Education Opinion

Our Extended Brains

By Marc Prensky — October 03, 2014 3 min read
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An interesting question to ponder at the start of the third millennium is this:

Is the human brain still the smartest thing on the planet?

I believe it is — but only when enhanced by technology. From now on, in order to be the wisest people we can, we must all accept, and learn to use all the enhancements now offered — and not reject them — particularly because we personally preferred the way we did it before. Despite the protests of some that the old ways were “better” (or “made us think,” or whatever terms people use), there is no doubt that we can, when aided by technology, do many sorely needed things not just faster, but far better. Our mental capabilities are now greatly extended, and I believe this includes everything mental — including our ability to reflect and relate.

“You [adults] think of technology as a tool,” one high school student told me. “We think of it as a foundation — it underlies everything we do.” Like it or not, technology has become foundational to third millennium life, certainly in our world, and already in much of the developing world. Technology has become the key to thinking about and knowing about the world — a role that reading played for the last several centuries. Even in the short time we have spent in the third millennium, technology has replaced reading, for many young people, as the key to thinking about and knowing about the world. Reading continues to be important — no one argues against teaching or learning it — but today, reading is no longer the number one skill students need to take from school to succeed. Technology is — in service of global and local awareness, effective thinking, effective action and effective accomplishment

A New Way of Thinking

Because we typicaly view the world in terms of our own lives and behavior, few of us understand, I believe, the full extent to which the world has already changed in our kids’ lifetimes, and the key role technology now plays in their lives. Let me clarify: Technology isn’t about new “stuff.” It’s not about laptops, iPads, cell phones, or the software kids use. It’s not about different ways to do what we do now. And it’s certainly not about what we should or shouldn’t allow kids access to. All those ways of seeing technology are misleading.

Technology, in the third millennium, is an extension of our brains; it’s a new way of thinking. It’s the solution we humans have created — and the younger generation is now using — to deal with our difficult new context of variability, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and accelerating change. The human mind, as powerful as it is, is no longer powerful enough for our world; the old “tried and true” human capabilities just aren’t enough. Technology provides us with the new and enhanced capabilities we need. So technology isn’t something we need in addition to mental activity; technology is now part of mental activity. And we need to use it wisely.

Humans have always depended on external physical and even mental enhancements (writing, for example). Integrating such tools into our minds is not “dependence” in a negative sense; rather, it’s closer to symbiosis. As professors Andy Clark and David Chalmers point out, “extended cognition is a core cognitive process, not an add-on extra.” According to Clark and Chalmers, the brain is continually integrating useful components it finds in the external world, such as our fingers for counting; pen and paper for writing; and, more recently, slide rules, calculators, and computers.

So when a young person today says, “When I lose my cell phone, I lose half my brain,” he or she means it literally. And they are right.

The issue, from our kids’ perspective, is no longer when to use technology — once we adults are not around to stop them, the answer is going to be always. The issue is rather is how they can integrate it wisely into their lives and behavior, so that it enhances, rather than distracts from, their thinking and their becoming better, more capable, and world-improving human beings. Figuring this out is what I call “The Quest for Digital Wisdom.”

We must all be on this quest.

Your comments are always welcome.


The opinions expressed in Prensky’s Provocative Ed-Tech Thinking are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.