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Technology and Learning

February 27, 2019

Dear Parents, Students and Staff,

There is often a great deal of discussion around the impact of modern technology on learning. How much screen time is appropriate? In light of this, I have been reading up on what makes an effective learner and I came across some information that may help.

“Neuroscientists have been exploring the physical mechanisms that drive people’s improvement on hard tasks (like learning!). The scientists believe the answer includes myelin – a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind the skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

This understanding is important because it provides a neurological foundation for why deliberate practice works. By focussing intensely on a particular skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits-effectively cementing the skill.” (Cal Newport, “Deep Work “, p64)

Why is this important?

  • Learning is hard work. Our bodies will tend to take the easier path and are happy to be distracted.
  •  One must focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distractions (The author calls this “deep learning”).
  • If you are trying to learn or commit to memory, in a state of low concentration (responding to Instagram postings for example), you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen. Learning will not be optimised.

So, the moral of the story?

  • You need to keep the distractions away from you whilst you are learning. To help, establish a schedule when you will access your phone (or devices) and be disciplined to not access it during learning sessions.
  • The longer you schedule learning time (intense concentration) from phone time (social media, for eg) the better the chance of you learning the task, skill or topic.
  • Deep learning will produce mastery and there will be obvious benefits to you personally as you progress along the learning journey.
  • Lock in “down time” where you are relaxing your brain and reducing the “cognitive load”.

For your consideration.

Best wishes.

Paul Carroll


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