Education and Brains: Getting the Most from Today’s EdTech

One of my recent posts,“Don’t Be a Luddite, Technology is Here to Stay,” made the point that educational technology is not as unnatural as it initially seems. Any time you take something natural, modify it and use it for your own purposes, you’re making or using technology. In this sense, even the harnessing and utilization of fire can be called technology.

In the K-12 setting, one of the reasons today’s edtech often receives pushback from educators, staff and even students is that we’re sometimes resistant to learning new things. In particular, if your brain is already comfortable using certain tools and technology, it will prefer them to new alternatives, because the tools you’re comfortable with provide a path of less (mental) resistance.

Let’s use an example: When young, you learned the alphabet. But to be fair, you didn’t just learn any alphabet. If you’re an English speaker, you likely learned the modern English alphabet, which is commonly taught throughout most English-speaking countries.

Alternatively, when you first learned to type, you probably learned on a QWERTY keyboard. (Look at your keyboard. What are the first characters starting on the left of the top row?) When we glance at a keyboard for the first time, our brains are confused by the arrangement of letters. It’s the first thing we notice, because our brains have become comfortable with the arrangement we’ve been taught (a, b, c, etc.). Modern keyboards use a QWERTY layout, because it was the optimal design for typewriters and prevented jamming.

Despite the challenge of the new arrangement of letters, our brains usually overcome the difficulty. We succeed in learning to type quickly (sometimes over 40 words per minute), and it becomes a new path of less (mental) resistance. Can you imagine how long it would take to learn typing on a keyboard that arranged the letters in accordance with the modern English alphabet (a, b, c, etc.)?

This is all related to one of the most exciting fields of scientific research in the modern era. In neuroscience (the study of brains), it’s referred to as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. In pre-modern times, scientists understood the brain as a kind of mechanism or machine, which was designed to process information in certain ways, but was unable to adapt to new information.

Neuroscientists have started to discover that the brain can actually adapt to the information it receives and change over time. Practically speaking, if you feel like your brain is not suited for digital technology, that might be the case now, but it doesn’t need to remain that way. You actually have the power to change the way your brain processes information, and you can make something as difficult as digital technology easier to learn.

So what’s the magic formula? How do you do this? The answer is as unexciting as it is challenging. You change the way your brain processes information by continually learning new things in new ways. You’re actually already doing it to some extent, because neuroplasticity isn’t a theory of what you can do with your brain, but rather it’s a theory of how the brain already works.

If you resist learning new things, it’s less probable that your brain will adapt to new information. New technology will always be difficult to learn. If you strive to learn new technology, even though it may be a difficult and slow process, over time your brain will become more suited to learn that type of information.

So, the excuse, “I’m just not geared that way,” just doesn’t cut it. You have control over what you’re capable of learning. You have the power how easily your brain can learn new things. To begin, in the same way that you overcame the difficulty of learning the QWERTY keyboard, you just need to overcome the difficulties of learning the technology you need that challenges you the most.

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