You can’t have a discussion about education today without the subject of technology coming up. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the You can’t have a discussion about education today without the subject of technology coming up. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia, takes a look at the unsettled issue of how technology affect young people. Willingham’s latest book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” He is also the author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

By Daniel Willingham
Is technology changing how students learn, that is, the workings of the brain?

An article in The New York Times reports that most teachers think the answer is “yes,” and this development is not positive.

The article reports the results of two surveys of teachers, one conducted by the Pew Internet Project, and the other by Common Sense Media. Both report that teachers believe that students’ use of digital technology adversely affects their attention spans and makes them less likely to stick with challenging tasks.

In interviews, many teachers report feeling that they have to work harder than they used to in order to keep students engaged.

As the article notes, there have not been any long-term studies that show whether student attention span has been affected by digital media.

Still, a lot of psychologists are actually skeptical that digital media are likely to fundamentally change the fundamentals of human cognition.

Steven Pinker has written “Electronic media aren’t going to revamp the brain’s mechanisms of information processing.” I made the same argument here.

The basic architecture is likely to be relatively fixed, and in the absence of extreme deprivation, will develop fairly predictably. Sure, it is shaped by experience but those changes will just tune to experience what’s already there — it might change the dimensions of the rooms, without altering the fundamental floor plan, so to speak.

Does that view conflict with teacher’s impressions? Not necessarily.

When we talk about a student’s attention span, I suspect we’re really talking about a particular type of attention. It’s not their overall ability to pay attention: kids today can, I think, get lost for hours in a movie or a book or a game just as readily as their parents did. Rather, the seemingly shorter attention span is their ability to maintain attention on a task that is not very interesting to them.

But even within that situation, I suspect that there are two factors at work: one is the raw capacity to direct one’s attention. The second is the willingness to do so.

I doubt that technology affects the first, but I’m ready to believe that it affects the second.

Directing attention — forcing yourself to think about something you’d rather not think about  — is effortful, even mildly aversive. Why would you do it? There are lots of possible reasons. Among them would be previous experiences leading you to believe that such sustained attention leads to a payoff.

In other words, if you’ve grown up in circumstances where very little effort  usually led to something that was stimulating and interesting, then you likely have an expectation that that’s the nature of the world: I do just a little something, and I get a big payoff. (And the payoff is probably immediate.)

The process by which children learn to expect a lot of cool stuff to happen based on minimal effort may start early.

When a toddler is given a toy that puts on a dazzling display of light and sound when a button is pushed, we might be teaching him this lesson.
In contrast, the toddler who gets a set of blocks has to put a heck of a lot more effort (and sustained attention) into getting the toy to do something interesting — build a tower, for example, that she can send crashing down.

It’s hard for me to believe that something as fundamental to cognition as the ability to pay attention can moved around a whole lot. It’s much easier for me to accept that one’s beliefs — beliefs about what is worthy of my attention, beliefs about how much effort I should dispense to tasks — can be moved around, because beliefs are a product of experience.

I actually think that much of what I’ve written here was implicit in some of the teachers’ comments — the emphasis on immediacy, for example — but it’s worth making it explicit.