How Brain Science and Technology Will Transform Schools

Chambers, Julia
Davidson, C.N. (2011). Now you see it: How technology and brain science will transform schools and business for the 21st century. New York: Penguin Books.
Professor at Duke University and Co-chair of the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge, Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It makes a strong argument for transforming the way students are taught in the 21st century. She leans heavily on recent findings in brain research to suggest that current teaching practices (which reward linear thinking and rote memorization) continue to prepare students for industry jobs, not for work in the digital age.
I found two points in her book particularly insightful as they relate to Educational Practices:
1)      Distraction is key to learning: Pointing to current brain research, Davidson writes that in infancy, neural pathways form and fuse to create automatic responses for repeated tasks like walking, running, eating with a fork, etc. — tasks we don’t pay attention to. Davidson calls this “attention blindness.” She argues that the key to learning is to keep our brains away from repetition so we are forced to pay attention. This is one reason why many educators advocate gaming as a learning system. If learning tasks are exciting and/or require multiple levels of thinking at once, they awaken our attention and we’re more likely to remember and incorporate this new experience or knowledge into our frame of recognition. She argues that technology is not the source of distraction, as many pundits argue. The brain is naturally distracted – and that’s a good thing because it’s how we discover new patterns, new ideas. She advocates teaching practices that keep the brain distracted, precisely because this distraction promotes a different kind of thinking that’s based on association, pattern-recognition, interconnectivity. Using teaching techniques and tools that promote distraction may cause the brain to develop new neural pathways (new ways of thinking) throughout life.
2)      Current classrooms promote attention blindness: Davidson writes that most classrooms in the U.S. haven’t changed in physical appearance or practice in over 100 years and therefore don’t serve 21st century students. She provides a nice overview of how our national educational system developed:
a)      Horace Mann championed national educational reform in the early 1800s and was key to creating “common schools” that served the population. The 1840s to early 1900s saw the beginnings of public education.
b)      By the late 1800s public education was becoming mandatory and directly linked to industrialization (school was the best way to cultivate workers by teaching them how to pay attention, how to be timely, how to focus on one single task at a time). This was the beginning of standardized curriculum and the focus was on elementary school level. Prior models of education were abandoned, and this included the Socratic method (question/answer teaching); the Agrarian method (problem-solving focused); and the Apprenticeship (imitating the skills of a master).
c)      1900 – 1950s state and regional schools replaced local schoolhouse upstarts. School became mandatory and the focus had shifted from preparing students for industry to creating leaders and filling the country with high school graduates.
d)     1950s ushered in the golden age of education in the U.S., triggered by Sputnik. Focus was on higher education, science, math. Progressive education and innovative approaches began to flourish.
e)      No Child Left Behind put an end to widespread educational innovation. Success was measured by test scores.
Davidson highlights several schools around the country that are trying innovative approaches to learning, including Manhattan’s Quest2Learn, in which classes are taught through gaming principles, and Voyager Academy, which uses the flipped classroom model and has students work on collaborative projects during class time.
Overall, Davison’s book makes a strong argument for innovative, differentiated teaching based on recent research on how the brain learns and through examples of schools that are doing this with great success. Her overall thesis makes a strong argument that cultivating associative, collaborative thinking and practices is critical for student success in the digital age.

ET-Brain Research

ET-New Trends

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