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Are We Teaching With Technology or 'Brain Hacking'?

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Adding more and newer technology in schools has been a budget and a curricular goal since the costs of the hardware have plummeted and the richness of digital resources has exploded. Now, with handheld technology, we see even more focus on its use including such things as BYOD.  Still there remains a remnant of the sentiment among some that all this technology distracts from the business of learning.  It sounds like this: "I  learned without any of these devices." Then, labels get tossed about in reaction like "technophobic" and "last century thinking". Truth be told, both can be right but one is more right. Technology is here to stay. It has a place in homes and in the lives of children.  And, it has a place in schools. As educators, it is our duty to teach and model the use technology and it is our duty to guide the journey into the internet for information gathering and communication.

Physical Health and Screen Time

There has now been research and subsequent articles that warn of the physical effects of too much screen time for children and adults. Dry eyes, retinal damage, neck and shoulder soreness and slouching are to name a few. There is now research (Screen time is associated with adiposity and insulin resistance in children) that connects too much screen time for children to diabetes in adults. These researchers believe that managing screen time in children can help prevent weight gain in children and Type 2 diabetes in adults.

Instant Feedback is Addictive

Several years ago at a conference on the use of technology in the learning environment, there was a presentation about feedback and assessment.  In that session, the speaker used Amazon customer reviews as an example of the power of immediate feedback from more than one source. It seemed brilliant at the time...a step away from grades...individual feedback with the intention of improving student achievement. Now, years later, while watching a 60 Minutes segment on 'Brain Hacking' former Google product manager Tristan Harris gave insight into the thinking behind how technology 'hooks us'. That instant feedback may be a good thing, but is only one facet of the experience. He said "That phone in your pocket is like a slot machine. Every time you check it, you're pulling the lever to see if you get a reward." The intention of the programmers and the companies that hire them is to call our attention through offering us rewards. How many clicks did your tweet get? How many new friends or good comments on Facebook? How many fewer emails have you received that are negative or troublesome? Just like gambling, it can be addictive before realizing it. Managing screen time has become more difficult than one would think.

What about children in our schools who are growing and developing?  Young ones are already adept at scrolling, creating, and communicating and older students have begun to measure their popularity on what others are saying, posting on social media and watching for responses, and engaging ... Are we contributing to their addiction by not recognizing it in ourselves?

The news flashes, notifications, beeps, and ringtones that call our attention through the day, were shown to have a physical effect. From that 60 Minutes segment:

Psychologist Larry Rosen says technology really does wreak havoc on anxiety levels. He and his team at California State University Dominguez Hills have found that when people spend time away from their phones, their brain signals the adrenal gland to produce a burst of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol triggers a fight-or-flight response to danger, and while it may have made primitive man hyperaware of his surroundings for safety, today it compels us to check our phones.

As with most things in life, moderation is key. But how can you talk about moderation to someone who is addicted?  We have an obligation to be mindful of the tools we place in the hands of the children in our charge.  We have an obligation to be mindful of how we teach and use those tools. If you are wondering whether this applies to you or not, try spending a day without your phone attached to you, not checking your email, or looking for news alerts or suggestions for purchase. We would struggle to do that ourselves. Look around during faculty meetings and see whether there is focused attention or whether some are looking at their phones and iPads. Ask yourself if you've noticed your eyes are dry or that your shoulders ache. Try paying attention and keeping track of the minutes/hours you spend on the computer/phone for a week. 

A System-Wide Review

This is another facet of school curriculum that requires a system-wide look. Students should not have loads of screen time in one class without the rest of the teachers knowing how to balance screen time for the day. By no means is this a suggestion that digital resources, computers and hand-held technology are to be excluded from the learning experience. But as we learn more about advantages and dangers, it is important for educators to determine how it is being used, educating themselves and their students, and making adjustments so that we are not contributing to an unhealthy habit for them now and for the rest of their lives. 

 Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by lcr3cr courtesy of Pixabay

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