Commentary

The brain gap

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We have been accusing our students of today of not learning as fast as the students of the pre-Gates-Jobs period. Is there something wrong with them? Or is the problem the brain gap between the teachers and their students?

How many of our teachers, educators, and policymakers are doing e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and computer games? How many of them are using videos and cartoons in their lesson plans?

My bet is the majority of teachers are not as computer-literate as their students of today. And why does this matter? It matters because the brain of digital natives, those born after Steve Jobs’ Apple was created, is different from their teacher’s.

There is scientific evidence that there is a difference between the brain anatomy and physiology of the digital natives and those of their teachers, who are digital immigrants.

In a study undertaken by the Als group of Harvard Medical School, it was shown that the environment can literally change the anatomy and function of the brain.

The group studied premature babies, 16 of whom were exposed to nurses and parents who were instructed how to handle and stimulate the babies (the experimental group). Another 30 premature babies were cared for in the standard way of less touching, handling, and more noisy incubator and bright lights.

At two weeks old, both groups of babies had functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electroencephalogram) readings. This was repeated at nine months old, and it was shown that some of the “stimulated” babies had thicker brain tissues and were functionally more mature compared to the babies in standard care.

Researchers have found that a new language learned later in life is stored in a different place in the brain than the language learned as children. Brain scans of people who tapped their fingers in complicated sequences that they had practiced for weeks showed a larger area of motor cortex becoming activated than when they performed sequences they hadn’t practiced.

An MRI done to compare the brains of musicians and non-musicians will show 5 percent more volume in the musicians’ cerebellum, the brain part involved in intensive musical practice.

When a ferret’s brain is experimentally rewired, with the visual inputs from the eyes switched with the hearing nerves, the brain structure changes to accommodate the new input.

Knowing that the environment affects brain anatomy, we can now explain why digital natives are not learning as expected by their traditional teachers, educators, and parents.

Digital natives, or our students of today, are used to multitasking, twitch-speed, fun-fantasy-facts, digital music in the background, graphics more than text, loud audios of video games, and MTV. College grads of today have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games and about 20,000 hours watching TV.

And their traditional teachers, or digital immigrants, are still using turtle-slow, step-by-step, chapter-by-chapter, show-and-tell teaching tools with blackboards and text-heavy PowerPoint presentations.

One principle of effective learning is it should be fun. With traditional teaching methods, our digital students get bored as soon as their teacher writes on the board or shows slides full of text. For them, it is not fun, boring, and sleep-inducing.

How can we bridge this brain gap between digital-native students and traditional teachers?

Maybe we need some soldiers. Here comes the US military aid in education, the use of computer videos and graphics in teaching 250,000 18-year-old recruits. The top dogs in military education know that these young soldiers expect fun, fantasy, and plenty of practice. Teaching tools using videos-on-demand fit their digital brain and they have abandoned the show-and-tell PowerPoint of yesteryears.

Most importantly, US educator-soldiers have found that it works. They have seen it happen in flying airplanes using flight simulators and action-filled battle videos. The military educators are wondering why traditional teachers are not using graphics and videos as the main teaching tools in schools.

The National Institutes of Health in the United States have funded clinical trials called Click Health, which makes games to help children self-manage their diabetes. They found that children who watched the diabetes game reduced their visits to the emergency room by 77 percent, compared to those diabetics who watched pinball games.

In the United States and Canada, Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWard game-based program for retraining kids with reading difficulties conducted national field studies using 60 independent professionals at 35 sites. Using standardized tests, each of the 35 sites reported effectiveness, with 90 percent of the children gained in one or more tested topics.

Why do video games and graphics work among the digital natives? Their brain is adopted to this media because it is fun and available 24/7.

After 42 years, I sneaked into a lecture in neurology at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. Except for the PowerPoint slides, the talk was the same—boring and sleep-inducing, just like when I was a medical student. After about 30 minutes, I walked out.

Leonardo Leonidas, MD, UPCM ’68, is assistant clinical professor in pediatrics and recipient of the Distinguished Career Teaching Award (2009) at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston in the United States. He was named outstanding UP alumnus in 2010.

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