Recently, Sousa noticed that children who are growing up as digital natives are entering school with different mindsets and attitudes than those of previous generations, and he attributes this to technology. Here are his thoughts on the impact of technology on students and how teachers can adjust their teaching strategies to meet the needs of these 21st century learners.
How is technology rewiring children’s brains?
We are born with certain networks in our brains that were pre-wired during our time in utero. We have language networks, which allow us to learn language quickly because that’s a survival strategy. We have attention networks and memory networks. The brain, whose main job is to keep its owner alive, gathers information from its environment, assesses it, and then decides which information to use and which to reject. This goes on at a very fast pace for the first 10 years of a child’s life.
In earlier times, parents were the primary language teachers and the social skills teachers. They set the stage for how the child interacts with its world. That isn’t happening now so much. What is happening is technology is taking the place of parents and is teaching a very different set of rules to kids. It’s teaching them that it’s okay if something doesn’t interest them in 10 seconds, to move onto something else. So we’re definitely seeing attention systems affected.
Next we have memory systems. All of us have temporary and permanent memory. Temporary memory is made up of two components, immediate and working memory. Working memory is what you use when you’re processing consciously, right in the moment. It can only hold so many things at one time. A psychologist named George Miller discovered capacity back in the 1950s. It was about five items for kids before puberty and about seven for adolescents and adults. That has held up pretty well for the last 50 years; so much so that we didn’t pay attention to it anymore. About 10 years ago, some psychologists decided to find out how technology is impacting working memory. Is it increasing or decreasing working memory? Their tests show that the capacity of working memory seems to be decreasing. No one knows why for sure or if that’s good or bad. The general notion is that it’s probably not very good. There’s reasonable speculation as to why. Remember when you were in school and you had to learn something such as the names of the planets? You actually had to memorize them. Today, if you ask children the names of the planets, they haven’t memorized them. They go to a digital source to find the information. These young digital natives aren’t remembering information; they are remembering where to find it. And that is much less demanding on working memory than actually remembering the information.
Does that mean technology is shortening students’ attention spans?
No. Their attention spans are not getting shorter. What’s happening is the demands on their attention are increasing. When I went to school, school was my main focus. It’s where I received most of my information, besides from my parents. And there were very few distractions. I’d play a little after school, do my homework, and maybe watch a little TV. At that time TV just had a few channels, and it was a family TV, not a personal device. What do we have today? There’s email, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social media sites. Kids have homework, television, smartphones―all of these different things demand their attention. They have to parse their attention. They simply aren’t getting practice in sustained attention.
The fact is, once kids decide to focus on something, they can spend hours on it.
Is technology having an impact on language skills as well?
Yes. The human brain is pre-wired for language. As such, humans have developed an elaborate communication system. As babies, we can learn any of the thousands of languages spoken. We can learn several simultaneously. Generally speaking, we’ve always learned language from our caregivers. That slow, very enunciated speech parents speak to children is something that is done in every culture. It helps babies discriminate sounds of language (phonemes) from background noise. Also, it’s important to note that 70% of communication is nonverbal. When children are learning language, they are looking at the parent who is making the sounds. They’re looking at the lips, where the tongue is, the parent’s facial expression. All of this is part of language acquisition. You don’t get that on a screen. Even when you look at Baby Einstein, you realize the sound isn’t slow enough for children to discriminate language sounds from background noise.
All the screen does is confuse them. Children who are two years old or younger who are constantly exposed to TV can experience up to 20 months of language delay because of the confusion that TV brings to the brain’s language networks. A baby’s ability to understand color is affected, as well. The baby’s retina is trying to discriminate different colors. That child should be able to differentiate 60,000 colors by full development. In order to do that, he needs to compare colors side by side for a certain amount of time. That’s how it works. On a TV screen, colors change rapidly, so it slows down a child’s ability to learn colors.
You talk about how social skills are impaired by early exposure to technology. How do you see this playing out in our society as the next generation becomes adults?
Throughout history, we’ve learned social skills from our parents. You learned what to do or not to do in public or to others. Most of us in my generation had to be at the table for dinner, and that’s where many of these lessons happened. You learned these social things at an early age because you spent time with your parents. Kids don’t do that very much today. Children are over-scheduled, and they spend more time with their peers in school than their parents. So they’re learning social skills from peers and social media. The problem is the mirror neurons, also called empathy neurons, aren’t being developed. If I don’t know you well and I say something that I think is funny but you find it hurtful, I see that it didn’t create the effect I was expecting just by looking at your face and your body language. I’d try to make up for that by apologizing. So the mirror neurons are critical in face-to-face interaction for understanding how our behavior can affect the behavior of others. If you’re doing this communication through technology, you’re missing body language, tone, and even contextual language. The meaning comes from context not the actual words.
What we’re seeing is a kid will say something over the Internet that he’d probably never say to someone’s face. If he did, he’d apologize. When you don’t have a face to look at and see the response, you may not know the impact your words are having. But as we know, that impact can be severe. Some kids have committed suicide over what has been said over the Internet.
What are the implications for teachers, especially when we’re talking about attention and memory networks?
The implications for teachers are enormous. It means teachers―especially high school teachers who cover six or seven items in a 30-minute lesson―are out of luck before they even start. At some point after three or four items, working memory gets tired or bored or is interested in one item and the rest falls to the wayside. This has big meaning not only for instruction, but also curriculum. Are we teaching too darn much? Does it mean we should focus more on skill development than information acquisition? That’s what Common Core is trying to do―focus more on skill development rather than content acquisition. There are curriculum initiatives that are recognizing the need to shift from information acquisition, which is a hopeless task, to skill development. Today it’s more about learning how to learn rather than what to learn. A lot of companies are looking for people who have skills instead of knowledge because information is constantly changing. They can teach employees the information, but they want someone who knows how to learn.
You wrote that children who spend their early years in front of screens will eventually have adult brains that are hardwired to process information at a frantic pace. Do you see this as a negative or positive consequence to early exposure to technology?
Processing at a frantic pace is not a disadvantage. It’s going to be very helpful to students going into certain professions. If you’re in surgery and something goes wrong, you want your doctor to be able to process information quickly and solve the problem. It’s the same thing when a pilot faced is with a problem. Lives are at stake and getting to the information in one’s brain quickly is paramount.
You point out how children who have a lot of interaction with technology on an ongoing basis can become bored easily in a traditional classroom. What are some ways teachers can keep students engaged and excited about learning?
By integrating technology into their teaching. Many teachers I meet don’t know how to use technology. Technology should be a tool, not the objective of a lesson. There are some wonderful things about technology. When I taught science, there were some real-world applications that I couldn’t show the students. That’s something technology can do. You can go on the Internet and say, “Okay here’s an example of X.” Technology offers teachers many examples of what they’re teaching.
What are some other beneficial ways you are seeing technology used in the classroom?
It allows students to contact other students all over the world to discuss what they are learning, and it can be used to understand and solve real-world problems. It allows for deeper learning, which leads to increased retention of learning. Technology facilitates creativity by allowing students to generate charts, maps, and models that illustrate what they are learning. Technology exposes students to other points of view and may lead to a greater understanding of the beliefs and practices of different cultures.
When asking if technology will replace teachers, you say in your book, “Of course not! However, I do believe that teachers who use technology will replace teachers who do not.” This is pretty heavy. How do you advise teachers who may be a little behind when it comes to technology? How do they catch up?
I tell them to look at it as a way to expand their creativity, not limit it. They need to question what they know how to do and what they need to know to effectively use technology in their classrooms. In my book, there is a section on professional development that lists basic things teachers should be able to do with technology. That’s helpful because they have a list to check their skills against and then know which to strengthen.
You tell parents, “If you see in your child’s school exactly the same desks-in-a-row, teacher-dominated classroom that you experienced, then you should be upset.” How do teachers balance the use of technology with human relationship?
It’s important to remember that with the thousands of studies we’ve done on what helps students achieve, we list things like the education of the parents, income levels, and about 150 other variables. Do you know what the number one factor is? It’s the qualifications of the teacher. How good is she at learning her subject and presenting it to kids? It’s been the number one factor for the past 30 years. Good teachers have been using the same brain-friendly strategies since Sophocles. They just didn’t know why they worked. Now they know. That’s been the benefit of neuroscience.