Re-Wiring Our Brains for Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Almost on a daily basis, I am driving in my car, half-paying attention to the radio, when I register that there has been something on of interest that I should have been paying attention to. I instinctively reach for my remote or the controls to jump back 15 seconds to hear what I have missed, only to realize that I am listening to live, non-digital radio and there is no cache that I can access to replay the missed segment.

Most of us have had this experience and probably have not realized that it represents a significant change in the working of our brains. For years I have been requiring my educational technology students to read Marc Prensky’s articles on digital natives and the rewiring of the human brain. These articles have served as a springboard to discuss the ways in which my students’ (who are generally digital immigrants) brains function differently from their native students’.  It seems, however, that neuroscience has finally caught up with Prensky’s influential theory and proven that even in older learners, the human brain is constantly adapting to new technology and "rewiring" itself. As educators and students, how can we take advantage of the newly revealed fantastic adaptive abilities of the human brain?

Time to Adapt
The theory set forth by Prensky and others was that the neural pathways of the human brain were largely fixed by age five, and people who had not been deeply exposed to something by that time –technology, a foreign language, etc. – could not develop the capacity to be considered "natively" fluent in that area. This theory has led to a great deal of disappointment on the part of older generations who use technology extensively and has led to debate over how schools can and should adapt to account for the dramatically different brains of digital native students.

It now seems that most of the stress caused by this hypothesis is unfounded. A 2009 study by Small, Moody, Siddarth, and Bookheimer at UCLA, revealed that, even in older people, the human brain adapts to changes remarkably rapidly.

"Although the present findings must be interpreted cautiously in light of the exploratory design of this study, they suggest that Internet searching may engage a greater extent of neural circuitry not activated while reading text pages but only in people with prior computer and Internet search experience. These observations suggest that in middle-aged and older adults, prior experience with Internet searching may alter the brain’s responsiveness in neural circuits controlling decision making and complex reasoning."
(Your Brain on Google: patterns of cerebral activation during Internet searching)

Nick Bilton summarized the research findings for a recent New York Times article by stating, "the human brain adapts to technology in seven days, regardless of age." If these findings are accurate and the human brain has a far greater capacity to rewire itself to make the most efficient use of new technology than previously believed, there could be great implications for those of us not born into the digital world, and even greater implications for students of all ages looking to be successful in a global hyper-connected economy.

Rewiring on the Fly for Success After School
The Law of Accelerating Returns proposed by Ray Kurzweil states that technological advancement is exponential. Meaning that the pace of change is essentially doubling all the time. The implication is that, by the time you finish reading this post, some piece of technology that you thought essential will have become outdated. Students are entering a world where what they learned at the start of their college career is outdated before graduation. And it is impossible for educators to do anything about it. So how can educators help their students prepare themselves for a work world that has already passed them by?

  • Live on the Cutting Edge – One thing about our techno-centric world is that it takes a concerted effort to keep up with new advances. Many educators are afraid to embrace new technology in the classroom because it takes so long to learn, or they can’t see the applicability for their students. As an instructor or a student, you need to live the technology, not learn it. Make it a habit to search for new tech tools, read a publication like PC Magazine, or follow some tech or ed-tech blogs like Tech Crunch or EDTECH to learn what is coming down the pipeline. When you find something interesting, try it out. If it works well and could enhance your life and/or teaching, use it in the classroom. The exposure, in and of itself, will do students a great service by training their brains to adapt.
  • Relinquish Control – As academics we have a hard time not being the "sage on the stage." Technology takes that centrality away from educators and places the emphasis on the students. Take advantage of that to allow your students to guide some of the innovation that will make classroom learning more successful. Require them to do some online research for subject-area appropriate tools and present them to the class. You will all be learning and adapting together.
  • Connect the Classroom – Anecdotal evidence is pointing to the fact that students like and expect the integration of technology into their classes. Screencast some of your more challenging-to-comprehend lectures and post them online to allow students to access them and replay them on demand. Use Twitter, Facebook, or an online forum to answer questions. Invite guest speakers that would normally be impossible to get to the classroom to visit via Skype as John Boyer, The Plaid Avenger, does in his classes. You will all see that the world is both larger and more accessible than you ever imagined, and your brains will benefit from it.

Overall, the idea of rapid rewiring provides a lot of hope for those of us who live in a connected world, saturated with constantly changing technology. As educators, we can train our brains to adapt to that constant change, while simultaneously helping our students become better equipped to be successful after they leave campus. There are no more excuses for those coming to technology later in life because we may all be capable of evolving into Digital Natives in just about one week.

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Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /