Home > Educational Neuroscience > Is Technology Affecting the Student’s Brain?

Is Technology Affecting the Student’s Brain?

Students today are surrounded by media: cell phones, smartphones, multiple televisions, MP3 players, movies, computers, video games, iPads, e-mail, and the Internet. Eight- to 18-year-olds spend an average of seven hours per day with digital media (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). The multimedia environment divides their past, only the reporter’s face was on the screen. Now, the TV screen I am looking at is loaded with information. Three people are reporting in from different corners of the world. Additional unrelated news is scrolling across the bottom, and the stock market averages are changing in the lower right-hand corner just below the local time and temperature. For me, these tidbits are distracting and are forcing me to split my attention into several components. I find myself missing a reporter’s comment because a scrolling item caught my attention. Yet, children have become accustomed to these information-rich and rapidly changing messages. They can shift their attention quickly among several things, but their brains can still focus on only one thing at a time.

The Myth of Multitasking. Sure, we can walk and chew gum at the same time because they are separate physical tasks requiring no measurable cognitive input. However, the brain cannot carry out two cognitive processes simultaneously. Our genetic predisposition for survival directs the brain to focus on just one item at a time to determine whether it poses a threat. If we were able to focus on several items at once, it would dilute our attention and seriously reduce our ability to make the threat determination quickly and accurately.

What we refer to as multitasking is actually task switching. It occurs as sequential tasking (attention moves from Item A to Item B to Item C, etc.) or alternate tasking (attention moves between Items A and B). Whenever the brain shifts from focusing on Item A to focusing on Item B and back again to Item A, there is a cognitive loss involved. Figure 1.7 illustrates the process that will unfold in the following example. The solid graph line represents the amount of working memory used to process a homework task, and the dotted graph line represents the amount used to process an incoming phone call. Let us say Jeremy is a high school student who is working on a history assignment and has just spent 10 minutes focusing on understanding the major causes of World War II. The thinking part of his brain is working hard, and a significant amount of working memory is processing this information.

Degree of Focus on Assignment and Phone Call

Figure 1.7 When an assignment is interrupted by a phone call, memory resources dedicated to the assignment decline, and resources dealing with information from the phone call increase.

Suddenly, the cell phone rings. It is Jeremy’s girlfriend, Donna. As he answers the phone, his brain must disengage from processing history information to recalling the steps to answer- ing and attending to a phone call. Jeremy spends the next six minutes chatting with Donna. During that time, much of the World War II information that Jeremy’s working memory was processing begins to fade as it is replaced by information from the phone call. (Working memory has a limited capacity.) When Jeremy returns to the assignment, it is almost like starting all over again. The memory of having worked on the assignment may cause the stu- dent to believe that all the information is still in working memory, but much of it is gone. He may even mumble, “OK, where was I?” The task of switching tasks incurs a price (Monk, Trafton, & Boehm-Davis, 2008). Some studies indicate that a person who is interrupted dur- ing a task may take up to 50 percent longer to finish the task and make up to 50 percent more errors (Medina, 2008).

Task Switching and Complex Texts. Living in a world where task switching is the norm may be affecting a student’s ability to read and concentrate on complex texts. In a 2006 report, the assessment and research firm ACT examined the readiness of high school graduates to tackle the reading required of college texts and technical manuals. The study found that there was no signifi- cant difference between the scores of students who were college bound and those who were not in the areas of reading for the main idea, the meaning of words, supporting evidence, generalizations, and conclusions. Another finding was that the one reading measure that clearly differentiated between college-bound and non-college-bound students was the ability to comprehend complex texts. These texts usually contain high-level vocabulary and elaborate grammatical structure, as well as literal and inferred meanings. ACT noted that a little more than half of the high school graduates were able to meet the demands of first-year college-level reading, based on a national readiness indicator.

Is it possible that high school students have become so adapted to task switching that they have not developed the cognitive discipline necessary to read complex tests? Bauerlein (2011) suggests that successfully reading complex texts demands the following three skills that constantly wired students may not be developing:

1. A willingness to probe an author’s writings for literal and inferred meanings and to pause and deliberate over the unfolding story. E-texts, on the other hand, are short and move back and forth quickly, habituating students to moving quickly over text rather than to slowing down and reflecting.

2. A capacity for uninterrupted thinking to maintain a train of thought and to hold enough information in working memory to understand the text. Complex texts are not constructed to allow for quick snippets of attention as they often deal with scenes and ideas not known to today’s teenagers. Grasping meaning from complex tests requires single-tasking and constant focus, not the task switching and rapid and constant interaction of digital communications.

3. An openness for deep thinking that involves, for instance, deciding whether to agree or disagree with the author’s premise, and reflecting on alternatives. Complex texts often cause teenagers to confront the paucity of their knowledge and the limits of their experiences. Instead of being humbled by these revelations and reading deeper, adolescents respond by accepting that the persona they have established on their personal profile pages is self-sufficient.

Bauerlein suggests that high schools devote at least one hour a day to research assignments that use print matter, require no connection to the Internet, and include complex texts. The key is not to eliminate technology, but to control its invasion into the time that should be devoted to deep thinking.

Technology is neither a panacea nor an enemy. It is a tool. Students in the primary and middle school grades still need personal contact and interaction with their teachers and peers. This is an important part of social development, but technology, perhaps to a great extent, is reducing the frequency of these interactions. We should not be providing technology for technology’s sake, nor should the technology be an end unto itself. Rather than teaching with the various technologies, teachers should use them to enhance, enrich, and present their content more efficiently. Many Internet sites offer free materials to help teachers expand their lessons with audio and video pieces. See the Resources section of How the Brain Learns, 4th ed.  for some suggested sites.

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