Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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Childhood in the digital age

3.3 The strengths of new technology

In the following audio, educational psychologist Paul Howard-Jones offers his views on the impact of gaming on children’s development. He joins Daphne Bavelier in being more of an optimist. In particular, he focuses on how technology can help to shape the neural connections in the brain and strengthen the acquisition of new skills.

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MONTAGUE
What is it about computer games that makes them so difficult to put down? My guest today thinks the answer to that could transform the way young people learn. But his research is going even further, from gaming into gambling. Children with even the shortest attention span will spend hours trying to make progress within the world of a game. It’s all about choices based on trial and error. But what if adding those same elements to a classroom – luck and reward, the basis of gambling – could turn children into better learners?
Paul Howard-Jones is an educational psychologist specialising in neuroscience. He’s from the University of Bristol’s Graduate School of Education.
Now Paul, we’ll talk about the gambling aspect in a moment but let’s start with the gaming because most people, certainly parents, will recognise that there is almost a magnetic power about computer games. What do we know about the magic that gets people hooked?
HOWARD-JONES
Well we certainly don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to but I think many scientists are becoming interested in video games because they also, as well as engaging their players, they also seem to be very, very good teachers. What we’re seeing are a whole range of effects. So, for example, improved visual motor response, improvements in switching attention, even improvements in being able to not be distracted – these sorts of things. Now this is important because scientists have been trying to improve these functions for quite some time and now they’re waking up to the fact that through all those years of relative failure this has been occurring in bedrooms around the world as children play their action video games.
MONTAGUE
But for a child to be able to get better at responding quickly to something, perhaps they can react quicker when they see something, that’s different from actually speeding up learning isn’t it?
HOWARD-JONES
Yes, so for many years people have been trying to put the curriculum, if you like, the educational curriculum into games and to some extent it’s been a bit of a disaster. The most common outcome is that the child will turn around and say is this supposed to be fun, you know, so educational games have had pretty bad press. And I think part of the reason for that is we haven’t really understood what the underlying processes are. So when people are observing theses video games, having such effects in terms of basic cognitive function, it’s obviously of interest to try and find out how that is achieved. But you’re right, that there is then quite a step, there’s quite a leap to make, in terms of applying those processes to teach curriculum.
MONTAGUE
So what is it that we have learnt that we know that children like and will be gripped by that might be applied in education?
HOWARD-JONES
Well what we’re seeing is an increase in the way in which the brain is responding in the reward system, so when they’re playing the video games you see this very significant uptake of dopamine in the mid-brain region. So it’s the sort of thing you get when you see chocolate cake or sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, basically all those visceral motivations produce that response. So the next question is well why does that happen and what we’re seeing in video games is this very rapid schedule of rewards and more than that these rewards are uncertain, in the sense that they rely on some element of luck or chance. Now if you take that research and you link it to other research that has shown if there is an element of chance then you get more of this mid-brain dopamine response then you can begin to understand that video games probably should have that potential to make us much more engaged and excited.
MONTAGUE
It’s the lack of predictability.
HOWARD-JONES
It’s the lack of predictability but also this very rapid schedule of uncertain rewards.
MONTAGUE
Now there have been huge advances in what we’re learning about the brain in the last few years, I mean there’s obviously a lot of argument about the different advantages and what we can say about it, so I wonder actually given all that you know about the literature whether you apply it at home?
HOWARD-JONES
I try to, is the honest answer, but I am a parent in the real world and it’s not always straightforward. So the things that really come through to me as important are sleep, nutrition and things like caffeine and technology can be very disruptive. I mean sleep is important for learning, not just in terms of being rested the next day but actually remembering what happened the day before because sleep helps consolidate your memory. So if you have disrupted sleep then you will not be able to remember your homework so well. And in fact a study has been done on that with 10-11 year olds where they’ve shown that depending on whether you watch TV, a computer game or no technology at all your sleep will be disrupted in a different way and you will remember more or less of the homework that you do after that experience.
MONTAGUE
Okay, so the best is what?
HOWARD-JONES
No technology. Second best TV and the thing which disrupts sleep and homework memory the most is unfortunately the video games.
MONTAGUE
So what time – in your household – what time do video games go off or what time should they – I mean…?
HOWARD-JONES
It depends on the age because one of the problems here of course is that teenagers need to start becoming more independent and making their own decisions and video games are part of teenage culture and so are mobile phones, mobile phones are another element of trouble in terms of disrupting sleep. So in an ideal world I think probably I would restrict technology to at least before – seven o’clock I think would be the time when you want to pull the plug out really. That’s what we do. But then I’m not – I haven’t mentioned the older ones and that’s where you have the difficulty because they’re on Facebook…
MONTAGUE
And they’re not going to listen to you.
HOWARD-JONES
…they’re communicating with their friends. Well it’s a negotiation isn’t it, it’s negotiation. So I, during revision periods I’m much stricter about it but then they need to have some freedom and find out actually how awful they feel sometimes if they’ve been up till 10 or 11 o’clock playing video games.
MONTAGUE
And if they’re sleeping in till 10 or 11 o’clock that’s a good thing because teenagers need that?
HOWARD-JONES
It’s a good thing for them to be sleeping in at the weekends I think.
MONTAGUE
What about this other idea that you should show students the images of their brain at times where there is activity? Because you have argued that this is a good thing – that actually if you can…
HOWARD-JONES
What I’ve argued is it is good for children to be aware and thinking about their own mental processes and be aware about what their brain needs to function well. I think if you want to talk to children about things like working memory, how much you can keep in your attention at once, then brain images could be particularly helpful for that. But also, learning about the plasticity of the brain is really important as well. We know, for example, a study that was done with teenagers in the States that if teenagers know more about the maleability of their brain they see it less as a biological limit. And that can improve their self-concept and it can improve their academic trajectory as well. And actually on that subject, it's also true that teachers need to know about this. So we've been, just the last few weeks, we've been been trawling through data from around the world looking at some of the strange ideas that teenagers have, but also their ideas about the role of genetics in education. You know there's been a lot of discussion about that lately. And what we've found is that in our Greek sample, in our Chinese sample and in our British sample of trainee teachers, we found that there's a correlation between believing that genetics has a very big role in the educational outcome and thinking that there is less that you can do for the student in the classroom, and teacher attitudes do have knock-on effects on students outcomes.
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