How our brain's relationship to tech is providing new opportunities and challenges in education

When it comes to the development of our brains, we’re millions of years in the making, or so the story goes. The balance between nature and nurture has long been a shifting, undulating line caught somewhere between ‘you’re born with it’ and ‘you picked it up when you were a kid.’

But recent increases in our understanding of the brain have continued to show that physiological changes to the brain can be effected through the very habits that consume our daily lives – not least of which, our current dependence on our devices. Neuroplasticity, the ability for our brain to change at the cellular level over the course of our lives, has gradually replaced the notion that we’re sitting with a physiologically static organ inside our skulls.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways we’re seeing ourselves affected by the tech that shapes our environment – and how we can smartly move forward with a better understanding of these changes.

A hyperlinked new world 

The technological advances over the last 35 years have fundamentally changed how we view and interact with the world. Whereas gathering info about our surroundings was paramount (the ability to memorize, regurgitate, compile) – we now have this info handed to us on a platter. Our daily tasks are changing from linear and sequential to hyper linked and concurrent. We use fundamentally new tools, processes and methodologies that keep evolving at a faster and faster rate.

Our world is expanding too. We communicate and stay in touch with people all over the globe. Events and local phenomena, big and small, spread globally through social media channels in mere minutes, creating a global awareness and a universality of thoughts and ideas across cultures and continents never before witnessed in the history of man. Will future evolutionary advantages go to those who are able to process and analyze this wealth of information better than their genetic competitors? Surprisingly, it’s not simply our higher-functioning mental areas that are under effect.

Better, Sharper, Faster

It may not be a lion stalking us in the savannah, but a 2013 study found that first-person shooter video games, such as Halo and Call of Duty, boost decision-making and visual skills. These immersive games force players to make snap decisions based on visual cues, which enhances visuospatial attention skills, or the ability to parse details of your physical environment. Gamers are also better at detecting contrast between objects in dim environments.

Meanwhile, complex, strategy-based games like Starcraft may improve the brain's "cognitive flexibility," or the ability to switch between tasks, thus enhancing the much-disputed ability to multitask. This was particularly true among older study participants.

Parsing Through the Information

The last 35 years technological revolution have impacted not only the tools we use, but also how they have enabled us to do and understand things in completely new ways. Will it be possible to continue using a static and linear curriculum for education that focus on memorization of facts?

When all the world’s knowledge is available at the tip of your fingers, what should a modern education system focus on? Reading and writing and math and languages are still fundamentals. But what else do we need in this brave new world?

One area that is becoming increasingly important is critical thinking. Starting early at age three or four using tablets to play games or watch movies on, children are bombarded by both social and commercial messages. Gathering info isn’t a challenge…but parsing through it and interpreting it becomes more important than ever.

According to a Finnish university study of sixth-graders (graciously interpreted by Quartz) published in April, only 21% could recognize that a website was less reliable due to a commercial bias. A whopping 48% assumed the site was a reliable source for investigating health effects of energy drinks. The rest of the kids? It was essentially an even split between those who got a sense it was unreliable, but couldn’t tell why, and those who gave random reasons other than a commercial bias.

Student motivation is another factor to consider. When you are used to experience something by virtually “being there”, by communicating with the persons actually doing it, by being able to personally take part and play simulations of the same thing, how can reading about it in a textbook compete? Even if it is being read on an iPad.

Preparing for the future

While the pros and cons are still being properly studied and understood (and may take more decades to truly understand the impact), there are already pathways and clues towards some key areas that should be addressed, or taken advantage of, by any modern educational system:

  1. Critical thinking

In a world where everyone, including companies and governments, can broadcast their personal opinions and messages, facts and fiction need to be able to be judged for what they are more than ever before in history.

  1. Abstract thinking and problem solving techniques

With instant access to information and facts it is critical to understand that knowledge and understanding aren’t the same thing. Logical deduction, reasoning and methodologies are ways to teach students ways to true understanding of whatever they need to learn in the future.

PBL, problem-based-learning in a group, is one methodology that focuses on understanding the question, which is the first step to real understanding, not just “knowledge”. PBL strengthens students self-learning skills, fosters critical thinking, deduction and working as a team.

  1. Motivation – Immersive, Gamified & Social

The core fun in playing games can be thought of as “learning under optimal conditions”. Modern gamification methodologies tie into human mechanisms to help communicate relevant progress, add meaning and structure in otherwise hard-to-grasp tasks or where motivation is difficult to maintain. By using game design methodologies, adding a purpose, goals, and rewards, any subject can be turned from a potential struggle into a series of benchmarks that propels the student forward with gusto. 

Virtual Reality solutions are also on the brink of being able to bring the entire world into the classroom, allowing for visceral first hand experiences. Imagine standing on the great wall of China, or waling into one of the great pyramids in Egypt, or stand next to the actual moon lander. On the moon!

A.R. can also allow “face to face” encounters with other students and teachers across the world, allowing for a “Live visit” to the Ayer’s Rock in central Australia, learning about the significance of sacred rock paintings and the Dreamtime from actual Aborigines.

This University of Georgia Study is but one example of how adding a purpose to learning can help motivation in students. When a test group of students were exposed to a game-like tutoring software, benchmarks including boredom, anger, and enjoyment increased or decreased in the desired directions greatly.

  1. Control the tools, control the world

For many, the Internet and digital world feels out of touch – something to consume rather that create or shape. While there’s ample evidence that the newest generation of kids will not suffer from these same perceptual boundaries, we must ensure to develop curricula to support their needs. Teaching how to use the most common digital tools and methodologies as well as how they work, and letting the students create projects using them, provides students with the ability to express their inner creativity and help them understand how abstract concepts can be expressed in different ways. 

This means clear-cut guidelines for things we might normally overlook, or traditionally let kids simply ‘stumble through’: Internet search; Image, movie, music creation and editing tools; Blog & web programming; gamification, monetization best-practices, and 3D Design and printing.

  1. Creativity and Innovation techniques

Contrary to popular belief, new ideas usually don’t appear as Eureka moments. Innovation should be approached in a deterministic way, using concepts like “Occam’s Razor” and breaking down behaviors and needs into their underlying core components. By understanding how existing concepts can be modified and combined, students can be taught how anyone can contribute to improving things we today take for granted.  

This will include dedicating some curriculum time to concepts like ‘remixing’ (by combining the existing into something new), which extends into making sure our youth have an understating of IP rights, history, and methodologies.

  1. Embracing the flexibility of alternate teaching materials 

Platforms such as YouTube, Coursera and Khan Academy have every imaginable lesson on a myriad of topics, be it Algebra, Oxidation and Reduction in Chemistry, to mastering Pro-tools or how to grow Wheatgrass. Often the lectures are written or performed by passionate experts in respective fields – experts that would often command a hefty fee for their education in a formal environment

Final Thoughts

It seems Huxley might trump Orwell as Neil Postman concluded in “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Aldous Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” But perhaps our future can be much much brighter if we choose to fully embrace our newfound knowledge and technology.