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Screens in schools are harming our children

(Alamy)

4 min read

"There’s clear scientific evidence that digital tools impair rather than enhance student learning”.

The words of a hidebound traditionalist? On the contrary, this is the recent finding of one of the world’s foremost medical universities, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, just one of many emerging reports pointing to the shallow and inferior nature of digital learning. 

Evidence that books, paper and pens are more effective learning tools than screens and tablets is reverberating globally, with several countries including China dramatically backtracking on tech in the classroom and strongly promoting traditional methods of learning such as handwriting, reading books and face to face pupil-teacher interaction. 

Students weaned on technology often lack the ability to focus, think, innovate and problem solve

What about here in Britain? A YouGov survey of teachers in England and Wales estimates a record two million children are behind in talking and understanding words.

Jo Heywood, former head of Heathfield school in Ascot believes that “speech development is definitely affected by screen overuse.” Not only is speech development arrested but also handwriting and spelling thanks to predictive text taking care of any tricky words. 

Heywood observes that “the very fact that these apps are colourful, fun and engaging has the reverse effect of making that routine but crucial learning like handwriting and spelling seem [impossibly] mundane to many children. This is very problematic when children are growing up in an age of instant gratification and are not used to having to concentrate and practise a skill. We are already seeing children sit exams who struggle to complete them in time... simply because they are not used to writing and cannot write fast enough or process what they want to say on to paper.”

Screen-based learning, it appears, is not in fact progressive but actively damaging, for both primary and secondary school children.

The answer is surely not to shy away from this challenge and make all exams computer-based – including English GCSE, a recently-reported plan and a blatant travesty – but to have the guts to cut back significantly on digital learning in the classroom in primary and secondary school. This is of course difficult with private education companies trying to flog digital learning products and after millions have already been spent, but this is essential if we want to stop the rot. 

In Sweden, schools minister Lotta Edholm has torn up the charter for digital learning and gone back to books, describing the use of digital technology in schools as a failed experiment.

Some countries don’t have to row back, having been intelligently sceptical from the outset. The best performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, have been very cautious about using technology in the classroom. Bill Gates admits that devices have a terrible track record in the classroom. Indeed, in the United States some of the most elite schools are now shunning screens in favour of books. It’s worth noting that in Silicon Valley, employees of Apple, Google and Yahoo have chosen to send their children to the tech-free Waldorf School of the Peninsula. 

Tech industry parents are all too aware that students weaned on technology often lack the ability to focus, think, innovate and problem solve. They also know how rapidly tech changes – it can be deeply counterproductive to learn on one instantly ageing system. 

How boring, lonely and dispiriting it is to be gazing at a screen all day. Our children should be looking at the face of their teacher, writing their essays by hand, reading enriching books and cherishing their capacity to concentrate and focus. 

So, will we in Britain find the foresight and courage to banish the plague of classroom tech and do the best for our children? Or will we let a few people profit by keeping tech in the classroom, harvesting our children’s data while they click mindlessly on their screens and produce a nation of short-circuiting half-wits?

What feels woefully predictable to me is that, as in America, the clued-up elites will soon peel off and send their offspring to low-tech havens and poorer kids will be left with digital junk food. How I’d love to be proved wrong. 

 

Sophie Winkleman, British actress

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