November/December 2003 // Commentary
The Brain, Technology, and Education:
An Interview with Robert Sylwester
by Henryk Marcinkiewicz and Robert Sylwester
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Henryk Marcinkiewicz and Robert Sylwester "The Brain, Technology, and Education:
An Interview with Robert Sylwester" The Technology Source, November/December 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Robert Sylwester is an emeritus professor of education at the University of Oregon who focuses on new developments in science and technology. His most recent book is A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom (2003). He writes a monthly column for the acclaimed Internet magazine Brain Connection.

Henryk Marcinkiewicz [HM]: How are the brain and technology related?

Robert Sylwester [RS]: Technology emerged out of our realization that we have an excellent, curious, inventive brain, but that it is not perfect. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it led to technologies in humans. We have a limited brain, but we are curious about what is beyond our limitations. For example, our auditory system can process only 10 octaves (many animals hear sounds that we don't). Our curiosity about sounds beyond our range eventually led to the development of the oscilloscope, and our creativity led us to report the data visually on a screen—in oscillating waves that our brain can process and thus mentally comprehend.

Consider the organizational functions of our brain and the great variety of technologies we have developed to get beyond our limitations—technologies that regulate things, enhance sensory input and motor output, and remember/analyze/organize information for decision-making. We can almost think of technology as another layer of the brain on the outside of our skull that extends performance beyond the limited capabilities of the brain on the inside—capabilities that mature during our extended juvenile development.

HM: What is the trajectory of the brain's 20-year maturation?

RS: We can divide our 20-year developmental trajectory into two periods of approximately 10 years each. The developmental period from birth to about age 10 focuses on learning how to be a human being—learning to move, to communicate, and to master basic social skills. The developmental period from about 11 to 20 focuses on learning how to be a productive and reproductive human being—planning for a vocation, and exploring emotional commitment and sexuality.

The first 4 years of each of these two decade-long developmental periods are characterized by slow, awkward beginnings prior to a normal move toward confidence and competence. For example, crawling leads to toddling leads to walking leads to running and leaping.

Competence during the first 10 years is characterized by a move toward rapid automatic responses to challenges. For example, slow and laborious initial reading tends to become reasonably automatic by age 10. Competence during the second 10 years, however, is often appropriately characterized by delayed and reflective responses processed principally in the frontal lobes. For example, the common impulsive instant-gratification responses of a preadolescent become less impulsive as a maturing adolescent learns to explore options and social implications prior to making a response.

HM: How might we describe this process in relation to technology mastery?

RS: First, let me say that my focus is not specifically on how best to teach with technology to K–college students. Rather, I'm principally interested in the interface between our brain and the technologies and cultures it develops. So I have opinions, but they're not necessarily predicated by any implementation research I've done.

An immature brain must practice key human skills to reach the mastery level required in a society that uses technological substitutes to override brain limitations. Thus, juveniles who hope to drive a car at 16 had better get on a tricycle at 3, and do thousands of hours of lead-up practice on bikes and skateboards and other wheeled objects, before their parents will give them a set of keys to the potentially lethal weapon we call a car.

Children thus use informal play and games to master many technological skills during their first decade. They seem intrinsically to enjoy developing movement skills to an automatic level, and the long (10-year) developmental period allows for differences in maturation rate. The second decade seems to be more focused on how best to use these skills—not to be bound by them, but rather to improvise with them, to get beyond them.

When I first learned to type, I was willing just to master the finger skills via meaningless exercises. But once my fingers functioned automatically, I transferred my conscious interest to the content of what I was typing. Initially, I knew the location of all the letters on the keyboard, and my typing was slow; today I don't consciously know where any of them are, and I'm fast and accurate. So mastery of a technology seems to me to be a two-stage operation that has a parallel in brain maturation.

HM: Should our use of technology in K–12 and higher education environments differ? If so, how?

RS: In addition to mastering movement in natural space/time, today's young people have to master cyber space/time. So if they hope to move easily through the Internet, they also must begin to play video games at age 3 or so. Why? Because the Internet is a giant video game, with striking parallels between the two. Think about it. Children sense such developmental needs and enthusiastically play with tricycles and video games. I've noticed a shift from video games to the Internet in our grandchildren at about the age of 12. They've mastered computer control technology and cyber space organization within the more prescribed space of video games, and now they prefer the more autonomous (and in some respects dangerous) frontal lobe exploratory potential of the Internet.

It is important for parents and schools to consider screening software, but perhaps it is more important for them to spend a lot of time with young folks during their formative computer years to help them develop an internal judgment of what's useful and appropriate on the Internet. We do this with print media. We limit their access to selected books/magazines, but school library programs tend also to help students develop a critical sense of what to read—through library research assignments, and through the weekly library time that classes have with librarians. Young folks learn how to go into a library with many thousands of books and quickly locate something useful and appropriate without browsing through everything. We need to create electronic analogs of this ability to successfully surf a library.

The new technologies are creating profoundly complex issues that our society will have to confront—issues of privacy, intellectual ownership, censorship, funding, and on and on. Given that most college students today have reasonably good skills with operating the new technologies, the higher education challenge is to help them confront the differences between the choices of Can I do it technologically? and Should I do it? and to consider the consequences of their choices. Napster was an example of the difference between these two questions, and it was developed by an 18-year-old.

HM: How do parents and teachers need to be involved in technology-mediated learning to support children at different levels of brain development?

RS: Since the frontal lobes are the final part of our brain to mature, one could ask how pre-puberty children function if their frontal lobes aren't mature. The answer is that they hang around folks who have functioning frontal lobes. In effect, their parents and teachers carry out many of their frontal lobe decisions for them (when to go to bed, what to eat/wear, what TV programs to watch, what to learn in school, etc.), and adults closely monitor any decisions children do make—generally vetoing potentially bad decisions.

Adults similarly carry out many other tasks that children can't yet do—such as carrying infants who can't walk. But just as a toddler who can't walk well doesn't want to be carried any more (because the only way a child can learn to walk is to do it), so adolescents whose frontal lobes are still maturing don't want adults to continue to make decisions for them (since again, the only way one can learn how to make decisions is to make them).

It's useful for adults to contemplate the concept of apprenticeship in their technological relationships with their children and students. Apprenticeship implies an informal relationship of doing something while the apprentice observes; the authority figure then encourages the apprentice to do it, and finally allows the apprentice to do it alone without direct supervision. A friend who grew up on a farm told me that the high point of his youth was the day his father asked him in a matter-of-fact manner to drive the tractor over to another part of the farm and bring a wagon back to the barn. He had earned his father's trust to drive the tractor, and his father didn't make a big deal of it. An apprenticeship is thus a continuing collaboration, and adults need to think in those terms. Young people need to observe adults doing things with technology, and not just hear adults telling them what to do and not to do.

HM: What are we doing with technology in education that is good, and what needs improvement?

RS: We are reasonably good at all the things we have had hundreds of years to develop within a kind of Darwinian progression—the promising innovations gradually getting fine-tuned into something useful, the bad ideas disappearing after a reasonable tryout.

But we're still too much affected by earlier information technologies (such as chalk and pencils and books) that didn't change at all for long periods of time. We figured out how to use them effectively in school, but it's not been easy to move on to pencils that plug into walls. In many respects, we're the last pencil-driven institution in our society.

Educators have a certain comfort level about how things have always been done, and we expect new technologies to adapt to us, rather than the other way around. Young folks, however, are more willing to adapt themselves to new technologies, and so they are often way ahead of institutions (that are staffed with folks who grew up and are comfortable with the previous technologies). If enough young folks find an existing technology cumbersome, someone will adapt it into something better.

What schools don't do well is to quickly explore the educational applications of emerging ideas students bring to us, and so cultural innovation tends to come from outside the school rather than from within it. Recall that the rock music revolution didn't occur in school music programs, which focused on traditional instruments and only played notes that dead guys composed. Young people thus began to create their own new kind of music in garages and basements with electronic instruments and an improvisational focus. Folks today can complain about the music that came out of this bottom-up revolution, but one could correctly ask why the music program didn't teach improvisation and composition to adolescents who were fascinated by the possibilities of guitars (rather than the standard band and orchestra instruments). It's disingenuous for educators to complain now about what developed if they weren't concerned enough at the beginning to provide encouragement and mature assistance.

RS: What are some specific ways that K-12 schools might develop such a culture of collaborative exploration?

HM: I've explored the many ways in which educators can do this in my most recent book, A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom (2003). We're living in a period of unprecedented rapid advance in science and technology, and so schools must shift from the previous perspective that the adults have all the answers and the students should learn them. That naive notion works well for a question like "How much is 6 x 5?"—but it doesn't work for the serious moral, political, economic, and cultural issues without obvious solutions that are confronting our society.

I've argued in my book that shifting much of classroom management from an administrative function to a curricular function provides students with a marvelous extended laboratory for learning how to make decisions within a social environment—decisions about where and when to do something, about who should do it, and so on. Many may think these decisions are trivial, but they are no more developmentally trivial to frontal lobe maturation than crawling is trivial to mastering mobility. A teacher who makes all such classroom decisions is worn out at the end of the day, and the students are bored. I would argue for the same collaborative principles in family decision-making—the principle being, if it's at all possible and useful to genuinely involve the young in making the decision, involve them.

HM: You have a lot of confidence in the young. What role do you expect them to play in technology advancement?

RS: It seems that it's always been the relatively young who have made the scientific and technological advances—Einstein in his 20s, Darwin and the Wright brothers in their 30s, and so on. The computer revolution similarly was driven in large part by young folks who dropped out of school as soon as they discovered that their technological vision was already beyond what they were getting in class. Innovation thus comes from the young, who have to be old enough to understand basic scientific and/or technological principles, but not so old that they've bought into the existing paradigm.

This realization allows me to remain very positive about the potential contributions of adolescents and young adults in our use of technology in education. I look back on the early years of my life, in both school and work environments, and I remember putting forth ideas that were respectfully received and periodically implemented. I once made a suggestion that saved my boss quite a bit of money, for example. He gave me a nice bonus and subsequently sought out my opinions—and I've never since doubted my worth. Within our educational institutions, I am confident that this scenario will continue to be played out as older instructors learn from the innovations of their former apprentices. It is this reciprocal process of apprenticeship that will lead us toward greater success in using technology to enhance the learning experience.


Sylwester, R. (2003). A biological brain in a cultural classroom: Enhancing cognitive and social development through collaborative classroom management. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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