Checking Email Every Minute, The Plastic Brain, and Schooling

If readers check email or Google during the day far more than they would ever admit while sober–or others stop what they are doing every few seconds to check Twitter–brain researchers have not helped us answer the question: why?

On the one hand, neuroscientists and journalists have argued that unrestrained access to information and communication have rewired the brain. The brain is plastic altering itself  in response to the environment and creating new neural pathways that ancestors lacked. So multi-tasking has become the norm and, better yet, we are more productive and connected to people as never before.

On the other hand, there are those neuroscientists who concur that the brain is plastic but it has hardly been rewired. Instead, complete access to information and people–friends, like-minded enthusiasts, and strangers–unleashes brain chemicals that give us pleasure. Or as one psychologist put it:

What the Internet does is stimulate our reward systems over and over with tiny bursts of information (tweets, status updates, e-mails) that … can be delivered in more varied and less predictable sequences. These are experiences our brains did not evolve to prefer, but [they are] like drugs of abuse….

To these researchers and journalist, the Internet and social media are addictive.

So these are competing views emerging from current brain research. Most studies producing these results, however, come from experiments on selected humans and animals. They are hardly definitive and offer parents and educators little about the impact on children and youth from watching multiple screens hours on end.

And nothing is mentioned about the  issue that both neuroscientists and philosophers persistently stumble over. Is the brain the same as the mind? Is consciousness–our sense of self–the product of neural impulses or is it a combination of memories, perceptions, and beliefs apart from brain activity picked up in MRIs? On one side are those who equate the brain with the mind (David Dennett) and on the other side are those who call such equivalency, “neurotrash.”

Yet even with the unknowns about the brain, its plasticity, and the mind, much less about what effects the Internet has upon young children, youth, and adults–“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” asked one writer–many school reformers have run with brain research with nary a look backward.

Consider those school reformers including technology enthusiasts who hate current school structures with such as passion that they call for bricks-and-mortar schools to go the way of  gas-lit street lights and be replaced by online instruction or other forms of schooling that embrace high-tech fully. Cathy Davidson, Duke University professor, to cite one example, makes such a case.

[T]he roots of our twenty-first-century educational philosophy go back to the machine age and its model of linear, specialized, assembly-line efficiency, everyone on the same page, everyone striving for the same answer to a question that both offers uniformity and suffers from it. If the multiple-choice test is the Model T of knowledge assessment, we need to ask: What is the purpose of a Model T in an Internet age?

Others call for blended learning, a combination of face-to-face (F2F in the lingo) and online lessons.

There’s this myth in the brick and mortar schools that somehow the onset of online K-12 learning will be the death of face-to-face … interaction. However this isn’t so — or at least in the interest of the future of rigor in education, it shouldn’t be. In fact, without a heaping dose of F2F time plus real-time communication, online learning would become a desolate road for the educational system to travel.

The fact is that there is a purpose in protecting a level of F2F and real-time interaction even in an online program…. The power is in a Blended Learning equation:

Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment

Then there are those who embrace brain research with lusty (and uncritical) abandon.

Students’ digitally conditioned brains are 21st century brains, and teachers must encourage these brains to operate fully in our classrooms…. If we can help students balance the gifts technology brings with these human gifts, they will have everything they need.

So where are we? In an earlier post (February 24, 2011) I quoted  cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, a frequent blogger and associate editor of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education. He offered three bullet-point facts for those educators caught up in brain-based research:

#The brain is always changing

#The connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious.

#Deriving useful information for teachers from neuroscience is slow, painstaking work.

Willingham ended his post by asking a key question:

“How can you tell the difference between bonafide research and schlock? That’s an ongoing problem and for the moment, the best advice may be that suggested by David Daniel, a researcher at James Madison University: ‘If you see the words ‘brain-based,’ run.’ “

3 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

3 responses to “Checking Email Every Minute, The Plastic Brain, and Schooling

  1. One of my favourite targets in this debate is the entire multi-tasking myth made much of by research like the Kaiser Family Foundation’s “Generation M2. Media in the Lives of 
8 to 18 Year-Olds.” Here’s what neuroscientist Martin Westwell (who won the Times newspaper’s Scientist of the New Century prize in 1999) has to say about it after carrying out his own research. This is from direct email communication with me and is something I use in my own presentations on the whole 21st century education nonsense.

    “multitasking actually requires the switching of attention from one thing to another (and back again) repeatedly . That is, we don’t parallel process…the ability to effectively switch attention is not fully developed in teens and in fact doesn’t finish developing until early 20’s…teens cannot multitask as effectively as adults”

    So the children the Kaiser Foundation and others report so excitedly multi-tasking, are in fact simply switching their limited attention repeatedly from one task to another, what a professional educator might describe as being distracted or failing to concentrate.

  2. M Snow

    What happened to self control? Many things give us pleasure, it doesn’t mean we overindulge. Part of growing up used to be learning self control from adults like parents and teachers. I’ve been doing email since it was invented back in the 1970’s. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes pleasurable, but it’s always controllable, and the benefits out weigh costs. The same is true for other social media tools.

  3. Pingback: Checking Email Every Minute, The Plastic Brain, and Schooling | For Parents: On Learning and Education | Scoop.it

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