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HomeNewsChris McGovern: Hooked on computers. The pupils incapable of reading a book

Chris McGovern: Hooked on computers. The pupils incapable of reading a book


“Come to this school and your child will be immersed in computing.” It is the ready availability of computers that head teachers are most keen to show prospective parents. This, we are told, is the only pathway for pupils to follow. Any alternative vision is, generally, regarded as an extreme form of pedagogical heresy. The future of education is being determined increasingly by technology.

We are urged to understand that the world has changed and that we must adapt. Some schools are even requiring pupils to have permanant access to a mobile device. Above everything else, computers allow learning to be become ‘personalised’. This means that, in theory, a child can go at his/her own pace using software that is designed for step by step progression. Oh, brave new world that has such technology in it!

Given that the vast majority of teachers and teacher-trainers offer unquestioning allegiance to computers, it comes as something of a surprise to see that next week a teachers’ union, the ATL, is to debate a motion expressing concern about pupil addiction to mobile computer devices such as tablets.

According to “The Times Educational Supplement” the motion reflects one teacher’s concern that tablet addiction causes “withdrawal,” “loss of interest in or ‘crowding out’  of other activities,” “lack of control,” “irritability” and even “deception and furtiveness.”

Are we about to see an ‘awakening’ of interest in some of the downsides of the computer revolution in our schools? Probably not! Its grip is too strong and educational trend setters have little desire to see their core strategy questioned. Besides, many of the educational benefits of computers, such as ready access to information, hardly need justifying.

Nevertheless, for a few of us who have spent our lives in schools, some serious concerns remain. I have heard many teachers expressing a view, usually off the record, that as the use of computers has grown, the attention span of children for non-computer generated tasks, such as reading a book, has diminished.  The ability to listen, let alone to sustain concentration away from the virtual computer screen, seems to be proving a growing challenge for the tablet generation.

If many youngsters are becoming addicted to the ‘new’ technology and, personally, I believe that they are, it is a good thing that one teachers’ union, at least, is going to discuss it.

Of course, the problem is not simply one for schools, even if they accept that there is a problem. Children are accessing the virtual world created by computers, as much outside school as inside. An art teacher commented to me that there was real issue teaching basic drawing skillls to pupils who are used to the instant gratification provided by 3-D cinema imagery. After entering the virtual world of “Avatar”, using a pencil to draw a sea shell can seem a bit of a let down. Do we, therefore, ditch the traditional skills? Do pupils need to ‘know’ anything much if they can google it? Do they need to learn handwriting? What about spelling, punctuation and grammar?

For all the benefit  it has brought, there is a very real danger that technology is becoming the bad cholesterol in schools, tasting scrumptious but clogging up the arteries of learning. One of the world’s most eminent brain scientists, Baroness Susan Greenfield, has expressed a concern about changes to the brains of children caused by increased access to the virtual world of computers. As she points out, we do not know where this is taking us. She sees ‘mind change’ as a threat as important as ‘climate change’.

The growth in the number of tablet ‘junkies’, addicted to the unreal virtual world technology provides, should be a concern to us all.  Instant gratification through the computer screen is the direction of travel inside school and outside. It is Orwell’s perspective, expressed in “1984”, that has shaped  much of our thinking about the future. A more realistic vision of a dystopian destination to which we may be heading is provided by Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. The problem, as Huxley saw it, will derive not from too much political oppression but from too much pleasure, too much gratification. Our technology-addicted youngsters are well on the way to that destination.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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