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Drugs and Classroom Performance

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Interesting article by Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology, about the use of new technologies in the classroom.


All at once, science is delivering a diverse range of biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology with a speed and convergence we could not have predicted even a decade ago. And, as always with new technologies, surrounding the opportunities are numerous pitfalls.

Already there are reports of an alarming increase in the use of prescribed and black market drugs medicating the classroom, whether it be Ritalin for enhancing concentration, Prozac for enhancing mood or Pro-vigil for extending alert wakefulness.

The problem with these drugs is that they do not target a single trait, such as mood, or concentration, or wakefulness - partly because we do not yet understand how these functions are generated as a cohesive operation in the brain. Rather, drugs manipulate, in a very broad way, the chemicals in the brain. And that, in turn, could have widespread and long-lasting effects.

We must consider the cost of enhancing certain ways of thinking and behaving. Drugs and other technologies used to increase concentration and reduce disruptive behaviour may suppress creativity, spontaneity and calculated risk-taking. If these drugs are widely used, we are in danger of squeezing children into a particular mould, turning our schools into factories that produce a single, standard product.

The much discussed abuse of proscribed drugs - in particular, cannabis - is highly controversial. A central issue in this particular debate is not whether cannabis, compared with other drugs, is less lethal, or even that it could trigger a predisposition to schizophrenia and depression, but rather that it might well change attention spans and cognitive abilities without that ever becoming apparent as a medical problem.

The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to any and every event: we cannot complacently take it as an article of faith that it will remain inviolate and that ways of learning and thinking will remain constant. A new idea is that there is room for improvement. So-called transhumanism, described as "the world's most dangerous idea", promotes the ability of science and technology to go beyond the "norm" (whatever that is) for physical and mental human enhancement.

The idea of "enhancement" has some sinister connotations. In the unlikely event that everyone could be improved to the same extent, we would end up in a monotonously homogenous world, predicated on the assumption that each of us was naturally inadequate. Worse still - and more likely - would be the scenario where only a minority were so favoured: a sector of techno-haves increasingly divergent from the have-nots.

We must choose to adopt appropriate technologies that will ensure the classroom will fit the child, and buck the growing trend for technologies - including drugs - to be used to make the 21st-century child fit the classroom. The educational needs of the individual are changing, and the very nature of the classroom needs to change, too.

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