The Rewired Brain

Students’ fixation on personal technology is altering their attention, thinking and memory, requiring new tacks for classroom educators
BY DAVID A. SOUSA/School Administrator, September 2017

David Sousa addressed brain research implications at a TEDx event in Mumbai, India.
A human brain is amazing, capable of critical thinking, decision making, planning, judgment and much more. At birth, an infant’s brain is packed with 200 billion brain cells called neurons that, during childhood and adolescence, create tens of thousands of neural connections per second. Brain areas are prewired genetically with circuitry that allows us to see, breathe, hear and develop a native language, as well as a great many other things we depend on to survive.

Research evidence suggests that the extraordinary amount of time students spend with their technology is rewiring their brains in several significant ways. Why is this happening? A process called neuroplasticity allows the brain to reconfigure its neural networks continuously because of input from its environment, which for most teens today includes omnipresent technology.

A 2016 survey by Common Sense Media of more than 2,600 students between 8 and 18 found they spend an average of nine hours a day using digital media, not including time spent using technology at school or for homework. That is more time than they typically spend with their parents and teachers — or spend sleeping. Some teens admitted to checking social media 100 times a day. This extensive exposure to digital media is occurring at a time when the young developing brain is making tens of thousands of neural connections per second, restructuring some of the genetically prewired areas. Technology is shaping their childhood and adolescence in ways we could not have predicted, and it has profound implications for teaching and learning.

With students accustomed to immediate access to music, movies, games and social connections, how do teachers compete for their attention? How do they make learning interesting and engaging? How do they organize the classroom for maximum engagement? How do they increase retention of learning with so many potential technological distractions in the classroom?

All these questions pose substantial challenges to educational practice. Teachers are more likely to meet these challenges successfully if they have a greater understanding of how technology is affecting their students’ rewired brains — and use technology appropriately.

Learning Components
The past 15 years of scientific research and psychological studies on the brain have provided new insights into learning. Three areas — attention, memory and thinking — are of particular interest when it comes to learning and teaching.

» ATTENTION. Learning rarely occurs unless the brain attends to it. When several external forces demand our attention, we pick the one that will give us the greatest benefit at that moment. This places a heavy burden on the teacher in a classroom where an array of digital devices can provide off-task entertainment.

Furthermore, several studies, most notably the work of computer scientist Ramesh Sitaraman at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have shown that teenagers wait up to an average of eight seconds for a website to start a video or capture their attention. Otherwise, they move on. The implication here is that teachers need novel ways to introduce their lesson objective to persuade the students’ brains that it is worth their attention and engagement.

Another concern is that the rewired brain is accustomed to constant skipping from site to site and that behavior prevents the young brain from developing sustained attention, which is a requirement for deep learning and retention.

Fortunately, this practice does not seem to be shortening attention spans, as many teachers believe. Rather, it is the demands on students’ attention that are increasing and forcing them to make decisions on how to parse their limited time. Their outward behavior may lead one to believe their attention spans have shortened. However, once they find something of interest, like a video game, they will attend to it for hours.

» MEMORY. Working memory processes new learning. It is a temporary stage and it has capacity limits. For decades, the acceptable capacity limit for adolescents and adults was an average of seven items, plus or minus two.

Recent memory studies, including those of Nelson Cowan, a psychologist who directs a working memory laboratory at the University of Missouri, suggest, however, this capacity is decreasing and now may be closer to three to four items, particularly for adolescents and young adults. What is causing this downward trend? No one knows for sure. One prevailing explanation, supported by some research, is that students are learning it is easier to remember where to find information rather than expend the mental effort needed to remember the information itself. This realization places fewer demands on working memory, which then may be adapting by what appears to be lower item capacity.

The teaching and learning implications of this decline are significant. Should we revise curriculum so students spend less time remembering information and more time learning to find information quickly that is reliable and accurate? On the other hand, should we be introducing instructional strategies that are showing promise for extending students’ visual working memory?

» THINKING. Technology is affecting students’ thinking and creativity. The effects start at an early age. Four-year-olds who watched televised cartoons had impaired attention, memory and problem-solving skills compared to similar children who were creating their own drawings. The enormous amount of information that students get during an internet search may be enthralling, but it leads to frustration and information overload. The brain’s executive functions decline and emotions take over. (See related article.)

Before the internet, when teachers presented a major problem in the lesson, the students analyzed it, gathered needed information, discussed it with others and often resorted to higher-order thinking skills to solve it. Now, they can go to their digital devices and find online solutions to the problem rather than doing the critical thinking themselves. Students are becoming gatherers and reporters of information and not curious and creative thinkers — and that may be changing their brains’ structure. Studies have shown that internet-addicted adolescents had a lower density of gray matter in areas of the brain responsible for decision making than their nonaddicted peers.

Engagement Options
One positive impact of technology is that it has enticed students to be active learners. Teachers can capitalize on this engagement by assuring a student-centered learning environment. Engaging students requires a variety of instructional approaches, including academic rigor, concept-centered instruction, project-based learning, flipped classrooms, differentiation, humor and games.

In student-centered classrooms, direct instruction is not the predominant mode of teaching. Brain-friendly alternatives include:

» Academic rigor: Teachers ask many higher-order questions about content and skills that require analysis and creativity to answer them. They lead the students to find answers for themselves, promoting self-regulation of their learning.

» Concept-centered: Teachers use class discussions, either as a whole group or in small groups, to focus on basic concepts and not on the memorization of isolated facts.

» Differentiation: Teachers differentiate instruction to accommodate students with different background knowledge, interests and learning profiles.

» Flipped classroom: Students study new concepts at home by watching teacher-made videos or from selected websites. In the classroom, teachers follow up with group discussions during which they fill in any missing information so the students can probe more deeply into the new learning. This format decreases direct instruction time and allows for more student engagement and practice.

Leadership Challenges

Technology has its promises and risks. It presents several major challenges to school decision makers. One is to ensure that school staff members are aware of how students’ brains are changing. Another is to alert parents as to what research is revealing about the impact of technology on their children so they can consider what steps to take at home. The overall challenge is to find the right mix of professional development, technology, curriculum and instructional and assessment strategies that will prepare their students for success in a fast-changing world.

For this to happen, superintendents should allocate the time and resources to ensure teachers keep up with emerging trends of technology and with the research on how the brain learns and how technology can affect brain growth and development. Our world is changing faster than our educational systems. More than ever before, we need to use technology thoughtfully to help our students become lifelong learners.
DAVID SOUSA, a former superintendent, is a consultant on educational neuroscience in Atlantis, Fla. E-mail: He is the author of Engaging the Rewired Brain.

Additional Resources
Author David Sousa recommends these resources for superintendents, principals and teachers.

» Common Sense Media. Media Use Profiles. The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2016.

» Engaging the Rewired Brain, by David A. Sousa, Learning Sciences International, West Palm Beach, Fla., 2016.

» How the Special Needs Brain Learns, by David A. Sousa, Corwin, Thousand Oaks, Calif., 2016.

» “The Pros and Cons of Technology,” by Amanda Ronan, Edudemic: Connecting Education and Technology, Jan. 16, 2017.

» “Strategies on Student Engagement” video by Edutopia.