Tara Brabazon: Return of the brain changers

Media scaremongering about the sinister effects of new media on young people’s brains is a poor excuse for failing to engage with and bring out the best in our students, argues Tara Brabazon

March 17, 2009

Reading about university students in newspapers is like being stuck in a zombie movie. In Return of the Brain Changers, digital natives are the new undead, lurching through schools and universities plugged into their iPhones, disconnected from their environment and frightening parents and teachers.

The narrative moves through a familiar pattern. A generation started to use social networking sites. After three years of accessing Facebook, the human brain has transformed into a comatosed, bored, listless and illiterate mash of meat. Dragged through life by white earphones, students are now incapable of grasping complex ideas.

Marc Prensky started much of this brain-changing balderdash. Since 2001, this “education consultant” has argued that “it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up”. The confusion of physiology (brains physically changing) and socialisation (how they grew up) is the key problem. While Prensky saw this generational revolution (yawn) as an opportunity to develop his consultancy business, other commentators summon fully fledged moral panics. A desire to invent each generation as folk devils or saviours may have seemed modern in the 1960s but is now as tired as Lulu singing Shout.

The Daily Mail pounces on particular topics to promulgate fear: of young people, technological change or declining literacy. When these three panics combine, the resultant article is a horror movie that makes Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller look like an advertisement for L’Oréal anti-ageing products. The Daily Mail’s front page on 24 February warned: “Social websites ‘harm a child’s brain’”. That quotation came from “neuroscientist Susan Greenfield”. While she is acknowledged as “an eminent scientist”, she has not displayed her expertise in research methods. The basis for her arguments (buried on page six of the paper) lacked triangulation of data. The paper reported that Baroness Greenfield “told the House of Lords that a teacher of 30 years had told her she had noticed a sharp decline in the ability of her pupils to understand others. ‘It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations.’”

The combination of Chinese-whisper referencing (informing parliamentarians what a teacher had told her) and a misinterpretation of the words from her informant resulted in an odd lurch between personal opinion, scientific observation and the inferences made from the views of others. Apparently the teacher reported a decline in students’ “understanding” of others. In other words, there has been a shift in communication skills. How oral and aural literacies align or disconnect from digital literacies is an intricate and complicated topic. Multiliteracy theorists have taken such a disengagement or convergence as a primary research focus. None of this material is cited by the Baroness or the Daily Mail.

Such an absence is no surprise. Historically, the Daily Mail has shown a propensity to endorse science above the humanities and neuroscience over media studies. Therefore, to verify the quotations it cited from the Baroness, I returned to the Lords Hansard entry for the day. I found that her arguments became even more disturbing than those reported in the newspaper.

“We do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering.”

She also compares social networking and screen cultures to “the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating” and “being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction”.

This biologically determinist discourse is a mode of neo-Lombrosian thinking. Instead of measuring the size of the cranium and offering hypotheses about intelligence, these neo-Lombrosians jump straight to the brain itself without experimentation or scientific observation to make their case. At least Lombroso used a tape measure to provide some “evidence” for his arguments. These current brain-changer theorists offer their opinions as “worth considering” with multiple caveats – but the cost and consequences of their untheorised clash of social and technological variables is deeply unfortunate for educational policy.

When the biological bases for actions are promoted, whether this mode of argument is used to locate criminogenic tendencies, laziness, stupidity or antisocial behaviour, positivism predominates. The brain becomes the cause of behaviour. Such an argument blocks any responsibility (or necessity) for a teacher to intervene in learning strategies. It would not make the front page of the Daily Mail to argue that students are no better or worse than they have ever been.

There is now a counter-flow of evidence critiquing the neo-Lombrosians. Research probing online participation is showing data in direct opposition to the brain changers. The report Generations Online in 2009 from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found a declining variance between different groups’ web use. Sydney Jones and Susannah Fox found that “larger percentages of older generations are online now than in the past, and they are doing more activities online”. Their hypothesis from the gathered data is that “we can probably expect to see these bars [measuring age-based differences] become more level as time goes on”. While the young have dominated digital environments, this online profile is shifting. The integration of mobile and digital platforms in daily life is building literacy in online platforms far beyond a “Google generation” or “digital natives”.

This tabloid-fuelled biological determinism will hurt schools and universities. Certainly social conditions impact on behaviour and learning styles. How students occupy their leisure time will influence their demeanour in the classroom and workplace. But the mere fact that students in the 1960s listened to rock music did not change their brains to such an extent that every lesson required a drummer to keep the beat and a guitarist to strum a riff. Hendrix-led teaching never activated a paradigm shift in learning styles. Similarly, my generation had its scares about MTV and Nintendo, which were supposedly leading to the decline of Western civilisation. Generation X would be unable to concentrate and watch films because they had become accustomed to a three-minute micro-narrative. But this group went on to become the audience for Titanic, Braveheart, The English Patient and Dances with Wolves, films that take longer to watch than back-to-back football matches and are much less interesting. Visual literacies were not undermined. Innovative relationships between film and popular music were forged for all cinema attendees, not simply one age group.

Certainly we should monitor student aspirations, environments and literacies. But if concentration is lacking, then it is not a sign of autism but reveals the need to develop tasks for building interpretative skills. A lack of reading is not caused by an addiction to pleasure, satiation, gambling and drug-taking. Instead, teachers must mobilise a range of assessment options – workbooks, journals, reflective papers or creative-led exegeses – to encourage and enable the deployment of research in student assignments. We as teachers can be staunch in our interventionist strategies rather than remaining silent and compliant with the brain- change theorists. For my first-year students, I state that they should not even think about submitting a paper with fewer than ten sources. My pass mark starts at that point. They grumble. They complain that I am a bha-ich. But they read: first to receive the grades and then because they – grudgingly – start to enjoy the challenges of scholarship, writing and thinking.

Yes, I discourage Google use by first-year students. Yes, I ban Wikipedia references from any assignment submitted at university. Before wiki-enabled media, I also banned Encarta and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The problem is not the online environment. The goal for those committed to education is to align a student’s level of reading and writing with the expectations of international scholarship. Whenever the focus is on brains and not literacies, we miss opportunities for teaching, thinking and scholarship.

It is imperative for teachers to use imagination. My concern with this talk of brain changing is that it lets teachers (and parents) off the hook. If students’ brains are damaged – or enhanced – by social networking sites, then what can “we” do? Physiology can be “blamed” for poor results or dumbing down. Our only option is to complain, sigh and whinge about a generation not reading. But there is another option.

Throughout his career, Stanley Aronowitz, the powerful and provocative writer, theorist and teacher, has affirmed the importance of intervention, challenge and contemplation. When something goes wrong in his classroom, he looks to himself rather than blaming students. He observes: “Mostly when I don’t make connections, it’s because I haven’t tried hard enough.” His example is illuminating. Instead of complaining about student laziness, we need to look to ourselves. What are we doing through our curriculum, assessment, teaching and learning to create solutions and opportunities, rather than lolling in the apathy of the brain changers?

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