Technology In The Classroom, According To Brain-Expert Dr. Brynn Winegard

  • Melissa Doyle
  • 11 December 2017
  • 04:27 PM

Award-winning educator, speaker, and business-brain expert, Dr. Brynn Winegard, is a professor who advocates for the importance of real deep learning in the classroom. To Dr. Brynn, learning is a lot more than just writing notes — it's a process that takes significant effort, focus, and even physical exertion that leave little room for distractions.

In this article, Dr. Brynn explains why she chooses not to use technology in her classroom and expects that her students put pens to paper instead.

1. Learning is Challenging

Dr. Brynn is unequivocal when she emphasizes how difficult it is to actually learn. “When you’re learning, your brain is consuming forty percent of your calories. Your brain is so energetically expensive to operate,” she says, illustrating that learning requires so much energy it can be as physically tasking as walking up a hill. That's why, the brain expert says, it's not surprising that distractions can get the best of us at challenging moments, such as when students feel bored, are struggling with a topic, or preparing for final exams.

"When you’re learning, your brain is consuming 40% of your calories. Your brain is so energetically expensive to operate."

“I would love to use tech in the classroom, but using technology doesn’t currently allow for real deep learning,” Dr. Brynn argues, explaining that learning is a process that physically rewires the human brain. While she acknowledges and understands the application of classroom technologies, she emphasizes that technology hasn't really changed the way humans learn. “The human brain has evolved over two hundred million years — smartphones have been around for ten."

Dr. Brynn also emphasizes the value and benefit of being truly present in the classroom. "Advanced education is a privilege," she says. "While it is hard work at times, taking a moment to enjoy it, to immerse yourself in the process properly, pays many dividends — including deeper learning, reduced anxiety, better mindfulness, and more deliberate focus and concentration." 

2. Multitasking Does Not Exist

Dr. Brynn is also concerned by the concept of multitasking. "Using your mobile device as a phone is the same as using a Rolls Royce as a cupholder,” she says, suggesting that our devices are most often used for a multitude of functions simultaneously. Examples of multitasking she's seen include students who shop online while following a lecture, or browse unrelated emails while taking notes — not uncommonly experienced in today's classroom.

"Learning requires a lot more cognizant presence than people are comfortable with these days."

In addition, Dr. Brynn highlights, even just having your phone beside you is enough for it to be distracting. “Learning requires a lot more cognizant presence than people are comfortable with these days," she says, observing that younger students may not be as open to a no-tech or low-tech classroom policy because they have not been taught the value of learning without a technological aid. "From what I've seen, only those of us with experience knowing the difference are willing to set technology aside." 

3. Typing Your Notes Doesn’t Help You Remember

Taking the side of professor Susan Dynarski, who made her case against laptops in the lecture hall in the New York Times, Dr. Brynn emphasizes that typewritten notes do not allow for information to be stored in our brains the same way as handwritten notes do. Numerous studies have also pointed out that students typing notes are more likely to copy lectures verbatim and retain less information — a result of our own efficient use of technology, says Dr. Brynn. "Jotting notes by hand requires you to come up with your own short-hand that will allow you to remember what it meant when you re-read it," she explains. "This short-hand is an encoding process that helps you embed the information in neural networks and form a memory. This doesn't happen when we type because, basically, we type too fast and efficiently."

In addition to the impact typing has on forming memories, the use of technology can get in the way of an immersive learning experience. “Your device is the world at your fingertips, and that is highly distracting. It compromises and hinders your ability to be present," she says.

"Your device is the world at your fingertips, and that is highly distracting. It compromises and hinders your ability to be present."

Dr. Brynn continues by referencing neuroscientist, Dr. Susan Greenfield, author of Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. “We believe that using technology while attempting to learn in the classroom is really the action of 'interacting with information'," she quotes Greenfield, arguing that this type of learning is vastly different from actually encoding and embedding information in neural networks, in order for it to be retained. She also emphasizes that to learn means we can go on to teach someone else what we know, and simply typing lecture notes or responding to a poll, she points out, does not equate to this type of deeper learning.

“Learning takes concentration and flow — a space in your mind where time and distractions disappear,” she says. To Dr. Brynn, setting aside a laptop to write notes by hand is an important part of getting into that flow.

"Learning takes concentration and flow — a space in your mind where time and distractions disappear."

4. The Future of the Classroom

On looking towards the future of learning, Dr. Brynn has an optimistic view of technology. “If AI gets better, there may be more types of user interaction that will allow us to streamline how information gets received in the classroom,” she says, highlighting that perhaps, then, online tools such as using a smartphone or laptop will facilitate the learning process more effectively. “I do embrace technology," says the business-brain expert, who is a social-media savvy professor with more than 30,000 Twitter followers. "But there is a time and a place."

"I do embrace technology, but there is a time and a place."

Dr. Brynn acknowledges that the current classroom model is somewhat obsolete — but she also says this is the learning environment that we have to cope with. And she argues that the way lectures and classrooms currently operate simply does not complement the use of technology. "In the traditional lecture experience that we are all familiar with, I have not seen people actually learn deeply while using technology," she says. "We're kidding ourselves then with what it means to learn —and we as educators have a responsibility to help students actually learn."

With over a decade of teaching experience, Dr. Brynn Winegard retains positions as faculty at the DeGroote Executive Education Centre, the Schulich Executive Education Centre, and the University of Guelph.  In addition, she dedicates herself to helping others through speaking about ‘Building Better Business Brains’, stemming from her research, which combines business and brain sciences. When Dr. Brynn isn't speaking, she is a regularly featured expert in television, radio, and print. Brynn completed her formal education in Neuroscience, Psychology, Marketing, and Strategy (HSBc, MBA, PhD). Connect with Dr. Brynn Winegard on Twitter here.