The phrases “pay attention and “please focus” must be two of the timeless, universal mantras of teaching. We all know that in order for information to be retained and incorporated into wider schemas of knowledge then little Johnny had better have eyes front and ears open.
But what if little Johnny’s brain is biologically incapable of sustaining attention? And what if Johnny is struggling with low self-esteem, depression and feelings of anxiety? These are the worrying findings of an increasing number of studies that link these problems to excessive time spent using screens.
Any parent will tell you: managing “screen-time” is tough. Getting children of both primary and secondary age to put down their SmartPhones and tablets and log-off their computers or consoles requires firm rules and no-nonsense approaches.
Parental concerns appear to be well-founded as a new study by Public Health England (1) has concluded that non-screen activities are measurably important in child development. Professor Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing at Public Health England, affirms that physical activity and face-to-face social interactions with friends and family are key factors in reducing childhood anxiety – and that excessive screen-time limits opportunities for these to occur.
What has been less discussed up until now is what strategies schools need to be putting in place – both to help and support parents and students to manage screen-time in a healthy way and to reflect carefully on what the effects of screen-time may be on educational attainment.
What is clear is that we are in virgin territory. Yes, digital devices are “tools” in the same way that bikes and spades are, but they also carry important differences that we have not yet gotten used to.
Perhaps most importantly are the ways that iPads and SmartPhones persist in notifying us. Messages bleep and vibrate, demanding immediate responses. We love to feel connected, and connected devices tap into these deep desires in us.
In the home this might mean being only half-aware of conversations with siblings or parents, or not being properly attentive to the demands of an argument being developed in an essay because Facebook is checked every two minutes.
In the classroom this might mean students becoming anxious and distracted as they are “cold turkey” from possible messages and alerts for the duration of the lesson – or it could mean teachers spending less time helping students as they interact with laptops and the incessant demands of emails too.
However, importantly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the problem of screen-time is not just that time that is taken away from face-to-face interactions or homework tasks. Because our brains are “plastic” – changing structure depending on what activities are more regularly engaged in – excessive screen-time actually alters the way our minds function.
The eminent psychiatrist Dr Norman Doidge has counselled that if we stop exercising our mental skills we do not just forget them, the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we do practise instead (2). In other words, when it comes to the brain, you use it or lose it – and the warning is that some of our students have lost it already.
This is extremely important. If we are to continue to be effective educators in a digital world we have to keep up with and respond to what neuro and social science is telling us.
This not only means adapting our pedagogy to embrace new technologies, but also reflecting carefully on how the technologies that our students are using are changing the minds that they bring to our lessons. To continue to teach using what is effectively a mind-set from the industrial revolution will be increasingly ineffective.
As ever, schools must be places where culture is both engaged with and critiqued. Schools have been transformed by interactive whiteboards, access to computers and the internet, but perhaps now is the time to push back and reflect on what is healthy for our students, socially and valuable educationally.
A recent piece in the Huffington Post (3) put it starkly: babies and toddlers should not be sat in front of screens at all. This is the advice of school consultant and Harvard psychiatrist Catherine Steiner-Adair in her new book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.
She warns that digital devices are being used to “co-parent” children – to pacify them and give the parent some breathing space. Are we ever guilty of using computers to “co-teach” too? Her research backs up what Dr Doidge has found, asserting that “the capacity for attention doesn’t develop as well when kids are used to interacting with a screen that’s instantly gratifying”.
The instant has its uses in education of course, and speedy feedback on student progress or attainment is welcome. This is something that schools like Essa Academy in Bolton emphasise. As has been widely reported, the school has replaced nearly all books with iPads, and their teachers are able to monitor who is performing well on mini-tests without wandering round the classroom (4).
What is less clear is what the long-term consequences of such a move may be. Technology can be dazzling, but we also need to make sure we are not blinded by the light of our screens.
Schools need to be more and more aware of the need to educate students about the effects of screen-time through well-delivered PSHE content, and educate parents too.
This is what we do, this is our area of professional expertise: delivering education and facilitating excellent learning. We should not be afraid to respond to research and challenge parents and students to change their habits. But we must do so while we simultaneously model the appropriate and engaging use of technology.
My own subject, mathematics, has had to do this before. When calculators first became cheaply available there was confusion as to how they should be used. Should they be banned completely, or used universally?
Clearly there was no point talking about “digital natives” – to suggest that students who’d grown up with calculators knew best was digital naïve: always grabbing for the calculator, as maths teachers will tell you, turns the arithmetic brain to mush.
Most schools I have spoken to have yet to embed reflection on screen use into their policies or PSHE curricula, though many are actively considering doing so. This is the case in my own school, where year 7 are this year to have time given over to the topic in one of their forthcoming PSHE days. Learning Support departments I have spoken to tend to be in the same place: becoming increasingly aware of the issues, but not yet up-to-speed on the details of how they are going to respond.
That schools are becoming aware of the issues is encouraging. What is vital is that as educationalists we keep abreast of research as findings become more clear, and ensure that we are not only creating learning environments that make the best use of new technology, but instilling disciplines in students not just to allow them to pay attention to our lessons, but also to remain healthy in a fast-changing world.
Kester Brewin is a teacher of mathematics at Sydenham High School for Girls in south London.
- How Healthy Behaviour Supports Children’s Wellbeing (August 2013) Public Health England. http://bit.ly/1bmbjVO
- Dr Norman Doidge: www.normandoidge.com
- Eight ways screens are ruining your family’s life (May 2013) Huffington Post. http://huff.to/HKCWQF
- The school where every teacher has an iPad and every student has an iPod (March 2012) The Independent: http://ind.pn/1br8tSN