Ahead of his talk at IATEFL 2012 with co-author Tim Falla about how best to exploit currently available digital resources, Paul Davies looks at how the digital world is changing learners.
The term screenager was coined 15 years ago by the author Douglas Rushkoff in his book Playing the Future. He used the term to refer to young people who have been reared from infancy on a diet of TV, computers and other digital devices. On the surface, screenager is just another mildly-annoying made-up word, like edutainment and infomercial. Look deeper, however, and the word contains a clear implication: that teenagers are somehow more different than they used to be because their brains have been permanently altered by constant exposure to technology.
In the media, headline writers love to seize on reports which appear to confirm that implication. “Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilizing’ the human mind,” warned the Guardian on 24th February 2009; “How the internet is rewiring our brains,” lectured the Daily Mail on 7th June 2010; “Web addicts have brain changes,” claimed the BBC news site on 11th January 2012.
But go to the primary sources and you’ll find that very few of these studies actually claim to show what the headline writers claim they claim. For example, while the study of web addicts did indeed show their brains were different from non-addicts, the differences are just as likely to explain their addiction as be caused by it. The researchers took no ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of the addicts’ brains and could therefore make no claims about changes – but you would never know that from the media coverage.
Perhaps it is not surprising that newspapers should have a grudge against today’s teenagers (who don’t buy them) and against the internet (which is killing them off). So, claims which reflect badly on both are given top billing. When Susan Greenfield, the Oxford-based brain scientist, recently suggested a link between the Internet and autism, it was splashed over several front pages. But again, the headlines turned out to be misleading and Greenfield later clarified her position: “I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That’s all.”
Not all the headlines are negative, of course. Some claim that modern technology has boosted young people’s cognitive skills and ‘rewired’ their brains (whatever that means) in positive ways. Today’s youngsters are supreme multi-taskers with brains that are more active and more efficient than previous generations. They may appear to lack focus, or be unable to concentrate, but that’s because we adults don’t quite get what they’re like. In fact, they’re fully evolved to live in a digital environment which has, to a greater or lesser extent, left us behind. Personally, I find these positive claims more refreshing, but the science behind them is equally shaky.
These are important issues for anyone who has to teach or design teaching materials. If screenagers really are a different breed, do they need a different approach? Should lessons be less mono-directional and more fluid? Should printed textbooks be consigned to the dustbin of educational history, along with slates, dunce’s caps and the cane? As with most important issues, the answers are debatable. But perhaps too much attention is being given to questions of format (digital vs traditional) and not enough to questions of content. Sure, an exercise on an iPad can be interactive; so can a conversation. Neither is guaranteed to be worthwhile – it all depends on the content.
Governments are keen to push through legislation stipulating that all teaching materials be digital not because there is good evidence to suggest the students will learn better – there is not – but because they want to save money. And while the state sector races towards a future in which classrooms are high tech and book free, the sons and daughters of rich, high tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley go to Waldorf Schools where there is a not a computer or screen in sight.
If we really want our education systems to prepare students for tomorrow’s digital world, we should worry less about formats and instead focus on what to teach – or what not to teach. A few obvious candidates for omission would be spelling (thanks to spellcheckers), facts (available instantly and everywhere via the internet), and handwriting (who writes by hand these days?). Instead, why not teach them how to filter reliable from unreliable information, an essential skill for the Google generation? Or even how to see through misleading headlines?