Monday, April 18, 2016

Engaging the rewired brain

People who know me know that I am somewhat of a Luddite. (For those who don't remember their high school global studies, Luddites were a group in England during the Industrial Revolution who did not approve of the new technology. Their behavior ranged from refusing to deal with it to destroying it.) I still have my first cell phone, it is over three years old with a 12 button keypad. I do not answer it unless I am expecting a call. I do not carry a laptop as an itinerant teacher. I rarely use technology in my teaching- no internet, no device, no technology.

When I was in high school I took computer programming classes and was one of the best in the class. Now I hate trying to figure out programs. I am completely frustrated by technology that is not intrinsically simplistic and intuitive for a nonuser. I do not have the time or inclination for playing with it all. I am an outlier and know that.

David A. Sousa's book, Engaging the Rewired Brain, discusses the impact of technology on our brains and how it relates to education. The first chapter examines where we are now. It contains a couple points of interest.

First is he documents that students learn more when they take notes with paper than when they use electronics (p. 10). This idea was also highlighted by NPR in a review of psychology research. I also recall a study about usefulness of electronic notes. Students who took electronic notes had trouble finding them again. Further students who sit with their devices open before them do not attend to class well either- they surf the net, use social media and tune out. That being said, Sousa does not see a decline in electronic note taking in our future, so he recommends we look at ways to use technology and increase the utility of this skill.

The second major takeaway I had from his first chapter is that teachers should only use technology if it increases achievement. I have sat in many classrooms with Smartboards. This technology is crazy expensive  ($5000-7000 each plus installation and other hardware, tools like "markers" and software licenses) and has a limited life use. Most of the time I have not seen them used in ways that leverage the tool. They are used to project a page that is to be written on, to link with a computer and project contents, and to show movies and videos- all things a projector can do at a fraction of the cost. They are used to play games like Jeopardy, select groups or take attendance- all activities that are in no way given an advantage over other methods for these activities. In order to leverage the tool you need to do two things- increase responses per student (think clickers and cell phones) or increase reinforcement without being distracting.

Sousa suggests using Kolb's Triple E framework to determine if it is a gimmick to engage or a learning tool- Engagement, Enhancement and Extension. He includes a nine question test to determine if the technology is worthwhile. The Framework includes questions about promoting active versus passive learning, determining if the technology does something that cannot be done with traditional methods, and if it builds P21 skills (skills for the future). This sort of evaluation reveals that most of the time our Smartboards are expensive whiteboards. In an era of fiscal concerns, our money might be better spent on other things. Sacrilege, I know, but as I said I am a bit of a Luddite.

With all this being said, the truth of the matter is that technology is here to stay. We will continue to have new apps, software and devices. Our students will continue to have access to devices and parents will demand that it used. We need to teach students to be smart consumers of technology, teachers to be discriminating users of technology and communities to wise spenders on technology. I am looking forward to the rest of this book to learn what is happening to tech-exposed brains and how we can best facilitate learning in our students.

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