and likely as students as well) to work longer yet less effective and less creative hours.

“Fewer American workers are taking time for lunch. Research shows that only 1 in 5 five people steps away for a midday meal. Most workers are simply eating at their desks.

But studies have also found that the longer you stay at work, the more important it is to get outside of the office, even if it’s just for a few minutes, because creativity can take a hit when you don’t change environments.”

Just a brief stroll around the block during the work day could give you that boost of energy and creativity you need to finish the day strongly.

Just a brief stroll around the block could give you that boost of energy and creativity you need to finish the day strongly.

This might not seem to affect students quite as much given that elementary, middle, and high school students all have mandatory lunch breaks, but if you think your example of constantly being on the clock, of using lunchtime, dinnertime, breakfast time (all the time) as work time isn’t being seen and absorbed by your children, then you’re sorely mistaken.

As parents and teachers, we are the ones who lay the groundwork for our children; we’re the ones creating the rules and norms to be inherited by our young thinkers and students. So, if not for the sake of your own health and creativity, take a break for the sake of your kids’–take a break for the sake of their future, for your own happiness as well as theirs.

SJES Student Support

With the internet in our pockets these days, multitasking seems to be at an all-time high. I’m a big multitasker myself, especially when I’m at home. After work, I move a million miles a minute: washing dishes, packing breakfast and lunch for the next day, prepping dinner, and picking up around the house – all while checking email each time my phone beeps. I race through these tasks, often dropping food on the floor, and I wonder if doing so many things at once is helping me be any more efficient?

multitasking cartoonAccording to countless research studies, it’s true that multitasking decreases your quality of work and slows you down. For example, writing an email and talking on the phone both use the same part of the brain. So, these competing tasks decrease the brain’s efficiency; you would be better off hanging up the phone and then taking the extra time…

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Talks with Parents of Successful Kids: The Brewer Family

This is the start of Tutoring 101’s newest blog series: Talks with Parents of Successful Kids. This series is meant to not only provide some hope during times when most publications seem only concerned with how many college graduates remain unemployed today, but to also encourage greater conversation between parents regarding how to promote success for their kids, what schools they liked or didn’t like, and what kind of advice these parents may have to share with parents of younger children.

Flora and Michael Brewer raised their children in Fort Worth, Texas, and can boast of having two tremendously successful sons, Evan and Matthew Brewer. Both Evan and Matthew attended Fort Worth Country Day for their high school years.

After Country Day, Evan was accepted into Southwestern University (Georgetown, TX), awarded merit-based scholarships, and majored in Business with a Theatre minor. By the time he was ready to graduate, he had acceptance letters from three different graduate schools already in hand. He ultimately decided to attend Johns Hopkins University and to pursue a master’s degree in Health Administration. He now works as a Financial Analyst with the Johns Hopkins University Department of Neurology and is on track to become a Financial Manager within the next two years.

Matthew also has more than a few things to brag about. He was accepted into Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music after high school (also on a merit-based scholarship) and studied Opera, German, and International Affairs. He now works with the Policy Studies Organization in Washington, DC, and has just been accepted into Johns Hopkins’ prestigious School of Advanced International Studies for his graduate education.

So, when we found out about this impressive pair of brothers, we knew we needed to talk with the Brewers about what exactly they did to end up with such successful children.

T101:

Thank you for agreeing to interview with us, Mr. and Mrs. Brewer. Why don’t we start by asking a big, complicated basic: How would you define your parenting philosophy?

Mike:

Well, let me start off by saying that we both are uncomfortable when our parenting is singled out as a key to our kids’ “success.” First, because becoming a “successful person” (i.e. more than financially) is a lifetime adventure and challenge. Second, because we know how lucky we were to have such great material to work with. What we’re willing to take credit for is (apparently) not screwing up a combination of traits and potential that was in our children from birth. If they had been born with different traits, they would be different people, and suddenly we might not be considered “successful parents” at all. Kids have much more to do with their own success than they know, or get credit for, as does the environment into which they’re born.

My opinion is highly biased by my belief that specific parenting techniques are much less important than the material you have to work with. Every child is unique, so we would have behaved differently if we had had children with different personalities and gifts/handicaps. I’m personally very skeptical of the “successful parent” concept, other than the basics that pretty much everyone knows about—you know, like don’t starve or beat them; try to show them interesting things and encourage them when they become interested in useful activities; etc. I really believe that “successful” parenting is pretty much combining common sense with good material (and, let’s face it, it’s a rare child that doesn’t have some really good material inherent to them).

T101:

What kinds of hobbies or interests did your sons exhibit as young (elementary aged) children? Did you have to force them into any clubs or extracurricular activities or did they choose these things for themselves?

Flora:

I would have to say that I strongly encouraged them to study some musical instrument. I jumped to give them lessons in anything they showed an interest in. But if they didn’t want to continue, I let it drop. I remember they both enjoyed art as a way to relax and be creative. The serious extracurriculars started in middle school, but we also encouraged summer activities whenever we could. Evan, for example, spent every summer at “zoo school”—couldn’t get enough of it.

Mike:

Mostly the kids chose activities that met their interests. The boys had very different tastes in activities, with the oldest [Evan] more into sports and outdoor activities, while the youngest [Matthew] enjoyed indoor things like video and strategy games. We tried to make them aware of opportunities, and encouraged them to at least try some things they were even mildly interested in or curious about, but we didn’t force either boy to join clubs or teams.

T101:

What kind of study regimens did you have for your sons? Did you have to struggle to get them to do their homework?

Mike:

We used the burden of high expectations. Both boys were clearly very bright, so we placed more emphasis on whether they achieved in school according to their potential. We made very clear to them our expectations that the necessary work would get done. Both boys could handle most homework assignments during free time at school or in a short session at home until they reached high school, so we had no set guidelines for how long each had to study. We told them early on that, because they were clearly capable of A-grade work, we expected mostly A report cards, and we questioned them about their reasons for any grade lower than an A-.

Flora:

It’s funny, but my children would say that I wasn’t satisfied with anything less than an A. After praising them, I would immediately go to the A- and ask, “What could you have done better?” I think it made them feel bad, though. But that was a good way of reminding them of expectations, potential, and the importance of taking responsibility for things.

Mike:

The boys mostly complied with these expectations and we had only a few conflicts over poor effort on their part. We told them that intelligence and being naturally good at school were gifts that couldn’t be bought or earned, and those gifts brought with them the responsibility to use them properly. It was the undervaluation of their gifts that we would not tolerate, because those gifts are too valuable to both themselves and society at large to ever justify wasting.

Flora:

Of course, our children also grew up having high expectations of themselves. Evan has been a perfectionist from birth. We had trouble with homework in elementary school because he stressed out over it. I would sit with him and encourage him to “just do it”—very frustrating sessions. But then, one night when he was seven, he took a knife out of the kitchen drawer and said, “This is my homework killer!” And, from then on, he “just did it.” (Without the knife, of course!) He had just had to come to his own terms with the challenge and find his own confidence.

T101:

What kind of extracurricular activities and electives did your children participate in as high school students? How do you think these impacted their college choices and careers?

Mike:

Our oldest son participated in sports and theater starting in middle school, and he continued those activities through his junior year in high school, when he stopped sports and took ballet instead. He always loved theater, and he continued to act and study acting into college. Our youngest was more introverted, and was never interested in sports. He got involved in both theater and choir in middle school also, and continued both in high school. He became an All-State musician all four years of high school, and went to choral concerts and solo competitions throughout his high school years. Both boys enjoyed acting and appeared together in several theater performances. They were delighted to act in the same shows when they could and, even though there was the normal teenage boy kind of competitiveness between them, they got along very well during high school.

Flora:

I knew that Matthew could sing. He had an amazing ability to identify tunes and pitches. But, for a while, he was only interested in videogames and I hoped he would get into other things. So, I kept encouraging the music. If he told me he liked the music to a videogame, I would order it and play it for him on the piano. That led to him wanting to play the piano as well. I introduced him to a friend of mine for voice lessons in middle school whose personality fit well with Matthew’s. Before singing, he had no interest in any organized group activities, nor would he leave home even to sleep over at a friend’s house. But singing got him going to camps and traveling. Then traveling internationally. Then studying abroad. His interest in a career in the Foreign Service was never something you might have anticipated for him before singing.

T101:

Your kids attended private schools for both elementary and high school. What schools did they attend and what did you like/dislike about these schools?

Mike:

Both attended the same schools, the oldest being two years ahead of the youngest. They attended a small private K-8 school called Fort Worth Academy, where they got a fine general-purpose education designed to assist them in being accepted in private or magnet high school programs. They attended Fort Worth Country Day high school, a private school with a reputation for academic quality and excellent fine arts programs, which were important to both boys as well as their mother (who was herself a voice major in college and who educated both boys in music theory and basic piano and voice).

Flora:

We learned that a reputation for a good fine arts program did not mean that the program was good. I found that I had to advocate continually for better teachers, better facilities, more access to competition opportunities, and advanced classes that these schools just didn’t have. A public school would already have these programs, but private schools are often too small. Matthew would not have passed the entrance exam for Oberlin if we hadn’t convinced the school to offer him an independent study in music theory. But after that, they made it a regularly offered course.

T101:

Did your kids ever seek professional tutoring? How did they prepare for the ACT, SAT, and GRE?

Mike:

Their high school was designed to produce graduates who attended fine colleges, and their education, as well as the test prep and college application process, was highly organized by school personnel who were professionally adept in the art of college admission processes. Both boys were fine students in the top 10 of their graduating classes, and both did well on standardized tests. These factors, combined with the professional application support program at their high school, virtually guaranteed a successful admissions process. If a successful student did not get accepted by their “dream college,” they were virtually assured of getting into one or two of the top 3 schools on their preference list. We were amazed by the depth of information the college admissions support program had, and the 2-year supervised and scheduled application development program the school provided. All high schools that profess to get their grads into college should have a similar program. If parents and students followed the timeline and guidance they received, and completed the application paperwork in the manner the school suggested, any student with reasonable academic ability would gain admission to a good college, even if the school wasn’t “famous.”

T101:

What advice would you offer to parents of young kids who are looking to get their children more interested in school and college?

Flora:

Kids have to have their own reason to want to go to school. For our kids, it was fine arts. Beyond that, you just love ’em, help ’em whenever they need help. If you can’t help them, get someone who can. Talk to them about their work. Take a real interest in what they are studying. Tell them you believe they can be successful. Somebody should ask my kids all these questions! Find out what they think helped! I love what the head of Fort Worth Academy used to say: Third grade is the best preparation for fourth grade, fourth grade is the best preparation for fifth grade…. He encouraged me not to look forward too much or to worry if they were going to get into a good college when they were still only in kindergarten. 

Mike:

I suggest being straight with them; appeal to their logic and sense of self-esteem. Remind them that a college education provides choices of future employment, while not having one tends to close doors they don’t even know exist yet. Having options in life is vital for success and happiness, in career and everything else. Humans need options to be happy and fulfilled. Not having a college degree removes so many options before a student even becomes aware of the complexities of life.

Gig: A Book for Students & Parents Curious to Explore Unique Careers

Gig Book coverGig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, and Sabin Streeter, is a tremendous resource that I wish I’d had as a kid growing up and thinking about what I wanted to be one day. For me, as it is with many people, the job market from my perspective as a high schooler was simply College. It had nothing to do with actual jobs. And when I was queried about what I’d do with my college degree? I’d just shrug and rattle off the usual suspects: teacher, activist, artist, etc.

And, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with this line of thinking or focusing on these (great!) jobs as possible careers, it was an incredibly limited view of the world and all that it can offer young, creative minds.

Thank goodness for books like Gig! Now, we don’t normally plug specific books here, but this one caught our eye as especially useful for both students and parents who may be dreading or just plain avoiding the topic of college majors and job opportunities altogether. This book is one of those rare finds that not only discusses unusual and “usual” jobs, but which actually provides honest (sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking) first-hand accounts of what it’s like to work these jobs from people who have been working them for years. As soon as I came across this book, I knew it was perfect for both students (of all ages) and parents as a tool to not only expand their thinking of their own potential but of the potential of jobs/careers that are not often thought of or considered desirable (such as long-distance truck driving or hatter work).

But, of course, more than jobs–this is a book of passions. Finding and practicing one’s passion in a career can be hard to accomplish–after all, it’s hard enough to even recognize the face(s) of one’s “true” passion(s) (especially at so early a stage in life as high school or college).  This book includes narratives of some workers who are thrilled with their work and of others who are consistently disappointed in it. What’s most impressive, however, is that these narratives don’t leave things at “I don’t like it” or “It’s great!” These narratives truly explore the ins-and-outs of different careers and why they’d work for some and be nightmares for others. If you’re looking for nuanced views of wild and varied jobs, then this is definitely a book to check out.

Even Ira Glass (the guy with one of the coolest jobs in the U.S. as host of This American Life), raved that Gig was “…surprising and entertaining and makes the world seem like a bigger and more interesting place. Gig manages to document everyday life and give pure narrative pleasure at the same time. One feels proud to live in the same country as the people in this book.”

And, having read the book and felt both relief and envy at the many tales captured within, I couldn’t agree more. In other words, it’s a book that can help students begin learning about careers that require and don’t require college degrees, jobs that could take them all over the world, jobs that they may have misjudged for better or worse, and jobs that they may have never even known existed.

As Andrew Ross, Director of the American Studies Program at New York University, said of Gig: “In the age of advanced spin, this book accomplishes a very rare thing. It actually lets workers speak for themselves. . . . The result makes for a fascinating read.”

So, if you’re having trouble getting your students/kids excited about college or their career potential (or considering a new career move for yourself whether you’re a parent or child), this book is definitely a great way to spark a more nuanced and thoughtful conversation regarding the whole wild craze of career building and job searching.