Are Brain Scans The Future Of Education?

We’ve reported on two dangerous education trends being promoted by the U.S. Department of Education (USED): social-emotional learning (SEL) and high-tech brain-mapping to “personalize” education by probing how a child’s mind works. In its 2012 Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance report, USED enthused over the prospect of hooking children up to various other devices to measure their physiological responses to instructional stimuli. Now comes news that Stanford University researchers are combining many of these elements and using virtual reality to, supposedly, promote students’ SEL.

Just imagine what Thomas Jefferson could have achieved if he’d had access to this type of education rather than being relegated to his boring books and his unmapped brain.

Here’s how one of the Stanford experiments works. A student is fitted with an Oculus headset, headphones, and a wrist device that tracks heart rate and sweat. Through this equipment he’s connected with Emoti, a virtual-reality (VR) program that prompts him to engage in a “mindfulness exercise,” such as deep breathing, when working through a computer instructional program that gradually increases his stress levels. The idea is to train him to behave in a certain way in response to certain stimuli. Dr. Pavlov, call your office.

The graduate students conducting this experiment are trying to turbocharge social-emotional learning by making it “immersive” via virtual reality. This will be more effective, they believe, than anything teachers can do in the classroom to achieve behavior modification – or, as the researchers describe it, “SEL remediation.” Teachers can’t possibly give such personalized feedback, they say. Teachers also aren’t trained to “remediate” children’s emotions, but that’s a more fundamental problem that seems not to worry anyone on the SEL cheerleader squad.

A Palo Alto private school called the Synapse School is also exploring students’ emotions via a virtual experience called “Safe Flight,” in which a participant “becomes” an astronaut and must help a fellow astronaut who is stranded with a limited oxygen supply. The participant must decide whether to offer her some of his own oxygen, or keep it to search for materials to repair the mechanical problem. The researchers then analyze the emotions experienced by the participant, such as excitement and fear.

It’s not clear what point is to be drawn from this experiment. Will it be recorded that participant Sally is overly excitable, and that participant Pete is easily confused? Will that information be entered into a longitudinal database to follow Sally and Pete forever? Will someone in authority determine that one of the decisions – help the stranded astronaut immediately, or first try to fix the problem – is more “moral” than the other, and thus judge participants on their exemplary or deficient character?brainscan

And the first question that would probably occur to parents (or at least to the type of parents who wouldn’t send their children to a school called Synapse) is, why in the world is my child wasting time on this nonsense rather than reading Shakespeare or learning algebra? Is this what I’m paying $30,000 a year for?

The good news is that all this equipment and software is, for now at least, too expensive to make it into schools. The bad news is that less expensive gaming is already there, and that the techno-progressive education establishment is deadly serious about this type of thing – and for troubling reasons.

Jane McGonigle of the Institute for the Future believes that virtual gaming can be the “next step in human evolution.” How? By immersing students in a virtual world that they come to see as the real world, so that they alter their real behavior to mimic their virtual behavior. One game designed by McGonigle is called “A World Without Oil,” in which players have to practice certain behaviors to survive an oil shortage. As it turns out, they then carry over their behaviors into their actual lives, to the extent they have actual lives. Imagine the possibilities for creating government-approved mindsets and behavior in students.

Dr. James Gee of Arizona State University is a major player, so to speak, in educational gaming. He shares McGonigle’s enthusiasm about the potential of gaming to change students into “more moral” people (moral as defined by Dr. James Gee). But he observes that this can’t be accomplished if parents know what’s going on. So, he advises his progressive comrades, “Sneak in, move quietly, attack unseen, put away the suit – be a snake.”

Virtual reality may look like nonsense to parents. But to the people pushing it, it’s a way of changing the world – by changing children.

Jane Robbins is a senior fellow at American Principles Project.