The untruths about the value of computers in the classroom have gone a trillion times around the world before the truth has even begun to gets its shoes on – to paraphrase Mark Twain. But, at last, some truth about the impact of digital technology on learning is beginning to emerge. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has just reported that education systems around the world that have invested heavily in computers have seen “no noticeable improvement” in their results on the authoritative international PISA tests for reading, maths and science.
Worse, it notes that, “If you look at the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, they’ve been very cautious about using technology in their classroom.” It adds that: “Those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately.”
An added rebuttal to the exaggerated claims made by the computer evangelists who bedevil British education came with the finding that, even if one focuses solely on digital skills, Singapore comes out top even though it has only moderate use of technology in schools.
Countries with the highest use of the internet in class, including Australia, New Zealand and Sweden have suffered “significant declines” in reading performance. The OECD did not gather data on internet use for the UK but we have among the highest classroom usage rates in the world and have slipped into mid-table mediocrity on the PISA tables – behind Poland, Estonia and Vietnam and miles behind the some of the Asia-Pacific states. Significantly, the cities and countries that do best on the PISA tests are, also, those that make least use of the internet in the classroom, including South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan.
I do not believe that this new evidence should persuade us that the new technology does not have a role to play in education. The problem lies in how it is being used and the extent to which it has become a master rather than a servant. With annual expenditure on educational technology in British schools running at £619 million and, according the OECD, standards of literacy and, numeracy below what they were in the 1950s, we need to consider where the technology is taking us and what we are getting for our money.
A report in June from Childwise indicated that children aged 5 to 16 are now spending an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen. This compares with three hours in 1995. The growing addiction of children to the virtual world of computers already appears to be causing real problems both inside and outside the classroom. Shortened attention span, tiredness and irritability are obvious signs now being detected by teachers. Nevertheless, many teachers are so wedded to digital technology that they are acting as classroom ‘pushers’ of the addiction; digital junkies promoting it vigorously to their pupils. Such are the ‘side effects’ that the ATL teachers’ union felt obliged to debate them at this year’s conference.
We ignore the damage being caused to our children at our peril. Back in 2011, and as reported in The Public Library of Science Journal, scientists in China discovered a wasting away of grey matter in the brain among its millions of computer addicts. It grew worse over time and affected, amongst other things, concentration and memory. It also reduced inhibitions and led to “inappropriate” behaviour. Dr Aric Sigman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, described the Chinese research as a ‘wake-up’ call but few in the educational world or DfE seem to have been listening. He commented that we should not need photos of the brain to realise that sitting in front of a computer screen is not good for children’s health. We now know that the physiological effect of computer addiction on the brain is the same as the effect of addiction to heroine or cocaine.
Last weekend I spoke on these issues to a group of school governors from the independent sector and urged them to read two important and recent publications. I believe they are essential reading for all teachers, teacher-trainers, parents and older children and, also, for government minsters and civil servants:
Mind Change by Susan Greenfield
The Internet is not the Answer by Andrew Keen
And Andrew Keen has discovered that many of the super-rich computer industry bosses from Silicon Value in California have come up with their own solution to the downside of digital technology. They send their own children to private and exclusive Waldorf schools that, effectively, ban computers in the classroom on the grounds that they have “ a negative impact on key aspects of children’s learning”.