Waitzkin on the Multitasking Virus
By Josh Waitzkin, intro by Betsy Dynako   
June 2, 2008
Josh Waitzkin poses for a photo at the 2008 K-6 Nationals

Josh Waitzkin, one of the world's most recognizable chess personalities, gained popular fame as the subject of his father's book turned movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer".  Josh stepped back from chess at 22, to explore his interest in Eastern Philosophy and Tai Chi Chuan. In 2004, Waitzkin became a world champion in Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands Competition. He holds a combined 21 National titles and is training in a new discipline, Brazilian Ju Jitsu.

Waitzkin's successes have caused many to question how one person could become a champion in what seems like completely unrelated pursuits.  Waitzkin answered this question for himself and others in his 2007 book "The Art of Learning", which just came out in paperback.

 In the year following the book's publication Waitzkin has seen his life take another turn. He is now the president of the
Josh Waitzkin Foundation. "My real passion is for education now, that's what I am really excited about in life," Waitzkin told me at the National K-6 Elementary Chess Championship in Pittsburgh, PA held in May of 2008."When my book came out I started getting approached by a lot of education groups, psychology groups, urban youth groups, gifted organizations, and groups that work with kids with learning disabilities."   

Through the JW Foundation, Waitzkin hopes to inspire a love for learning in the lives of the children.  In his own words, "The thing I am trying to do with my foundation is to open up the idea of excellence or success or mastery to children who are being told that they can not succeed. There has been a really powerful response about integrating the book, or chapters of my book into curriculums.  If schools cannot afford supplies I can donate copies of my book"

The Art of Learning is already being used for teacher training in Belize, in New Jersey public school teacher training, and in urban youth groups in San Francisco.  Waitzkin is working on creating an online learning environment, integrating the principles from his book.

Waitzkin recently wrote an insightful essay on what he calls the "multi-tasking" virus, reprinted below with Josh's permission.

Besides multitasking, there is one word that Waitzkin feels needs to be eliminated from the educator's vocabulary: perfection.  "Perfection is the most dangerous word in the learning process and I hear people use it all the time, "you played perfectly," or "you did this perfectly".  Perfection is devastating, it doesn't exist.  Creativity comes out of imperfection.  All of the most beautiful creations are born out of something going wrong and you just roll with it and you come up with something beautiful.  That's what inspiration is all about."

Multitasking Virus in our Classrooms  by Josh Waitzkin
This essay was originally published on http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog
A few weeks ago, I returned to the classroom of Dennis Dalton, the most important college professor of my life. From the back of an amphitheater seating several hundred students, I realized how much things had evolved at Columbia and Barnard. The lecture hall was now equipped with a wireless sound system, webcams, video projectors, wireless internet. Students were using computers to record the lecture and to take notes. Heads were buried in screens, the tap tap of hundreds of keyboards like rain on the roof.

On this afternoon, April 16, 2008, Dalton was describing the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, building the discussion around the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British colonial soldiers opened fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian men, women and children trapped in Jallianwala Bagh Garden. For 39 years, Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu. His lectures are about themes, connections between disparate minds, the powerful role of the individual in shaping our world. Dalton is a life changer, and this was one of his last lectures before retirement.

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief).  From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban Outfitters.com. She had finally found her shoes!

When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom.
Students defend this trend by citing their generation’s enhanced ability to multi-task. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot, in fact, multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of our processing. Brain activation for listening is cut in half if the person is trying to process visual input at the same time. A recent study at The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment 10 points. That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours—more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana. But to be honest, on the educational front, multi-tasking feels to me like a symptom of a broader sense of alienation.

I know what it is like to be disengaged. In fact, the crisis that played a large role in ending my chess career was rooted in becoming disconnected from my natural love for learning. Throughout my youth, I had been a creative, aggressive chess player. I loved the battle, and wild, dynamic chess felt like an extension of my being. Then, in my late teens a coach urged me to play in the opposite style, his style of quiet, positional, cold-blooded prophylaxis. Instead of cultivating my natural strengths, he boxed me into the cookie cutter mold he knew. In time, I lost touch with my intuitive feeling for chess, and without an internal compass I foundered in the swells of fame and high-pressure competition.

I see myself in the eyes of so many kids today. Too many primary, elementary, and high schoolers are being boxed into the mold of conformity required by big classes, competition for grades, tests with multiple choice questions. The first grader who leaps to his feet when he figures out the math problem is diagnosed as ADHD and medicated to sit quietly with the class. Young learners have immense pressure to perform, to get good grades, but no one is listening to the nuance of their minds. They feel suppressed, they are suppressed, and by the time students get to college, they have become disconnected from the love of learning. Then they are asked to read 1000 pages in a week and skimming is the only solution. Many of the students who actually were engaged in the Gandhi lecture, the ones who wanted to learn more than to shop, were taking notes on their computers in a frenzy, researching events online while Dalton described them, typing every last word of the lecture. But Dalton had already supplied them with a detailed course packet with all the relevant dates and facts. His classroom is an environment for reflection, introspection, and letting resonant themes sink into your being. Unfortunately, to these college students the notion of delighting in the subtle ripples of learning is almost laughable. Who has the time?

The societal implications of this educational crisis are huge and the issue must be addressed creatively. We cannot afford to lose a generation to apathetic disengagement. Part of the responsibility lies in public policies like No Child Left Behind, the standardized tests that are turning education into a forced march, and a culture that bombards us with so much stimulation that it is difficult to know what to focus on. But part of the burden also lies with parents, teachers and coaches, and with students themselves. I recently tried to persuade two smart 11-year-olds to give up video games for three weeks. One agreed to the experiment, and to send me a description of how the process feels. The other simply couldn't imagine life without the PSP, even for a day. Here was an eleven-year-old self-proclaimed incorrigible video game addict!

This story has a happy ending.  In the final month of classes, Dennis Dalton discussed the issues of multi-tasking with his students, and many responded. Last week when I went back to hear the final lecture of Dalton’s Barnard career, there were only a few kids surfing the internet—nearly all the students seemed riveted. Many told me they were relieved to have turned off their computers and relaxed into listening. A number of my old classmates came, and afterwards we threw a party for our teacher. After four decades inspiring college minds, he has decided to nip apathy in the bud by teaching younger kids. He will start with high school, but Dennis Dalton, one of our culture’s greatest minds, dreams of teaching kindergarten.

A note from Josh: Dear Teachers and Parents, I am researching the effect of video games on young minds. If you think it might be a healthy experience for your kids, please ask them to give up video games for two or three weeks, and write me about the experience at [email protected]. Thank you! Josh Waitzkin

The crowd at Josh's Pittsburgh "Art of Learning" signing