This is Your Brain on Google…Any Questions?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 6th, 2010

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.”

Balancing the Books

by Robert Pondiscio
July 6th, 2010

“They eat up millions of your hard earned tax dollars,” Fox News reports. ”It’s money that could be used to keep your child’s school running.”  Care to guess the evil culprit that’s draining municipal coffers?


A calcuated-to-set-tongues-wagging report by a Fox News affiliate in Chicago has, well, succeeded in setting tongues wagging.  The piece points out that Chicago pays $120 million a year or 2.5 percent of yearly property taxes to pay for libraries in which only a fraction of people ever set foot.  And among those that do go, a significant portion never touch a book–they go to use the Internet. “So with the internet and e-books, do we really need millions for libraries?” they report.  You decide.

Before you roll your eyes, remember the Boston prep school that made headlines recently when it decided to take its library bookless?  As someone who spends much of his working life in libraries (even in winter when the AC is not the primary lure)  it’s hard not to notice the enormous costs needed to maintain physical collections in so many neighborhoods.