Saturday, 21 November 2009

Learning & the Brain Conference - Boston

The theme of the Learning & the Brain Society's conference was "Modern Brains: enhancing memory and performance in this distracting digital age". It was fascinating and I will try to share thoughts through this blog.
The logistics - well organised and catered for the huge number of participants. It did not have a virtual side which might have helped participants to participate since it was too huge to find like-minded or team-minded (different fields, research, education, theorists) people for discussion. One strong message from the conference was about the myth of multitasking, producing breadth but no depth. I think that the rather conventional nature of the conference did produce the same, breadth but you really had to work to discuss the depth.
Multitasking. Torkel Klingberg's presentation on "Working Memory - the overflowing brain" demonstrated that you pay for not performing at 100% on a tasks when multitasking. There is a capacity restraint. In dual-tasking studies, he showed that you could work at 100% on one or the other, but not on both. What is happening in multitasking is that attention is shifting rapidly from one task to the other and, importantly, some areas of the brain are required to be used for BOTH areas, providing a capacity restraint.
So there are bottlenecks.
The strong emphasis on evolutionary biology in brain function gave a good explanation to why the brain might work as it does. With no increase in brain volume in the past 40,000 years how do we cope with new things with our hunter-gatherer brains? Neuroplasticity - the ability of our brains to adapt, to learn.
But both ACTIVITY and PASSIVITY have an effect on the brain - neurons grow but they also die (use it or lose it comes to mind).
Our brains are made to learn.
What implications does this have to the use of laptops in classrooms? (or indeed in meetings?!)
If student is note-taking as teacher talks, two tasks but perhaps one can learn to type without requiring anything but an automatic skill. But add to that surreptitiously Facebooking (one further task) and also keeping an eye on the teacher coming around the class (another task with strong emotional consequences and hence taking up brain resources), then multitasking with learning costs is surely to be the outcome.

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