Is technology changing our brains? Probably not, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on Answer Sheet. “The cognitive system is flexible and adaptive, sure, but it’s not that adaptive.”
Perhaps using technology “doesn’t change the basic cognitive architecture, but it knocks it around a bit.” If so, we could expect students to be better at skimming information and worse at reflective thought. That wouldn’t be a big deal, Willingham argues.
Teachers know in what mental process they want students to engage; often it’s reflection, sometimes it’s skimming, and so forth. So maybe students will start off somewhat less skilled in one type of thought than comparable students from a generation ago. That sounds like it requires a tweak, not a major rethinking of classroom practice.
Or it’s possible that new technologies are letting kids’ brains do what they’ve always wanted to do.
In other words, technologies don’t make us more distractable. 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.
We can learn to cope with technology’s “opportunity costs,” Willingham thinks.
Update: The Age of Opposable Thumbs has replaced the Age of the Index Fingers, writes Anthony Mullen, the 2009 teacher of the year, reporting from the International Society for Technology in Education convention in Denver.