Smart drugs work, but do we want them to?

14th May 2010 at 01:00
Chemicals that enhance exam performance are here to stay - it is educators' duty to shape the debate around their use

Of course parents want to give their children as good a chance as possible to get the best exam results - but how many, given the chance, would give them "smart drugs" for that extra bit of brainpower?

It's a trend which is reported to be happening already in higher education institutions and sixth forms in the UK, with students using memory-improving "brighteners" like Modafinil, just one of the drugs which are said to improve cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention and concentration.

In the US the trend is far more prevalent, with a recent survey showing that smart drug use is as high as 25 per cent on some HE campuses. These kinds of drugs - marketed heavily on the internet as being side-effect free - are thought to work by changing the availability of the brain's supply of neurochemicals, improving its oxygen supply or stimulating nerve growth.

The issue of drug-enhanced performance in education is one of the most important debates in terms of shaping our future schooling system, not least because it challenges our concept of what constitutes a "natural" performance in exams, just as technology has. Stripping students of their calculators before entering the exam room is a good deal easier than removing, or testing for, their smart drugs, and still opens the question of what exactly we are assessing: the student, stripped bare; the student plus "tools"; the student plus "tools" and "network"; or all of the above, enhanced with drugs?

Exam systems have always been used as a means to order people from the best to worst performers; to differentiate the "most able" in the constrained circumstances of the exam room, itself an unnatural construct. Mix this traditional approach of categorisation with a predominantly economic perspective on what constitutes success and you have much greater competition and pressure on exam performance.

No matter what their background is, ambitious parents can no longer be entirely confident their children will outperform their peers. Along with this, we have a culture where the idea of long years of patient study doesn't - and perhaps never will again - have much appeal. In this context, smart drugs might look like a quick fix.

Imagine a future in which these kinds of drug enhancements aren't considered to be cheating, just accepted as part of the advantage that wealthier families have, similar to better access to books and technology. Imagine smart drugs doled out as an aid to learning - like free school meals - to ensure that everyone has the same chance, and used by educators as a means of both control and enhancing results: classes of medicated children with a greater appetite for learning and a lesser chance of misbehaving.

The attention given by governments to education standards internationally and the league tables of comparative achievement could lead you to envisage national programmes of sanctioned medication for learning as a means of demonstrating the higher levels of attainment and standards within a particular society.

If it sounds far-fetched, many people already accept the other side of the picture by recognising the value that pharmacological solutions can have for dealing with particular conditions such as ADHD, and the extension of study and diagnostic testing for a greater variety of learning needs, each with their own potential drug treatment.

The issue of smart drugs in education is not whether they will play a part in the future: they will and already do. The issue is how educators respond to them and how we shape the ethical debate around their use.

You might argue that learning and the development of skills is too complex to be chemically enhanced; that chemically pushing some mental buttons, sparking attention, supercharging retrieval of facts from memory is essentially superficial, and that whatever types of enhancement used, they won't be a substitute for the inherent qualities which are most valued by society and which lead to rewarding lives: talent, enthusiasm, motivation.

In response to this situation, it could be argued that we must design our assessment system to value people with human qualities and genuine potential from those who deliver momentary "high performance" in exams. On the other side of the debate, there are groups who argue that smart drugs "level the playing field" to offer a way to a fairer and more equal society.

Futurelab, the research centre where I work, encourages educators to get to grips with issues like these that will shape the future of our education system. The Vision Mapper website, an online toolkit developed to support the UK education system to prepare for and respond to the challenges it faces over the next two decades, elaborates on and makes accessible scenarios of possible futures in a practical manner. The scenarios are all plausible, some probable, but not all are preferable. None of them is inevitable and society will have to decide which paths it takes.

Smart drugs do not constitute a "silver bullet" for educational performance for either individuals or the nation as a whole. There are serious questions around the health implications for young people of using them and about the role of commercial interests in selling them.

There is also the central issue of the impact of mental enhancements on the very notion of what education actually is, of how performance can be fairly assessed, and consequently what "cheating" means. Educators cannot sit on the sidelines to wait and see what gets decided - they must take an active part in the debate.

Steve Sayers, Operations director, Futurelab.

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