The Committee in Our Heads, Part V: The Teacher-Technology Partnership

This final post in a five-part “Brain Talk” series explores how and why the inner components of the brain work together.

We’ve seen that the cognitive subcommittees of the brain that work together to power student learning and performance require a mix of supports. Students need differentiated domain-specific instruction and scaffolding. Some students executive function subcommittees will need help with self-regulation and focus while others will struggle with listening skills in group work or following directions. One child may need soothing and another might need a jolt to keep their emotional subcommittees productively engaged.

How can the varied needs of students and their subcommittees be met? Providing each child and group of children with exactly what they need when they need it can be an incredible challenge for a teacher. I suggest our best prospects for more personalized and effective learning, that meet both the cognitive and emotional needs of students, likely come from a carefully integrated partnership between human and machine.

You see there are some things that humans just do better than technology. Technology, for instance, is not necessarily the best tool when it comes to determining if a student is thinking about a new strategy or listening to music – or perhaps is in need of personal encouragement or support. That kind of noticing is easy for humans. Consoling and cajoling are also best when they come from genuine, caring human voices.  

There are things that technology can do well, however, and the strongest outcomes will come when the strengths of humans and machines work together in the service of learning. Teacher observations, for instance, must supplement digital data. Do the behaviors students exhibit in the software also manifest themselves when those students are working with their peers? If so, could they be strengthened further? If not, why not? Because we do want them working with their peers.

We can and should be looking not just at the output of learning – task completion – but also at the process of learning, the executive function subcommittee jobs, and the motivation and beliefs that drive that task completion If we want students to monitor their learning, to be strategic in overcoming obstacles, to be thoughtful challenge-and help-seekers, to be organized and focused, and to work well with others, then we need to define, monitor, and intentionally support those behaviors, along with the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Those observations need to come from all corners of the learning environment, with the technology and away from it, when students are working independently and when they’re working with others. That mix of data and observational information, from both software and human beings, can help teachers hone their instructional capacity while targeting individuals and groups of students with appropriate cognitive and emotional personalization efforts.

We are all learners, striving to grow our abilities. The subtle differences in our outside features are mirrored by differences inside our heads. We are innately varied, and our individual experiences expand those differences. One size cannot possibly fit all. We need instructional environments that recognize and respond to the cognitive and emotional variation inside the head of each learner.

It’s committee work inside the heads of our students. It’s coordinated committee work between teacher and technology on the outside too.  The trick now is to gain an even better understanding of all these committees, on the inside and out, as well as how they work together to greatest effect.

This series has laid out some of what we know now, but there is still a wealth of information yet to be discovered.  For us as educators, the job is to continue to explore new ways to support all students and their subcommittees to maximize their growth potential.

While the journey to achieve this may at times seem daunting, the opportunity we have is unprecedented. And we’re on our way.