Wednesday 19 November 2014

21st Century Learning

Who can place this quote:

"... your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not that they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."*

I remembered this quote today when I was having a conversation  with a friend and we found ourselves pondering this question: how much screen time do our children get each day?

In fact, how much screen time does YOUR child get each day?

I'm asking this not because I'm trying to make you feel guilty about the kids flopping down in front of the tv the moment they walk through the door at the end of their school day, or to make judgements about the games they may be playing on the ipad, x-box or pc in their room right now.  No, I'm asking this because I suddenly realised during the conversation I mentioned that I don't know the answer to this question myself.

That is because the amount of tv / computer time that my children get at home each day is, in fact, only one piece of the jigsaw; for 8 hours of every weekday during term time my children are not at home.  They are at school, in an educational environment where, more and more, online resources are an integral part of the teaching lexicon.

And that's fine, that's wonderful.  There are now ways for teachers to enhance our children's learning experiences to a degree that was never even dreamt of when we - the pre-Internet generation - were at school.  Want to know about the recent landing on the comet?  It's there in glorious technicolour, tattooed genius engineers and all, at the click of the button.  Need to teach your class the life-cycle of whales or the migratory pattern of puffins?  Instantly accessible, engaging, and entertaining footage is only the correct search engine term away.  Want your class to research the history of the US War of Independence for a project on national autonomy?  Well, there's no need to send them to the school library or ask them to turn to the relevant page of their dry and dusty text book any more, is there?  You just get your pupils to reach for the nearest handy electronic device (be it school or parent supplied), and ask Dr Google (or the school-approved safe content guaranteed equivalent) to provide the relevant information.

And this is great, this is liberating, this is what the internet does brilliantly.

Except.  Scientists frequently tell us that there are limits to the amount of time that a child - with their growing, emerging, fragile brain and all the establishing neural pathways and synapses it consists of - should spend in front of any kind of a screen each day.  Guidelines vary with each new study but that's immaterial since how are we, as parents, expected to gauge what actually is a 'safe' amount of time for our children to spend using a laptop or similar at home when we have no idea how much time they have already spent doing the same thing at school?

Sure, the on-screen content they have been looking at in school may have been 'educational' - but does that actually make any difference?  Does the part of the brain that deals with cognitive development analyse the information that's coming in from the screen in front of it and make a judgement call on whether or not the length of time the child has been looking it is harmful, saying to itself  'Oh, it's about the lifecycle of an amoeba.  That's educational - part of the National Curriculum.  No need to worry about that screwing with the formation of my synapses, then'?

So when he got home from school this afternoon I asked my 11 year old son how much time he had spent in front of the computer today.  He reckoned 45 minutes in his maths lesson, 45 minutes in foreign language, and 30-45 minutes doing research for a current school project.  Unusually there was no writing on computers required for language arts today, so that was it - in school hours.  But add on the approximate 30 minutes he spent online this morning before school catching up on homework, and the 30 minutes doing the same thing this evening, and we are at, let's see, more than 3 hours on the computer today.

And that's without any screen-based game time or watching any tv (because we simply didn't have time for that), so I reckon it's actually a light day.

Which leads me to my ultimate question, I suppose.  Parents are constantly being asked to take responsibility for the amount of electronic input that their children's brains receive, and I'm happy to do that; I want to do that; it's my job.  But is anyone asking schools to factor the same calculations into their lesson plans and to take a similar level of responsibility in safeguarding their pupils' brain development?

Technology is the future.  It's the way ahead, an inescapable fact of life.  But schools need to work with parents on this whole issue of screen time, because it seems to me that there's a disconnect between what they consider acceptable educational practice and what we at home are expected to allow in terms of safe amounts of access.

*Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park - you can see the fantastic scene where he uses this line here.  Vintage Spielberg.


  1. Great post. It's an issue I've long thought about with Flea - in less sophisticated terms than you, I suspect, but for me it's the difference between 'lean back' and 'lean forward' learning - the thing about using those dusty books and pens and paper is that it forces children/students to discover, to explore, to actively engage with materials, even when it's boring and time-consuming and slow. And there are real benefits to that in terms of their development.

    All the evidence I've read over the years convinces me that apps and games may well be educational but they're lean back learning - yes, they're interactive but kids don't have to work for the learning, it's served to them in highly entertaining, consumable bites - they're constantly stimulated and evidence suggests that for young kids, in particular, this isn't the best learning methodology.

    In our family, we rarely had screen time at home when Flea was small - certainly no TV at home or screens before she was 5, at which point the school complained she couldn't use a mouse, and had told a teacher she didn't know how to use a remote control.

    These days, I know the school uses whiteboards in most lessons that are computer-based, and there's some IT used in lessons for research and apps, but home is very much not screen based, and there is always a period of reading, every day (actually, Flea is still way more likely to pick up a book than a video game or TV) but you're quite right - the screen time comes from school, not from us. Great post, sorry for the essay!

  2. My daughter (who is 7) has 2 afternoons of ICT a week. I know it's important for them to learn about technology but think it's way, way too much screen time. The school say they can't increase the amount of Mandarin the kids are being taught because there is no room in the curriculum. Well remove one afternoon of ICT et voila!

  3. I asked my boys how much screen time they have at school. They have one 40 minute ICT lesson. They both go to computer programming club once a week (1 hour) but they are learning to code so a useful skill. My eldest son said very occasionally they have to use a computer for some research but it is rare. The younger one does maths for an hour once a week on a computer. So I don't think it's excessive at their school. The do spend too much time on screens at home. I have let them because i think they need downtime after a very busy school day, but have recently implemented a new rule that all screens are off at 7pm and they will then spend the next hour having a shower, playing a board game, chatting to me , having stories so that they wind down for bed.

  4. And that, Sally, is exactly the other point I wanted to make when I wrote this post, but decided best not because it would make it too long - thanks so much for bringing it up.

    It really concerns me that we are packaging kids' education into entertaining bite-sized pieces of knowledge in this way. What happens when they have to sit and consume long pieces of literature - the classics, for example - that whilst they may be incredible pieces of writing, don't meet most tweens and teens criteria for being something they will bother to read all the way to the end? Or when they need to learn long lists of foreign vocab, maths formulae, or historical facts by rote, or digest large text books to pass an exam for university? What if their chosen career - that of lawyer, for example - at the start of their training, requires them to read and understand long documents that would send most people to sleep, and we never taught them the skill of study?

    Uh oh - you've got me started now... (I feel like Bloat in 'Finding Nemo'...)

  5. Good idea, but if your school is anything like ours, I wish you luck selling it in to them!

  6. Your school sounds like it has different approach to ours, Melissa. Every child at our school has access to an ipad or similar from 8, and at age 10/11 they are encouraged to bring their own laptop to school in case there aren't enough school-supplied ones to go around. They don't have 'IT' lessons any more it seems, because almost every lesson uses some form of it...

    I don't like it, necessarily, but that's how it is.

  7. I was going to say that, like Melissa, that I don't think the boys have that much screen time at their school. But then I saw this weekend's homework for Littleboy 2 (age 7). It was to complete a ten minute game on a BBC educational website and then answer questions about it....he did enjoy it and his brother was so interested that he even did the game too. But, yes, screen time all the same....

    Also, my nephew just did pre-tests for a couple of rather elite secondary schools in London. I was horrified to hear they were ALL multiple choice papers on a computer. Even for English. How can that be right??

  8. Hi NVG, I suspect it will be because their intake comes partly from international schools (either in the UK or elsewhere) and that - online testing - is what they are used to...

    Seems like madness to me too but I suppose that's only way they can give all students and equal chance to show where their strengths lie (excluding the ability to write by hand on piece of A4 for more than 5 minutes at a time, obviously. I'm laughing - but I'm not, really...)


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