Children of the digital era are accustomed to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. Philosopher Michel Serres describes them as no longer having the same heads. Is it a generational question? In any case educators cannot ignore the new thinking patterns. Our schools must take them into account, not only in adapting teaching methods but also in inventing a new role in a Society that consumes knowledge instantly.

Michel Serres proposed a clever qualifier, “Thumblets,” for these young people, born after 1980, who demonstrate both dexterity and speed when it comes to using their thumbs to input their digital screens. Others prefer more generic expressions, such as “Millennial Generation,” Generation Y” or Net Generation[RR1]  but the most successful name thus far is surely that of “digital natives” coined by America futurist Marc Prensky as early as 2001.

Is it simply a question of generations?
The experts involved here want to pinpoint a single phenomenon that underscores the various possible denominations, viz., young people born after 1980 who differ from previous generations inasmuch as their exposure to new technologies supposedly impacts their brains and shapes the way they think and learn. Marc Prensky described the ongoing change in his famous paper “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”: “Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work.”

These new behavioral patterns suggest changes occurring in the way young people think, even in the way they organize their thinking. As Michel Serres summarizes: “they no longer have the same heads: cognition sciences have revealed that surfing the Internet, reading and thumb-writing textos, consulting Wikipedia or Facebook do not excite the same sets of neurons or cortex regions as those involved when reading books, or writing on slate-boards or in school jotters.” Several specialists are tackling these questions now, in order to better understand the cognitive evolution of the new generation.

Gérard Berry, computer science specialist and professor at Collège de France, Paris, has observed that “a digital format tends to induce mental inversions, in other words, a perception reversed with respect to the basic actions of day-to-day living.” To illustrate this, he takes the example of writing texts. “Whereas a 20th Century type-writer associated the time to physically compose words with that to make the key-strokes, modern word processing totally dissociates both actions and this, in turn, radically modifies the way we interconnect thinking and writing.” In like manner, the way we perceive space has also been totally changed: “In 1999, when I was travelling, I used to buy a map, unfold it, look for the place where I was, then my destination, after which I visualized my itinerary. In 2012, I access maps for the whole world via my phone or my GPS; they inform me constantly about my present position; I type in where I want to go and the route is immediately displayed. The entire process has been mentally reversed.”

The advent of Internet can thus be seen as a revolution in the way we think, comparable to the invention of writing (which enabled Men to recall things and events without having to learn them by rote) or the invention of printing (which enables a multiplication of books available and consequently provided an extraordinary expansion of accessible knowledge. The arrival of TV, as of the 1950s goes hand in hand with rapid progress, measured by tests in schools to assess children’s ability to “read” images.

American psychiatrist, Dr. Gary Small, a specialist of brain and memory functions at UCLA, recalls in his book iBrain that television had a strong impact on our lives during the 20th Century but has now been replaced by the Internet as our primary source of cerebral stimulation. He used the metaphor of argentic film to explain the neurological impact of new technologies. “Every time your brain is exposed to a new sensorial stimulus or fed with new information, it works like photographic film on which an image is focused. The light entering the camera leads to chemical reactions that alter the silver salts on the film and creates the photographic image.” Our brains are subsequently modified with each image.

The idea, however, according to which there are the ‘digital natives’, on one hand and, on the other, ‘digital immigrants,’ separated by a clearly defined and unbridgeable frontier has been called into question in academic circles. Several research scientists (notably Sue Bennet and Karl Maton) threw light on intra-generational differences, underlining the fact that if a majority of young people are frequently in contact with new technologies, only a relatively small fraction of them are really ‘tech-savvy.’ They find it somewhat difficult to generalize a set out characteristics and learning patterns for a complete generation, who, when analyzed reveal the same (or even more) internal differences when they are compared with other age groups.

Certain members of the ‘digital immigrant’ groups can be more impregnated with digital technologies and, indeed, are more skilled in actually using them than the “natives.” Marc Prensky himself has changed opinion about a clear divide between immigrants and natives, an opinion that resulted more from metaphor than from theory, seeking only to show the widening gap among pupils and those whose role it is to teach and train them. The children born before 1980 are also undergoing brain modifications induced by digital technologies. It was thought that the brains became immutable when adult and mature, but neurosciences now tell us that it remains malleable, with a plasticity such that it constantly destroys neuron connections and creates new connections throughout our lives.

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A brain rewired by digital practice
Dr Gary Small carried out a noteworthy experiment (2008). He first selected 6 guinea pigs, three of whom were adepts of new technologies and three who were largely ignorant in this area. By observing their brain activities using functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI). He asked them to carry out a Google thematic search. It was observed that the two groups activated different sub-regions of their brains while doing the search. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DPFC, front left sub-region) is activated for the “tech-savvy” but hardly at all for the members of other group. The latter were then invited, over the next five days, to surf the Internet for one hour each day. A second MRI scan the showed that their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was now activated. “With just five hours on the Internet, their brains had been rewired,” concluded Gary Small.

These impressive transformations of our cognitive capacity are not just ‘for better’. American author Nicholas Carr, in his best-seller The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, gives a detailed description of changes impacting our capacity to concentrate (lower) and to reason (more rapidly but in less depth). “The more we access Web pages, the less we read books; the more we exchange several octet long textos, the less we construe sentences and paragraphs; the more we skip from link to link, the less we think and meditate calmly; consequently, the circuits that command these old functions and outdated intellectual activities weaken and begin to dissolve. The brain recycles neurons and synapses that are no longer in use and reassigns them to other more immediate needs.” This description is totally coherent with what we learn via neurosciences about the brain’s plasticity: an unsolicited connection is lost. In short, we see the end of linear reasoning, replaced by a mind that is constantly bombarded with information and stimuli. We have entered a multi-task era and face the risk of dispersion.

It is our gain but also, therefore, our loss. Studies have shown that the way we use new technologies allows us to widen our spatio-visual skills, to develop better coordination between eye and hand, to process visual signals faster, to increase our (short term) working memory, to handle and process more data simultaneously, to be more reactive and alert in the way we process information, etc. But it was also shown that continuous stimulation of our attention is detrimental to our capacity to engage in deep and creative thinking. These modifications can already be detected in persons born before computers arrived on the scene, but are even more obvious for those born with the coming of the digital revolution.

What impact will this have on education?
Consequently, even if we take the heterogeneity of this ‘web-savvy’ generation into account, its new features definitely do impact our educational systems. The most obvious impact is probably that which relates to attentiveness. Many teachers complain that their students are no longer capable of sitting still during class-time. As Marc Prensky explains, the question is not so much one of lower concentration but more one of a lower desire to concentrate on a given subject matter. “They have learned to focus only on what interests them and on things that treat them as individuals rather than as part of a group,” he explains in Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning. It is for this very reason (and also for the purpose of making teaching more efficient), that many experts are now advocating less ‘blackboard’ lessons and more participative and collaborative work, where pupils are invited to adopt a more active role.

The debate and issue can be framed as follows: should our educational system be adapted to accept without question the ongoing changes, or should it, on the contrary, act in such a way as to attenuate or even counter their more negative aspects? The experts do not all agree here. On one hand, there are those that advocate a deep-reaching change in the way teaching is carried out to be in phase with the cognitive revolution. Marc Prensky, logically can be seen as belonging to the former group, calling, as he does for, a new form of teaching, viz., “partnering.” The aim would be to agree to a partnership between the teacher and the pupils, with clearly defined roles for each: teachers would ask the right questions, to make sure that the pupils develop the required skills; the pupils would bring the new technologies with them into the classroom and use them to find the answers to the questions. According to Marc Prensky, this distribution of roles aims at making the pupils take more active commitments, whereas the technologies are there to help personalize their learning processes.

Educational spheres largely recognize the benefits of more individualization in teaching methods and rhythms, the overall usefulness of new technologies in the classroom meets with more critical debate. British academics Ellen Johanna Helsper and Rebecca Eynon expose their opinion in a recent paper, i.e., that a technology cannot be brought into a classroom on the sole basis that young people are using it increasingly in their personal lives, given that there can be both positive and negative aspects for its uses. Other experts therefore warn against a too pervasive influx of new technologies in the classroom and invite schools to engage in a battle against an era of unending stimulus.

A new role for schools
Julien Gautier and Guillaume Vergne, who teach philosophy in French highschools, explain in their book L’Ecole, le numérique et la société qui vient [The digital revolution, schools societal change] that “if we can safely exclude returning to a yesteryear lecture format, we would be advised to avoid committing suicide in trying to offset student anemia with more immediate stimulation where teachers are seen as no more than classroom facilitators.” As they see it, “this would amount to taking sides with the impulsiveness and impatience that characterize our times, to reinforce our domination over their minds whereas what is needed is, on the contrary, to provide children with the mental means to resist the trend, i.e., to double up our efforts to training their capacity to be attentive and critical and enable them to access more enduring and richer forms of symbolic joys.”

This “resistance” function could be placed at the heart of a new role for schools. In keeping with the French 18th Century philosophy of the ‘Lumières’ and the emergence of democracies, schools had the mission to train future citizens, endowed with a critical mind, capable of deciding the lives they would lead, by themselves. A new ambition could be added to this historic mission: in an “instant world,” where the possibility of immediate access to huge amounts of information can give the allusion of acquiring new knowledge, training more demanding minds and not just simply Google clients. Indeed, the debate addresses the question of the need to learn in an in-depth manner when so much information is just “one click away.”

This unprecedented democratization of access to information makes it absolutely necessary to develop skills to sort, select, identify and criticize, if need be, this information. According to Nicholas Carr, this does not preclude in-depth learning, which provides other, key, skills. As he explains “We do not limit our mental capacity when we store long term memories; on the contrary, we reinforce them. Every time we augment our memories, our intelligence increases.” As he sees it, “the Web represents a practical and fascinating complement to our personal memory storage, but when we start to replace personal memories and to short-circuit our internal consolidation processes, we run the risk of stripping our minds of what constitutes its richness.” French education science specialist, Philippe Meirieu proposes that training enhanced attention should be at the core of the school missions. “In a Society that welcomes acceleration as a virtue, schools must teach deceleration as a principle.”

As often, the solutions to this vast debate almost certainly lie somewhere mid-way between these two positions, intelligently blending former and new teaching methods, allowing for acceleration and instant knowledge while revalorizing long term, in-depth and lasting activities.

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