The Brains of K-12 Students Come Prewired for EdTech

Forget the books. Save your paper and pencils for Art Projects.

Generation Z students, born in the late 1990s to the present, have grown up with Laptops, iPads, and smartphones. Their brains have evolved to process more information at faster speeds than previous generations of learners. Getting and keeping their attention presents a challenge, yet we tend to ignore what triggers their motivation. We talk at them and hand them a thick textbook full of words.

What differentiates the human brain is its neocortex, the frontal lobe which can absorb and store more bits of information than the brains of any other species. An effective teacher will motivate their students to absorb what is taught into their cortex.

The technology used in education (EdTech) provides a powerful means by which to do this. When used appropriately, EdTech engages Gen Z students because it feeds directly into what their brains enjoy doing — learning.

Recently, there has been lots of interest in brain-based instruction. Supported by current research, neuroscience emphasizes how the human brain learns naturally and how it functions at varying developmental stages. For example, a beginning reader learns by connecting letters and letter strings to sounds. Graphogame is a technology-based game that attempts to address this basic first step in learning to read. It combines neuroscience with education. In Graphogame, a child’s efforts are analyzed by online algorithms and lessons are modified to match the learner’s ability. Studies have shown that practice with the type of game can initiate print-sensitive activation in regions that later become critical for mature reading.

There are other such neuroscience-based EdTech applications. One of these is Earobics, a computer-assisted training program which aims to improve reading skills by improving children’s sound perception, memory, and phonological awareness. Another, still in development by Lifestyle Learning, is called “Career Readiness Application.” This interactive program engages the neocortex by taking advantage of the fascination Generation Z has with playing online with avatars and tying motivation and course selection to career aspiration.

Another characteristic of human beings is that we are a social species. It has been shown that social learning experiences, as well as independent ones, can be informed by neuroscience. A study by Judy Willis in 2011 found that students who worked on a project in groups experienced a surge in dopamine, the chemical that is released during pleasurable situations and stimulates students to remember information better. So how can we combine what neuroscience tells us about collaboration among Gen Z students with learning through technology?

Jon S., an elementary teacher in California, did it this way. He provided a virtual workbench and blog format that enabled his students to create online portfolios.  As Jon describes it, “The kids anonymously publish their writing and art and share it online with an authentic audience. … As soon as the student publishes a new article, I get an instant email on my mobile device, enabling me to review and moderate the work. The parents can also get this instant email. Other readers (including other students in my class) comment too, but they won’t show up on the blog or be seen by the author until the comment has been deemed appropriate.” You can contact Jon for more detail.

ePals is commercial program for online communities of writers, that promotes teamwork and student collaboration and provides a collaborative writing space for kids to use during class. These products operate like Jon’s creation but do so on a global level. Students from around the world can send each other email (via a secure system that teachers can monitor), and where they can work together on projects that engage them in real-time video chats.

Such interactions involve Generation Z students partly because the part of the brain that is responsible for visual ability is more developed in generation Z than in other generations. Their brains of are physically different from earlier generations. Some researchers contend that because of these differences, the preferred use of technology for communication can be an indicator of a particular generation’s identity. For instance, baby boomers prefer communicating face-to-face. Generation X folks are fine with talking on the phone or using email. Millennials hang out in social media networks.

Generation Z would rather communicate in ways that don’t leave a paper trail. They prefer apps where communications are sent, and then users move on to the next stream of conversation. As a result, most Generation Z students prefer visual learning over kinesthetic or auditory.

Bottom line: rather than fighting the prewired preferences of Gen Z students, teachers can incorporate the findings of neuroscience into EdTech decisions and provide students with technology that sets their dopamine flowing and kicks up their motivation to learn.

Oh, and as for forgetting books, paper, and pencils – of course not. They are earlier EdTech implements, and the Gen Z brain can still appropriately and creatively use them.



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