How will we nurture minds of the future?

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Susan Greenfield asks readers for their ideas about how best to harness new technologies for education in the 21st century

During the past 25 years all manner of technologies have entered the classroom but with little thought as to how they might change the way children think. Information and communications technologies are ever more pervasive, be they desktop computers, teachers' laptops, broadband internet access, interactive whiteboards or the mobile phone.

Clearly, many of these tools can make a positive contribution to learning but, for some, the evidence is patchy. There is no doubt that the use of technology increases the motivation of students, particularly boys: there are a number of excellent projects (for example those championed by Futurelab) that have shown how IT can be used productively in education, and even increase parental involvement.

However, there are many pitfalls including the danger that technology will be implemented in unimaginative,ways that will stifle learning and development of the young. Similarly, technology in the home can be a double-edged sword, as exemplified by the results of the TES poll suggesting significant effects of technology upon children's bedtime behaviour.

It's not the technology, it's what we do with it and we need to build an evidence base to inform our choice of technology rather than just using it for short-term gratification. Shaping the minds of young people has always been a part of education, but now computer technology allows us to take one step further.

There are software products on the market, particularly in the area of special needs, which are based on science of widely varying quality that claim to help children learn. A technique called "neurobiofeedback" is set to add to this bewildering array of learning technologies. In neurobiofeedback a child plays a game on a computer which is hooked up to a helmet on her head which measures her brain waves. Progress in the game is achieved through thinking alone. As the brain waves associated with the desired "state of mind" - let us say concentrating - become more intense, higher scores are achieved. For children who have difficulty concentrating, this may seem like a product made in heaven. However, we do not know what effect enhancing concentration in this way will have on other cognitive skills, on creativity, imagination or mood or to what extent the enhancement is transferable to other activities.

Current classroom technologies as seemingly benign as interactive whiteboards have received enormous investment with little thought about their impact upon learning and thinking.

When I asked in the House of Lords about the Government's assessment of the impact of interactive whiteboards on pupil motivation, attainment and learning, I was told by the minister that the Government's assessment of "educational impact," "operational effectiveness" and "impact on standards"

was due this year. I am not sure this assessment will answer my question.

Teachers have expressed concern that interactive whiteboards lead to more spoon-feeding and less pupil creativity and thought.

Drugs are another form of technology that has entered the classroom and the inappropriate application of drug technologies such as Ritalin, Prozac and cannabis worries me enormously. There is little doubt that drugs such as these can change the way children think. For children with severe problems of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder there is no doubt that Ritalin has a role to play, but there is a danger that drugs such as these become more of a lifestyle choice than the treatment of a real medical need.

The problem with these drugs is that they do not target a single trait, such as mood, or concentration, or wakefulness: rather, drugs will manipulate, in a very broad way, the chemicals in the brain that, in turn, could have widespread and long-lasting effects.

Some might argue that drugs, such as cognition enhancers, should be widely available so that we can all realise our full potential. Surely teaching is all about cognitive enhancement and many of us drug ourselves with that cup of coffee to enhance early morning activity? But the idea of enhancement is sinister in whatever way it would be applied, using technology as much as chemicals. If, in the unlikely event that everyone could be improved to the same extent, then we would end up in a monotonously homogenous world based on the assumption that each of us was naturally inadequate. Worse still, and more likely, would be the scenario where only a minority were favoured: techno-haves versus the have-nots.

We must surely choose to adopt technology that will ensure that the classroom will fit the child, and buck the growing trend for technology to be used to make the 21st-century child fit the classroom. The educational needs of the individual are changing, and the very nature of the classroom needs to change too. What we need is an in-depth consideration of the future of learning and education.This is one of the key areas in which science will have a profound impact upon civil society in the coming years and that we are in a crucial period during which science, education and civil society are all coming together.

I would be keen to hear the views of teachers and other educationists and you can write to me at the House of Lords, London, SW1A 0PW. While I cannot promise a personal reply, I will feed your views into our work in Parliament and into our project in Oxford, The Institute for the Future of the Mind (

We need a large-scale public debate, in order to make certain that we take active decisions about the implementation of technology in the classroom, rather than finding ourselves sleepwalking into an undesirable situation.

We need to ensure that the citizens of mid-21st century Britain have the most fulfilling lives possible, in the most successful society possible.

Baroness Greenfield is a professor of pharmacology at Oxford university and director of the Royal Institution

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