Pruning the iBrain: How to find balance in a Digi-world

05 Apr

From text to the internet to a recorded video lecture – these thoughts are what I have recently been exposed to on my journey in learning about the brain.

My colleagues in the Learning Services team and I are currently in the midst of a book study on Jensen’s “Teaching with the Brain in Mind” (2nd ed.). With our work in the school division at the forefront and this book in our hands, we are connecting the current brain research to the learning environment. My team is exploring topics such as how the brain works and how its systems affect learning, motivation, critical thinking skills, environmental factors, socialization, the affective domain and memory. How can we, as educators, parents, aunts and uncles take advantage of the amazing revelations science is providing in regarding to brain research in the last 5 years?

Alongside the theme of this book study, I also recently joined the Learning & the Brain Society which brings neuroscientists and educators to explore new research on the brain and learning and its implications in the classroom environment.

Both of these resources – the book and the society – have really allowed me to engage in new conversations with LS team members, administrators and teachers that I work with on a daily basis. The ability to learn about the newest brain research on how learning has changed due to the technological revolution assists me in supporting the work (projects, initiatives, instructional strategies, pedagogy) surrounding the education of our students.

Move forward  to a video lecture that I recently  listened to, from this Learning & Brain Society, by Dr. Gary W. Small entitled “iBrain: The Technological Alteration of the Student Mind” in which he states that the brain is amazing in its ability to adapt, within reason, to this new 24/7 environment. Yet, our relationship with technology and specifically our students’ relationship with technology has changed drastically in the last few years. Although the brain is plastic and can learn quickly; it still requires some downtime or different experiences to allow it to grow.

“By adolescence, 60% of synapses are trimmed away/pruned.”

Allowing students to pursue a variety of learning opportunities in and out of the classroom is important. This uses different parts of the brain. With students aged 8-18 spending an average of 11.5 hours engaged in tech use per day (Kaiser, 2010, study), that’s a lot of multi-tasking! (And overuse of certain parts of the brain while other parts are not being used ‘weakens’ the brain.)

Students are used to having technology available 24/7 but then they may have less F2F (face to face) conversations, actively listening and notice non-verbal cues. Therefore, empathy and complex reasoning skills may weaken.

Try this exercise with a partner (or have your students try it):

  • Turn to each other and designate one person as the Speaker and the other as the Listener. The Speaker is to talk about any topic for 30 seconds. The Listener is to actively listen to the Speaker and maintain eye contact without interrupting them. (Feel free to have each person switch roles after so they each have an opportunity to role play.) I notice that through my Cognitive Coaching training, I have become better at refining my ‘coaching’ behavior by pausing and paraphrasing instead of reacting and responding without really listening to what the Speaker is sharing.

What the above exercise is trying to accomplish is to have students understand the importance of connecting personally and directly via eye contact and by listening to another person. Identifying facial expressions, using proper social conventions are impossible through texting/emailing. The development of empathetic and complex reasoning skills for K-12 students is important.

Is technology making our students less creative?

Although jumping website to website, using social media and emailing an assignment all at the same time may be the norm, this type of multi-tasking does not develop quality of thought. There is no chance, when this is occurring for students to take time for thoughtful critical thinking, to expand on current and/or novel ideas. Showing K-12 students how to effectively reflect, review, revise, and research using technology is an important process. I know of some teachers that use blogging and/or e-portfolios as a way for students to share their thoughts, demonstrate some of their new learning and reflect on what their classmates are saying. (Some of our teachers are using WordPress in this manner. As well, Rob Van Nood, a Portland, Oregon teacher recently described how his students use Evernote as their e-portfolio.)

A healthy brain diet

During the video lecture, Small gave a few strategies on how to have a healthy brain. Below are a few of his key points:

  • Daily physical exercise – 60 minutes per day (Participaction)
  • Healthy eating habitsCanada Food Guide
  • Mental exercise – knowing specific important phone numbers, quick recall of the multiplication  table, ability to add up purchases before heading to the cash register are important life skills that the brain should be able to handle without the aid of a tech device.
  • Cognitive training – Look, Snap, Connect. (With LOOK you want to actively observe what you want to learn. SNAP is creating a vivid mental snapshot/memorable image. CONNECT is to visualize a link to associated images.) Guiding students through these three training points will allow their brains to make authentic and memorable connections to the curriculum topic.

Small goes on to note that improving memory and concentration will allow our brain to grow and function effectively. Balance your life between connected to technology and connected to people in-person. In regards to how important focus and developing good attention skills, Small showed us a wonderful YouTube video. This “Whodunnit?” video (think Clue board game) has two parts to it. Watch the first half of it, pause it and then watch the last half.

Pretty neat, eh? Just shows how focusing our complete attention has a huge impact on improving memory and concentration.

“If everyone adopted one regular lifestyle change (one of the four brain diet points above), the prevalence of dementia in the U.S. would decrease by one million cases within five years and 2.5 million cases within 20 years.”

Overall, being aware of the current brain research, balancing the use of tech devices (smartphones, computers, tablets, TV) and continuing to dialogue with education counterparts will make our pruned brains happy and healthy!


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