It’s April, and the reports and studies about school technology are popping out like cherry blossoms. The research making news this month runs the gamut from funding to fretting: As the nation’s schools gear up to spend some $8.45 billion on technology in this school year (see our Front Page lead story), some educators worry that all that technology will erode elementary education and spoil childhood (“Viewpoint,” page 52).
Also on the Front Page, you’ll read about a Boston College study of the relationship between technology and testing, and you’ll learn of a program from the University of Illinois at Chicago studying the effects of virtual reality on children.
Inside the newspaper, the research theme continues. On page 18, you’ll get the latest findings from the National Center for Education Statistics: 95 percent of the nation’s schools now have at least one link to the internet.
But you can never be too connected or have too much bandwidth, so on page 14, we tell you about a new bill in Congress to launch a search for the most effective ways to bring high-speed, broadband internet access to your schools. On page 41, you’ll read about a Rutgers/University of Connecticut study showing that American workers strongly support government funding of internet access for schools.
But lest the fervor for connectivity go untempered, a trio of cautionary reports, on page 38, warn against the isolating potential of the internet.
And right here on this page, in “By The Numbers,” we bring you brand-new findings from N2H2 about where our students and teachers actually are spending their online time.
In fact, at least a dozen stories in this issue deal with research important to education and technology. But even that dozen doesn’t exhaust the topic. So now, like a friendly baker, I’ll give you yet one more late-breaking report.
Now pay attention, because this one could take you to the head of the class.
Neuroscientists, using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), have succeeded in mapping the brain-development processes that go on inside the heads of growing children. It’s the first time such detailed information has been available.
Researchers at UCLA and McGill University used MRI technology to scan children’s brains as they matured from babyhood to adolescence. According to a report released March 8 in the British journal Nature, the scientists used high-performance computers to analyze the images and track an intricate pattern of growth spurts and slow-downs within various brain systems.
The scientists found that from ages 3 to 6, the most rapid growth takes place in frontal-lobe areas involved in planning and organizing new actions and maintaining attention to tasks. Then, from 6 to puberty, they found, the growth spurts shift to the temporal and parietal lobes that play a major role in language skills and spatial relations. After age 12, the growth rate declines sharply, corresponding with the widely observed reduction in one’s ability to learn languages.
According to the scientists, the rule for brain development in adolescence is this: “Use it or lose it.” Here’s why:
First, during the growth spurts, the brain overproduces neurons that are not permanently connected to the neural circuits. Next, the brain cells begin to organize themselves, depending on which connections are reinforced by various forms of mental and physical activity. Then, the least-used cells and pathways die out as fibers connecting nerve cells firm up around the most-used connections.
“In the womb and during the first 18 months of life” when the brain grows most, researcher Jay N. Giedd told the Washington Post, “an infant doesn’t have much to say about the way things turn out. But during the teenage years, a person has a lot to say” about how his or her brain develops.
Teenagers who recognize this “feel empowered,” Giedd said, especially if they “realize that the stakes are pretty high.”
Elizabeth R. Sowell, another researcher, was candid: The neuroscientists don’t have clue about the practical implications of this new snapshot of brain development. “We’re all hoping that perhaps the experts in education or psychology will see these things that we’re showing them and find ways to make those connections,” she said.
If you’re an education expert, use your head. You can start by pointing your browser to http://www.nature.com. For $10 U.S., you can download the full report from Nature. Just don’t forget to drop eSchool News a line when you’ve got everything figured out.