Learning for the Rewired Brain

DigitalLearningDay519570235BlogEach day, a new device or program is introduced into our world, compelling us to integrate more technology into our lives. Even the most mundane tasks, like washing the clothes, now involves computerized devices. Yet have you ever wondered how this pervasive amount of technology may be affecting the way that we learn? Could our learning style be evolving alongside technology? It has been suggested that, unlike the baby boomers of the post-World War II era, digital natives (a concept introduced by Marc Prensky) – or individuals reared in a technologically diverse environment dominated by unprecedented modes of communication and consistent exposure to vast amounts of information – may be physiologically primed (or wired) to process information differently than their non-native counterparts.

Generations that have been immersed in technology from the onset may, in fact, be more adept at utilizing narrative imagery rather than textual information and, therefore, have a more visual learning style. Basically, if you’re young enough, you may learn and think differently due to your early and abiding association with user interfaces. Depending on the decade in which you were born, you may thrive in learning environments in which technology with narrative imagery is properly employed.

In the Western world, learning has customarily taken place in text-based, lecture-centric environments, which seem to be incompatible with today’s visual learning style. If you were born sometime in the last millennium like me, you probably grew up in these conventional school environments. (However, your exposure to technology in the classroom probably varied considerably. I remember overhead projectors, card catalogs, film strips and film reels, which may be foreign to you.)

Research suggests that these established approaches to knowledge transfer may be counterproductive for and incompatible with the learning styles of modern learners, because they have been raised in a media-rich, digital backdrop. These modern learners started toying with computers, digital cameras and cell phones as toddlers, so they have grown accustomed to using devices with interactive displays. Consequently, they might benefit from more visually stimulating approaches to learning using symbols and other imagery.

Simply browse your iPhone or smartphone for examples of all of the graphical elements abundant in user interface design, where buttons and icons – instead of text – indicate functions. Digital natives are highly comfortable interacting with devices that use these elements and may be able to function more productively in similar learning environments. Research indicates that natives tend to access information through narrative imagery first and text second. For example:

A similar comparison to the table above was made in Eric Palmer’s “Visual Learning Styles among Digital Natives” Purdue e-Pub.

Depictions such as the one above have robust communicative and educational properties and can convey multiple messages simultaneously without the use of text. Many forms of writing consisting of symbols or hieroglyphs have been used since the beginning of time, starting with the most primeval humans.

Interestingly, because technology is so ubiquitous and modern learners may be evolving with it, it has been conjectured that technology-based instruction may exceed the effectiveness of traditional training methods. Utilizing narrative imagery as an instructional tool may enable the natives to utilize the information more efficiently and meaningfully than textual information, thereby possibly reducing the training time. If we can effectively utilize technology to help people learn while simultaneously reducing training time, why not?

Since the research claims that most learners are now “programmed” to be more visually receptive than ever before, we must begin to examine the following:

  • Are we shifting our instructional tactics rapidly enough to accommodate this new more visual learning style?
  • What types of digital learning could we use to strengthen the learning experience of the bulk of these modern learners?
  • How can we use technology to redesign learning for students so that we achieve better results in less time?

It seems that we preserve the outmoded models of instruction for various reasons – perhaps because we favor more established, traditional approaches to instruction because of their familiarity, and change is often daunting. Or perhaps we are overwhelmed by the plethora of technologies available and do not know which tool is appropriate for a particular application. Nonetheless, it is obvious that we must inevitably respond to this shift from older learning styles to the newer more visual learning style to promote a deeper understanding.

Want to learn more about learning? Read about our brain’s magic number, three.

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1 comment

  1. Randy Grein Reply

    Amusing. Take the narrow focus of computer tech and misapply it to something as vast as learning. How much time do kids spend on ‘visual’ devices over the past 30 years vs other methods of communication? Since when did it take a tablet, smartphone or game console to display a static graphic? The torturous hours elementary kids spend in art classes, science demonstrations and are ignored in this analysis.

    While some of the narrower views of ‘learning styles’ have been mostly discredited, it is clear that people have different relative strengths. We learn by doing, discussion, reading, watching. We use pictorial symbols as well as written languages; the graphic at the top of the article (an artsy, blue head with brain inside) is an excellent example. It is also clear that education has tried to use these other methods of education, the long-standing mania for metrics have focused attention and energy on ‘standardized’ tests that emphasize reading ability and comprehension. The current, mass production model of education is likely both necessary and sufficient to explain the uneven results obtained when input (young, highly variable minds) is considered.

    While I applaud the audacity to think experimentally, keep in mind that new ideas are not always correct. Before we remake education to mimic the latest science fiction story it might be better to slow down and reflect. Test and evaluate; consider the conditions and be patient. Results will not be demonstrated in 5 years but in a generation or more. What that has already demonstrated is that the artisan method of education – small groups, individual attention – generates better results than anything else tried so far. That conclusion means expensive education, but the results are worth it.