This weekend I had the honor of addressing the Eagle Council in Washington DC about cognitive science’s case for limited technology in the classroom. The Education Panel that I sat on featured wonderful speakers who addressed education from a number of different perspectives. You can see the speeches here. Unfortunately, with so many great speakers, we were all very limited in the amount of time we had to cover our particular topic. What follows is the more extensive talk I was prepared to give. I intend to flesh out these points even more in a series of posts so that our readers will understand what the C suite people in Silicon Valley, who send their own children to non-tech or tech limited schools, seem to already know about why their technology does not actually help children learn.


Cognitive Science’s Case Against Technology in the Classroom

Computers, tablets, smart phones, whiteboards, fit bits…. Technology truly has become ubiquitous. There are 6.2 million iPads being used every day in K-5 classrooms in the U.S. and 9.3 million tablets used in middle and high school[1] All of the devices are interfaces with a digital data river flowing around all of us daily, running everything from our electrical grid, to our entire financial system, to medical devices designed to save or extend our lives. Is it any wonder that so many people think it is critical to teach our children about and with technology? It will be as much, if not more, a part of their lives as it is ours.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which side of the funding stream you are on, technology is developing faster than society as a whole can keep up with it in terms of determining proper use and etiquette. It is impacting our lives before we fully understand its ability to impact our lives and, we are playing an eternal game of catch up.

We cannot deny that it is the shiny new thing that is grabbing everyone’s attention and I’m not going to stand here and tell you all technology is bad and we should revert to our pre-industrialized state. Technology does enrich our lives and provide benefit. But it is imperative that we be prudent users of it, and that is especially important in the classroom.

I cannot help but see the parallels between the introduction of technology in the classroom and the introduction of cigarettes. In both cases professionals were brought in early on to tout the benefits of the products manufactured by large corporations in order to get the public to embrace them. In the case of cigarettes the benefits the doctors initially claimed were eventually outweighed by the negative effects of the product. I think in our lifetime, cognitive scientists will similarly out the beneficial claims of Silicon Valley. Perhaps technology won’t be as deadly as cigarettes, but certain caveats to its use should be observed. Otherwise loading the classroom with technology as we are doing is akin to putting an alcoholic in a room full of liquor and telling him to only drink one glass of cabernet because studies show that a glass of red wine is full of antioxidants which are good for you.

loading the classroom with technology as we are doing is akin to putting an alcoholic in a room full of liquor and telling him to only drink one glass of cabernet because studies show that a glass of red wine is full of antioxidants which are good for you.

I will speak briefly of what cognitive science has discovered about how our brains work, and how we learn. Unfortunately this type of information is not being shared with future teachers in the colleges of education. As a result they are poorly prepared to resist the onslaught of fads touted to “fix” education, or to use technology in the way that is most beneficial to the age of their students.

Take very young children in preschool. A study by Sarah Roseberry in 2014 had very young children (2-2.5 y/o) communicate with adults on a screen[2]. The language the adults used was very simplified and the tone was that which mothers naturally use with young children. In one group the adult was live Skyped in and the other group saw a pre-recorded video. The “live” adult responded to the children’s comments, questions, or facial expressions. The prerecorded adult talked in the manner of a television host – appearing to engage the audience. The experimenter included one new vocabulary word which the children were asked to identify after the conversation. The result was that only the toddlers who’d engaged in real live conversations picked up the new vocabulary word. Several studies have shown that children learn language through conversation, not passive presentation of the language. That’s why you will never learn mandarin by watching hours of Kung Fu movies.

Young children learned less when faced with a predetermined lesson delivered via a machine. Isn’t that the exact scenario described as individualized education? How much will students in very early grades be missing out on if they don’t have a live adult teaching them? Yet this type of delivery system is being pushed heavily by the industry AND government.

In 2014 the Obama Administration asked the 16,000 or so public school superintendents in the U.S. to sign the “Future Ready Technology Pledge”. Thirty three hundred of them signed it and committed to transition their districts to digital learning. Not only should we not expect this to be effective except for the very top performers, you’ll see that we actually risk leaving low performing students even further behind.

A study done in the U.K. looked at using white-boards [essentially giant touch screens] to improve learning, especially in complex subjects like math and science. The teachers were all extensively trained in the technology and rated themselves as highly competent with it, so the results could not be blamed on user incompetence. The results showed that low achieving students did improve in language skills, but the small gain in math scores observed the first year disappeared by the second year of use. Even more troubling was that they saw a 12x increase in the percentage of students ranked low in science. The well trained teachers were able to deliver content that was above those student’s heads causing them to eventually give up on even trying to keep up.

A lot of entertainment software is designed to activate the Ludic Loop. Professor Natasha Dow Schüll coined this term and it comes from the Latin noun ludus, meaning “play, game, sport, pastime.” It is what happens when you are lulled into a state of near tranquility by doing the same thing over and over because every once in a while you get a reward. Think of the one armed bandit in a casino, playing solitaire or even knitting where finishing a row is a form of reward. You have to be shaken out of it, or have the self control (which kids don’t) to put limits on yourself, like 2 episodes of a tv show or 60 minutes on a device.

This is why kids can play hours and hours of video games and not notice the passage of time. Their brains become disengaged from their normal state of awareness.

Most people like to do things that they are good at and avoid more difficult tasks. Kids in particular are prone to this. Personalized learning allows them to go at their own pace, which for some kids means a crawl or stop. They enter this ludic loop with the technology which can appear to be engagement, when in fact it is staying at a comfortable level doing something they have already mastered. Even programs which say they push kids to go beyond their comfort zones, still suffer from the problem of it being a machine that is pushing them. We are not designed to want to please a machine like we are a human, so kids will often find a way to stay at the easier levels.

We have many whistleblowers from the technology giants coming forward these days to tell us we’re not crazy for our concern about the addictive nature of tech. They really do design technology to exploit us.

Chris Marcellino, the creator of the Push notification (your Facebook activity notices) and who is retraining to be a neurosurgeon, is one of them. His studies have shown him that technologies he and others helped develop can affect the same neurological pathways as gambling and drug use, the same circuits that make people seek out food, comfort, heat, sex.[3] Game designers are rewarded for exploiting this cognitive feature of the human brain. The goal of most technology is to get and retain eyeballs.

That is certainly a concern in private life where we see children becoming addicted to gaming. More worrisome, however, is that edutech companies have introduced “gamification” into their learning products, marketing them as tech which is so engaging kids won’t even know they’re learning.

Cognitive science says this idea is bunk. The definition of intelligence requires us to commit bits of information to long term memory and be able to pull them out on command. Our memory is divided into main two functions: Long Term Memory, where procedures (sequenced steps for processing) and facts are stored as small elements of knowledge and whose capacity is practically limitless, and Working Memory, where the brain thinks, plans, and solves problems. WM has 3-5 slots available for novel information which remains in those slots for ~30 seconds. None of those slots are filled when we retrieve items from LTM.

Those bits are stored in LTM slowly over time through focused attention, repeated exposure and retrieval practice. The early years in school, when their brains are dry little sponges, are when we should be working to fill up LTM with all kinds of facts and procedures that will be a limitless treasure trove of solutions to future problems. If we teach kids to rely on all those facts being available on their device, they will be limited to the 3-5 slots in WM in order to problem solve. This will significantly impact their ability to find creative solutions to problems. Therefore, the concept of passive learning, no matter how engaging the presentation is, is a fallacy or at best operant training.

The cognitive reality of technology in the classroom is that our children’s attention will be alternating between learning subject matter and learning to use the new technology. As a result, speed and accuracy with specific academic tasks will be lost.

Available digital information is so vast that schools now teach children to skim written works to identify keywords, and only focus on the text in front of them. As a result, teachers are noticing kids having a harder time writing lengthy compositions (they see so few examples) and being able to organize their work. Internet searches fill up those 3-5 slots in working memory rather quickly, and the new bits of information are not fully understood, so students can’t organize their work. If you don’t load LTM in the early school years, you start to see the impact in high school in terms of slower responses, lower likelihood of less guessing the right answer (intuition), poorer ability to assess normality, and overall poorer problem solving.

Paul Emerich, another defector from Silicon Valley, wrote that the primary concern of the edutech companies was not children’s education, it was monetizing the tools to meet the financial goals of the investors. He recognized that the hyper-individualized education promoted by such companies tries to maximize engagement with the product, but it also, “ isolates children, breeds competition, assumes that children can learn entirely on their own, and dehumanizes the learning environment, reducing the human experience of learning down to a mechanistic process, one where children become the objects of learning as opposed to the subjects of their own educational narrative.[4]

Time is a finite commodity. Time spent doing one thing means that time is not spent doing something else. For all the time our children spend glued to their screens they aren’t doing other things like running, playing with friends, or other skills that you and I take for granted. Today, 58% of children ages 2-5 know how to play a computer game compared to only 52% who know how to ride a bike.[5] Schools are dropping the instruction in cursive writing in order to have time to teach keyboarding. This is being done despite the fact that there are studies which demonstrate that handwritten notes are actually better for comprehension and subsequent retrieval of facts than typed notes.

Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth at Facebook, stated at a recent discussion at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works… The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. [There is no more] civil discourse, no cooperation, [people are] misinformed…[6]

Lastly, I want to mention the problem with the Distraction of Technology. It’s not just the technology used to deliver education that is a problem. In some ways it is the very presence of the technology itself that is a problem. Cell phones, more specifically smart phones that not only ring but chime with notifications for texts and social media affect our attentional systems.

Research indicates that signals from one’s own phone (but not someone else’s) activate the same involuntary attention system that responds to the sound of one’s own name.[7] They exert a gravitational pull on the orientation of attention away from the focal task and toward thoughts or behaviors associated with the phone. What’s even more interesting is the proximity of the phone correlates with the level of distraction. A cell phone in a student’s desk, even if silenced, triggers the desire to check it for news which loads our cognitive capacity. Even the act of refusing to check it uses attentional resources which could be used instead on lessons. The farther away the phone is, in other words the less likely a student is to be able to check it, the less the cognitive load.

This was demonstrated in an experiment that showed students performance on a test of subject matter after a lesson decreased when cell phones were in the room. The decrease was less if the cell phone was in the student’s locker where they could not quickly get to it. This suggests that it would be a good policy for schools to require all student cell phones to be left in their lockers or some storage mechanism outside the classroom.

Tech in general is adding a host of new physical and psychological problems like dry eye, insomnia, aggression and depression. We don’t need to exacerbate these problems by having a lot of it in our classrooms.

There are many other known concerns about technology use for education, but I will leave you with the reminder that many of the C suite people and even engineers involved in creating this technology send their kids to places like Waldorf schools where technology is not used at all and do not allow their children to use much technology at home. It would be prudent to follow the example set by these creators and limit the exposure our innocent children have before we know all the effects of technology on human learning and psyche. Afterall, they say they design their products to be user friendly and intuitive so it really shouldn’t be all that hard to our kids to learn to use them when they must in the world outside the classroom.











[7] name (Roye, Jacobsen, and Schröger 2007)


Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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