Rewiring the brain - it's child's play

BRONWYN TORRIE AND TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 05:00 04/08/2012
Harry Simons, Katia Reid and Tiya Naidoo
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ

REWIRING FOR THE FUTURE: Embracing the learning opportunities of the digital world are pupils from St Mark’s Church School in Wellington, Harry Simons, 6, Katia Reid, 5, and Tiya Naidoo, 5, with their notebooks.

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Harry Simons is only six but he uses a classroom netbook every day, possibly rewiring his brain in a way his parents' grey matter was not built for.

Such exposure to technology from a young age could be changing the brains of "digital natives" and have far-reaching consequences for the way teachers educate future generations, according to the prime minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

Schools would require "a very different type of teacher" who can help pupils interpret information from sources beyond the teacher's control.

But if pupils' brains were developing differently, even more fundamental changes in education might be required, Sir Peter has told a parliamentary inquiry into "21st century learning environments and digital literacy".

He said today's children were effectively the guinea pigs in "a new world we don't fully understand".

"Anyone who has seen a two-year-old playing around with an iPad knows what I am talking about. The digital world is leading to different ways in which the brain develops, different environments in which we learn . . . and it does seem to be having impacts on cognitive, social and emotional development."

The Post Primary Teachers' Association said it was a step too far to say children were "wired differently" now.

However, Auckland University neuroscientist Dr Cathy Stinear said brains "most certainly" changed when exposed to technology - particularly the brains of children.

"There's absolutely no doubt that everyone's brains are changing in the way they respond to and use information because it's being presented to us in so many different ways.

"Multi-tasking, for example playing on the internet, texting, listening to music and watching a YouTube video all at once . . . these things influence the way and speed in which you process information."

The plasticity of babies' and children's brains mean they learnt faster than adults and retained the information, Dr Stinear said.

"If your child is spending hours and hours in front of a television or messing around with your iPhone or smartphone, it's definitely impacting the way their brain is changing because their brain is so . . . nimble. They just have this capability for learning new things quickly."

More and more children were starting school with the ability to use smartphones, tablets and laptops.

"It's just part of their world," Wellington new entrant teacher Angelee Deardoff said. "It used to be a special thing, they used to have a computer at the back of the classroom."

Now her St Mark's Church School pupils use netbooks as much as pen and paper for spelling, mathematics and units of inquiry.

Harry, who is a pupil in her class, is computer-literate, but still likes to draw pictures on paper.

"I like going on the Olympics and I just want to play just for fun because you can play games on it."

Little does he know these games are educational and hand-picked by Miss Deardoff.

"At this age they're wee little sponges and anything you give them that they're interested in they're going to remember and immerse themselves in," she said.

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Principal Kent Favel said it was hard to keep up with expensive technology and balancing it with parents' wishes and children's learning needs.

"The world is a changing place so we have to keep refining what we're doing because technology keeps changing on us."

The private primary and intermediate school bought 120 netbooks three years ago and was now looking at upgrading, but different age groups required different devices.

Teachers in modern classrooms had no other option but to keep up with advances as technology was integrated across the curriculum, Mr Favel said.

- The Dominion Post

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