Is technology changing our brains? -- Willingham
My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”
By Daniel Willingham
New technologies seem to touch every part of our lives: How we socialize, how we do business, how we elect people to our government and so on.
Is it equally obvious that these new technologies affect the way we think? Are the very brains of our students being changed by new technologies? And if so, should teachers contemplate new methods of instruction to teach these changed brains?
There are two rather obvious caveats that ought to be spelled out before we consider an answer. First, the phrase “new technologies” is empty, because everything depends on what students do with new technologies.
Are they reading Shakespeare, playing pong, following a thread on Twitter debating the merits of teacher merit pay, browsing pornography, or executing a meticulously planned raid of a dungeon with 30 others in World of Warcraft?
As the question is usually posed, it is assumed that kids use technology to consume and generate content of no intellectual consequence and that the use of these media is characterized by rapid shifts of attention and multitasking, and consequently, with little sustained attention to much of anything.
The second caveat is that there aren’t good data on this question. Everyone (including me) is speculating.
That said, here are three ways of thinking about ways student’s brains might change and my guess as to their likelihood.
The first is that students come to a teacher’s class with different cognitive equipment than students of a generation ago. It was this possibility that the eminent cognitive scientist Steven Pinker dismissed in a New York times op-ed. (Nick Carr, of “Is Google making us stupid?” fame responded.)
I think Pinker is right. The cognitive system is flexible and adaptive, sure, but it’s not that adaptive. Indeed, it’s the very flexibility that allows different experiences to be accommodated within the same system.
The second way to think about the question “Is technology changing our brains?” is to argue that experience doesn’t change the basic cognitive architecture, but it knocks it around a bit.
This possibility seems much more plausible to me. It’s basically saying, “If you do something a lot, you’ll be biased to do it again, and you’ll find doing it again a bit easier.”
People who argue that technology changes the way we think point out that action video games make players response times faster.
How would students look different in the classroom?
If students really do more skimming and less reflecting than they used to, they might be a bit better at skimming, a bit worse at reflective thought, and likely more biased (absent other instructions) to read at the surface of a text rather than to reflect on it.
If this were true it’s not clear to me that it would call for a profound change in teaching.
Teachers know in what mental process they want students to engage; often it’s reflection, sometimes it’s skimming, and so forth. So maybe students will start off somewhat less skilled in one type of thought than comparable students from a generation ago. That sounds like it requires a tweak, not a major rethinking of classroom practice.
A final possibility is that the answer to “Is technology changing our brains?” is a simple “no.” Or at least, not in any substantial way.
But new technologies might offer the opportunity for expression to things that kids' brains have always wanted to do.
In other words, technologies don’t make us more distractable. We’ve always been distractable, but now we have many more distractions available. And the distractions are more costly. Twenty years ago, a kid would daydream for a moment, and then return to his math homework. Today, he watches YouTube videos and doesn’t get back to his homework for 15 minutes.
And, of course, the core feature of some new technologies—connectivity—often means interruption. What you’re working on may be important, but it’s hard to resist checking your email when it pings.
This third possibility—that technology offers a new set of opportunity costs—strikes me as highly likely, but happily, it is the most straightforward to address. It requires education in the effective use of new technologies, which ought to happen in school and at home.
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| July 5, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Technology | Tags: cognitive science, daniel willingham, effects of technology, how technology affects kids, how technology affects students, is technology changing our brains, steven pinker and cognition, technology and brains, technology and cognition, technology and students, technology in the classroom
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