Expert Explains How Technology Can Rewire the Brain for Learning

Many assume the shift to technology in the classroom will automatically bring better student outcomes. The answer isn’t a simple yes or no, but there are experts working on the core of the question: figuring out how technology rewires the brain for learning.

Did you know that from roughly 200 BC to 1400 AD almost all Europeans were bad at math? I was recently introduced to a new concept that explains why, and I would like to share it with other educators since there are intriguing implications for teaching and learning.


Technologies that make us smarter

Dr. David Krakauer is president of the Santa Fe Institute and an expert on how objects and technologies affect our brain’s ability to cognate. He used numbers to begin explaining the concept, which brings us back to why Europeans couldn’t do arithmetic for so many hundreds of years.

During that time, Roman numerals are what they had to work with and, as you can imagine, Roman numerals are terrible for doing calculations. Arabic numerals, on the other hand, are great for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, and once Europeans adopted them — ta-da — they could solve math problems much more easily.

It turns out there are some objects and technologies that rewire our brains in ways that make us human beings smarter — in some cases a lot smarter. There are others, though, that don’t do anything good for our cognitive capabilities and, in fact, have the potential to diminish them.

Dr. Krakauer refers to objects and technologies that affect our thinking as cognitive cultural artifacts.

Arabic numerals are, obviously, the good kind of cognitive artifact. They didn’t just make it easier for Europeans to do math with a paper and pencil (or quill or whatever). Knowing Arabic numerals makes it much easier to think mathematically.

Dr. Krakauer calls those things that rewire the brain in ways that make us better thinkers “complementary” cognitive artifacts.

When cognitive artifacts are complementary, they not only make us smarter in their presence, once we’ve learned them, our minds just work better.

Another great example Krakauer gave of a complementary cognitive artifact is the abacus. Children in cultures that use abacuses begin by using them with their hands and eyes. But here’s the thing – when children get proficient at using an abacus, we can see with imaging studies that the place where it is represented in the brain actually shifts from language areas to visual spatial areas.

A truly proficient abacus user no longer needs the physical abacus. He or she has a virtual abacus in the visual cortex. And it doesn’t stop there. Research shows that that abacus has also improved its user’s ability to cognate in other areas.

Maps are another excellent example of a complementary cognitive artifact. When we use maps, we encode spatial representations and, as a result, become far better at knowing where we are in the world and at getting ourselves from one place to another.


Technology trade-offs

Think about a day when we might jump into our self-driving car and tell it where we want to go without even glancing at a map. That self-driving car has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives every year, but it probably won’t do a thing to rewire our brains for the better. In fact, in all likelihood, it will have the opposite effect. The trade-off is obviously worth it, but Dr. Krakauer wants us all to be aware of how our reliance on new technologies can affect our cognition.

Dr. Krakauer refers to those objects and technologies we become dependent on that don’t do our brains any good as “competitive” cognitive artifacts.


The future of education technology

As someone wholly invested in technology solutions that help learners learn and teachers teach, I find this fascinating. When I first started attending ed tech conferences over ten years ago, I was surprised to discover it was a near-unanimous assumption by those in the industry that it wouldn’t be long before paper and pencil were a thing of the past and every student was on a computer all day. And with that assumption came another: that the shift to computers would automatically bring about better student outcomes.

Since things haven’t exactly turned out that way, I think people have learned to be more cautious when predicting what technology will be used in the classroom and how it will affect learners. One thing’s for sure, the many ways a human mind is influenced by the objects it’s using is anything but obvious.

I, for one, am hoping the future brings more research like Dr. Krakauer’s to help ensure that whatever cognitive artifacts end up in classrooms, they are ones that truly make our students better thinkers.


Tami Porter headshotTami Porter is the co-founder of GradeCam. Tami began her teaching career in 1998 where she quickly found herself buried in paperwork with not enough time for lesson planning. When scanning groceries at a grocery store, she wished grading papers could be just as easy. She took her idea of scannable assessments to her entrepreneurial family – sons Rich, Rob, and husband Rick – and the family business was born.

Read more of Tami’s story.