'Pupils need a break from virtual reality in order to experience real-world learning'

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My heart sank. There they were again, the five least credible words in the language. “According to a recent study,” a computing expert announced at a recent conference, children spend a third of their time in bed, a third at school and a third on the internet. No one even looked like challenging this soundbite, trotted out as a self-serving argument to justify teaching computer programming. The need to equip our young people for a fast-evolving 21st century is hardly contentious.

The idea that children spend all their out-of-school waking hours online is manifestly false. But even if it were true, this would provide the strongest possible argument against allowing computers to take over their lives in school as well – or at least for thinking long and hard about when and why we use them. In this dystopian scenario, school might be the only place where children can escape the machine and experience life offline instead.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not an anti-technology diatribe. Our children should be producers of new technology as well as consumers, and they need to be digitally literate. Technology is one of the most empowering options in the teaching toolbox, as long as it is deployed to increase flexibility and enhance learning. But the case for tech must surely be balanced by the case for non-tech. We need not be the slaves of our own technologies.

In part, it’s a sensory thing. You want to experience learning through something other than plastic and glass: to get your hands dirty, literally (and I’m not talking transfer of germs from the keyboard). You want to feel – and hear, and smell – the pencil on the paper, the ink gliding over the page, the pastels smudging the palm of your hand.

Perhaps we could build into our education system the Danish concept of “hygge”. A reductive translation might be “nostalgia”, but most cultural commentators need a paragraph of lyrical prose to approximate the meaning of this elusive noun. Hygge is, according to one definition, “the art of building sanctuary and community, inviting closeness and paying attention to what makes us feel open-hearted and alive, creating well-being, connection and warmth. A feeling of belonging to the moment and each other. Celebrating the everyday.” It is, then, about tangible things and the presence of others.

Slow-cooked learning

Let’s think of learning like slow-cooking food. Preparing a meal from scratch – doing the shopping, chopping the vegetables, beating the eggs, rolling the pastry, icing the cake, kneading the dough – is a completely different experience from getting a ready meal delivered to your door or shoving the ingredients willy-nilly into an overnight bread machine. And as the fast-food, same-day-delivery lifestyle becomes ever more prevalent, it’s no surprise that old-fashioned skills such as baking and crochet have come back into fashion. They are surely responding to a deep-felt need.

Transfer this approach from kitchen to library. Epic science-fiction films such as Interstellar delight in depicting the belly of the supercomputer as a series of bookcases spiralling vertiginously in the direction of infinity. We don’t need to imagine the book stacks, though: we can walk right through them instead. The physical process of selecting a volume, reading it, homing in on a page and copying out key words and phrases takes longer, it’s true, but by living with the information and working it like precious metal, we have a better chance of assimilating it.

Reading a book from cover to cover demands far greater engagement of the self than consuming a Wikipedia digest (the approach to erudition favoured by Seinfeld’s George Costanza). It is not only more enduring but more satisfying, too. I am reminded of David Hockney’s astute evaluation of the qualitative difference between a photo and a painting, which he defines as the quantity of time invested in production. Time equals care (I am tempted to say “love”), and care equals learning.

If in their own time children opt to inhabit an online world, then they are the natural pioneers of this virtual reality. In Wittgenstein’s terms, teachers should not miss the opportunity to play alternative “language games” with them, exploring different parts of the “city” of information or knowledge, and sharing other areas of expertise.

At the same conference I was glad to run into a more reflective delegate, who pondered how he might teach with no resources other than himself and his pupils. So, if a school a) teaches programming, and b) integrates mobile technologies and social media across the curriculum, perhaps it should also c) carve out blocks of zero-tech time by way of a complementary form of mental (and physical) exercise. The concept is familiar from the Eco agenda, but could extend far beyond that narrow remit. Learn how to learn the only way that should never become obsolete: through Socratic dialogue, through conversation.

Could it be that we adults are guilty of over-digitising our children, reducing them to black-and-white packets of binary information and propelling them into the disincarnate future of our own fantasies? When children leave primary or prep school at age 11 or 13 and you ask for their best memories, they are unlikely to cite time spent in the IT lab or, to be fair, the languages classroom. But you can be certain that they will mention the school play, the cooking club, the trip to Spain or white-water rafting down the rapids of the Ardèche.

Dr Heather Martin at a school in London

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