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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 07/ 5/2010

Is technology changing our brains? -- Willingham

By Valerie Strauss

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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Comments

I think the new technology is more dangerous to girls as boys view more pornography.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 5, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

"Today, he watches YouTube videos and doesn’t get back to his homework for 15 minutes."

Why do education writers assume that homework is good for kids? The average YouTube video is probably more educational than most of the pointless homework our kids are assigned.

Check out my new blog, the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools:

http://kidfriendlyschools.blogspot.com/

Posted by: FedUpMom | July 5, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Another brilliant post especially:

"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.'”

And even better:

"If this were true it’s not clear to me that it would call for a profound change in teaching."

Coaches read body language, guage the flow of the game, and call timeout when they need to adjust the tempo or style. Teachers read body language, respond with a joke or a hug, and redirect. We should respond to the challenge of technology by being mre, not less, sensitive to nuances in kids learning. We should be less willing to make snap judgements and making sweeping judgements about human beings.

When my beer belly grows, I joke about having more to love. OK, scratch that analogy ...

When technology expands, that creates more of the human comedy to embrace. The more technology grows, the more we need to trust and expand our people skills.

Posted by: johnt4853 | July 5, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

"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."
___________________

I guess it could be argued that our behaviors are changing; whether this means our actual brains are changing is probably not verifiable at this point.

Having taught over the period from the mid-70s until 2007, I would like to offer the following observations in behavioral changes and some concerns:

- in the last 5 years or so of my teaching career (post 2000), I noticed not only many students, but a number of young teachers speaking rapid-fire, seemingly without taking a breath in-between 4 or 5 sentences. This rapid-fire speech is also evident in news broadcasters, particularly on the radio...it makes one wonder how much people are thinking through what they are saying,and obviously sets up some issues for the listener as regards processing information.

- distractibility; I worked with a lot of ADHD students over the years, but it definitely seemed on the increase, and in my classroom routine itself, there seemed to be endless interruptions in the day as more and more layers of activities were piled on for teachers to be aware of. It got to the point where I couldn't get through a class without at least 1 interruption, and usually more (out of 5 classes in a day, make that 5 - 10), and probably the most stressful part of teaching in the last 6-7 years was the constant interruptions as it affected my own ability to focus on student issues, and the students would get off task.

- There are a number of others, but I will run out of space, so I'd like to add
a theory by a doctor I heard some 15 years ago regarding the pace at which we were trying to do things and it went something like this:
Doing things at a more rapid pace, I believe he said, can up the rate of adrenaline released, and the doctor was speculating that there was a possibility that we could become addicted to our own adrenaline.

In any event, think it's worth a bit of time-out time for educators, behaviorists and medical people to do some IN-DEPTH reflection on the above issues.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | July 5, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Here's a good article about this very subject.

http://www.slate.com/id/2224932/pagenum/all/#p2

Posted by: cmecyclist | July 5, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large: Is ADHD really on the increase, or are the schools, teachers, parents, and doctors just more aware of it? My oldest brother definitely showed signs of ADHD as a grade-schooler in the late 1940s and still shows signs of adult ADHD. My cousin has been diagnosed since reaching adulthood. None of them were diagnosed while in school, but it was present. My brother, at least, was just told he should "try harder." My cousin was lucky enough to have experienced nuns who told my aunt, "He's not stupid and he really is trying--we have no idea what to do with him." My father, I think, showed some signs of it. When my mother began teaching in the mid-1960s, there were dyslexic and ADHD kids in the "slow-learners" class. Frequently, when a youngster is diagnosed with a learning disability, one parent or the other stares at the doctor and says, "That sounds just like me at his age."

It's been around for a long time--but those people don't get to quit school and find a job where it's less of a handicap.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 5, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Hi to sideswith the kids:

Re: "Is ADHD really on the increase, or are the schools, teachers, parents, and doctors just more aware of it?...."
_____________________________

Well this question is the BIG ONE!

I think most researchers, teachers, doctors, counselors and parents have varied opinions on this, and to my knowledge,there aren't definitive conclusions.

In my own family,like yours, several members have dylexia and ADHD issues, which I only realized after being in the field for a few years.

From my teaching years - and I am not a
researcher with data that I can cite -
I have felt that if the actual incidence isn't on the increase, the severity seems to be, and I base this loosely on the following:

1. As my teaching years progressed, strategies that were once successful seemed less so, I observed more students in
need of medication interventions (and I am definitely a medication-as-last-resort person), and I couldn't remember seeing so many students just struggling to stay on task.......

2. In recent years, in my own extended family and in families of other people I know, young people have been diagnosed with
fairly severe forms of OCD, ADHD, Autism, Asbergers, & Tourettes. All the families referred to have caring, well-informed parents who work hard to give their children well-balanced lives outside of school(exercise,creative outlets, down-time,etc.)and yet have had to seek interventions from specialists. While there were some learning difficulties present in the previous generations, no one had remembered the severity presented in the younger generations.

From conversations with various professionals and family members/friends, there is a lot of concern regarding food additives (starting with the fetus from food the mother eats)and environmental pollutants. We are also saving infants that may not have once survived. Think that
the age of parents is being looked at as
many people are having children later in life.

In relation to the question raised in this article re technology affecting the brain, my personal opinion is that technology in conjunction with our fast-track, multi-tasking life styles is almost certainly affecting our abilities to focus and to do reflective thinking in-depth.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | July 5, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

FedUpMom, nobody cares about your stupid blog. You know who doesn't like homework? Stupid lazy kids and their stupid lazy parents.

Posted by: bendan2000 | July 5, 2010 11:21 PM | Report abuse

Question for bendan2000: How much homework have you done lately? Have you spent an evening copying a chapter by hand because the teacher had to assign homework and couldn't think of anything else? Did you take a pile of work with you on vacation? (Not work you chose to do or work that you thought wouldn't get done otherwise, but work your boss handed you on your last day with instructions to get it back to him your first day back?) When have you spent Thanksgiving weekend doing work assigned specifically for that weekend? When have you spent the evening doing a variation of the same task over and over for practice? When have you had to do work at home because your boss decided to hold a meeting during the day so you could hold a pep rally for the company softball team? When have you spent an evening at home doing work that you had already done, or that no one had explained adequately in the first place?

Who doesn't like homework? Kids who like to learn things, kids who don't like to learn things, kids who want part-time jobs, parents who want their kids to be part of the family, parents who would like to stage a "family night," teachers who care more about the actual learning than the appearance of learning, educators who have studied the correlation between homework and learning (there isn't one).

Who likes homework? Parents who have no idea what their kids are doing in school, parents who don't want to be bothered by their kids after dinner, teachers who don't want to come up with lesson plans that actually teach kids things in class, school administrators who want visible signs of an invisible process (learning), all adults who dislike and distrust kids and don't want them to have any unregulated time, and all people who say, "I had to and my kid's going to have to." (This is the attitude that has preserved hazing at military academies and fraternities and keeps interns working 100-hour weeks in spite of studies correlating medical mistakes with long hours.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 6, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

I don't think technology is altering the cognitive processes as much as altering the process in which we search for information. The availability of information via the technology is good, but people still don't readily realize that the accuracy of the information is suspect. As more folks rely on ubiquitous access to information, there needs to be a process or understanding to verify the information before use or regurgitating said information as fact.

Posted by: SpecTP | July 6, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

btw.. the URL cut off is pretty funny.

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/daniel-willingham/is-technology-changing-our-bra.html

our 'bra' indeed...

Posted by: SpecTP | July 6, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

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