Can brainwaves predict if your students are paying attention (and what if that becomes possible)

Yesterday I learned about this paper presented at AAAS 2016. I couldn’t track the full paper yet, so although very interesting I can only make deductions based on the abstract (and no it’s not about this myth). I’d rather want to focus on a possible consequence that Claire Boonstra mentioned: what if within 10 years we’ll be able to monitor the attention of our pupils. For some this may sound great, for other this may sound utter creepy. I’m with the latter. Of course it’s our goal to have our students paying attention as much as possible, but full attention all of the time is just impossible and to me: undesirable. Imagine that this would be asked of all employees all of the time?

This relates strongly to the article Maarten Simons and me wrote on scarcity in school with our plea for slack for our children (and teachers) in education.

Abstract of the paper:

Introduction: How does the brain support dynamic real-world group interactions? Here, we present preliminary results from a classroom study investigating this question. Over the course of the 2014-2015 school year, we recorded simultaneous EEG from a group of senior high school students and their teacher as they engaged in regular classroom activities.
: EEG activity was recorded from 12 students and one teacher during eleven 50-minute classes. During the recordings, content was conveyed using different teaching styles (reciting, watching a video, lecturing, and group discussion). In addition, students engaged in various baseline tasks, including facing the wall and facing each other. Students also filled out questionnaires addressing both classroom engagement (e.g., “How much did you enjoy today’s video?”) and social dynamics (e.g., “How close do you feel to subject 1?”). Brain-to-brain synchrony was quantified as the inter-brain-coherence between students across EEG frequency bands as they participated in the different classroom activities. The research program was integrated into the class curriculum: Students were involved in the design and execution of the experiment. In addition, students carried out their own original EEG research study in the spring.
: Increased classroom engagement and a more joyful classroom experience was correlated with more synchronous brain activity between the students as a group: Students reported higher levels of engagement for watching a video and engaging in group discussion and neural synchrony was higher during these teaching styles than when the teacher was reciting or lecturing. In addition, brain-to-brain synchrony between pairs of students was correlated with how close they felt toward each other.
: In this study, we recorded brain activity outside of a laboratory environment while multiple people were engaging in everyday activities together, repeated several times over the course of a few months. We applied this paradigm in the context of classroom interactions and found that neural synchrony across students predicted both student engagement and social cohesion. Both of these factors have been shown critical to the student learning experience. As such, our results do not only provide a potentially promising new avenue for investigations into the neuroscience of group interactions ‘in the wild,’ but they also suggest that brain-to-brain synchrony might be a biomarker for dynamic classroom interactions. Finally, we propose that EEG can be a highly beneficial tool for hands-on neuroscience education in schools.

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