Skip to main content

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.’ “

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has publish...