If so, head over to the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, where Dan Willingham takes up the increasingly common observation that the brains of “digital natives” are somehow wired differently than the brains of folks who didn’t grow up online. ”Are the very brains of our students being changed by new technologies?” Dan asks. ”And if so, should teachers contemplate new methods of instruction to teach these changed brains?” Caveats abound, but the short answer is probably not. Willingham cites a recent op-ed by fellow cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who downplays the alarming sounding idea that ”experience changes the brain.”
Cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.
“I think Pinker is right,” says Willingham. “The cognitive system is flexible and adaptive, sure, but it’s not that adaptive.”
OK, fine. But teachers often complain that surface engagement (think Twitter and Facebook) with information is driving a loss of ability to read deeply. Right? ”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,” Willingham writes, but that doesn’t mean “a profound change in teaching” is called for.
Sorry, Dan, I was just checking my email….Surely technology makes students more easily distractable, right?
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.
What kids will need, Willingham concludes, is ”education in the effective use of new technologies, which ought to happen in school and at home.”