Non-interactive or interactive displays? Schools are often tempted to replace aging interactive technology with lower-cost, non-interactive TVs. However, this substitution can hinder student learning. How? The answer lies in specialized neurons within their brains: the “mirror neurons.”

Picture an old-fashioned classroom: Students sitting in rows, facing the front, while the teacher writes in chalk on a big chalkboard in the front of the room. Now picture a “modern” classroom: Flexible seating, tables that can be grouped and rearranged, students moving around and actively participating in their own learning. And the teacher? Rather than having her back to the students while she writes, she is moving among them, checking on their work, offering suggestions, and using proximity to keep them focused on their tasks.

What about that chalkboard? Through the years, we’ve updated the chalkboard to whiteboards and dry erase markers, then electronic, interactive whiteboards, and now, flat panels that look and feel like large tablets hanging on the walls or on a mobile stand. Virtually everything from the old-fashioned classroom has been changed, and we might reason that the teacher writing on the panel in front of the room has to change as well, right?

Wrong! While it’s tempting to forego the panel as a front-of-classroom device in favor of something less expensive and non-interactive, such as a TV—or even several TVs!—brain science tells us that this is not the best way for students to learn. Primates’ brains are wired to learn by watching as well as by doing, and these are more closely related than you might think. The mirror neurons within our brains play an enormous role in human learning. In a nutshell, mirror neurons take what we see and cause the rest of the brain’s neurons to fire exactly as though we are carrying out the activity someone else is performing in front of us. In other words, as a teacher writes words, numbers, or diagrams on a chalkboard, whiteboard, or panel, the students’ brains are behaving as though each of them is writing or drawing as well. They are “practicing” even without holding a piece of chalk or a pen.

Non-interactive displays result in a loss of that practice time. Students watch “ghost” writing appear as though from nowhere, and the mirror neurons have no work to do; they are wired to imitate human action and writing or typing that appears as though from thin air holds no interest for them.

We have changed many of the procedures common in the “old-fashioned” classroom, and for good reason, but at least one—the teacher actively writing and drawing in front of their students—needs to stay for instruction to be most effective. An interactive display offers the opportunity for the “mental practice” that occurs when students’ mirror neurons observe the teacher’s actions and then cause their brains to fire as though they too are writing and drawing.