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‘Schools have spent £1bn on technology in five years, money that should have gone towards teachers’ salaries’


Baroness Susan Greenfield, senior research fellow, Lincoln College, Oxford, writes:

If you listen to enough of the noise around education, you would be forgiven for thinking technology, not teaching, is what drives results, motivates students and facilitates education. Not only is this notion misleading, but it could be impeding us in the optimal planning of our children’s education.

As a neuroscientist I am interested in how we can use insights from our basic research and apply those insights to understand contemporary life. The brain adapts exquisitely to the environment and if the environment is changing in an unprecedented way – as it is in the digital age – the brain will surely change as well, in ways that could be unprecedented.

By definition, if you use computers heavily, guess what? You are going to turn yourself effectively into a computer, because that is the environment you have adapted to. You will have certain skills, but not others.

Computers are very good at delivering responses to certain inputs. While that may be beneficial in some ways, for example for the purposes of mental agility in IQ tests, it is not good for real understanding, which is surely what we want kids to be doing.

Hence my problem with the rush in many schools to have the latest technology in the belief that everything can be solved by it.

Initiatives like the Khan Academy, where the use of technology facilitates education for people who would not otherwise have access to that material, are, of course, to be applauded.  Clearly for people in places where, for whatever reason, they do not have the luxury of face-to-face teaching, it is a wonderful advance.

But performance is not as good with technology alone as it is when accompanied with face-to-face tuition. You cannot expect someone interacting with a screen in an impersonal way to understand in the same way as when guided by an inspirational teacher.

There is evidence that a range of difficulties might be growing as a result of heavy, unfettered screen use, such as short attention span, recklessness, and poor interpersonal skills. Moreover, I’m worried that children are no longer using their imaginations and driving their own activities as previously, as when playing with inert dolls or toy soldiers, or making up games within minimal props, perhaps with an old box that becomes a castle. Surely this organisation of one’s own play is a very important part of establishing a narrative of one’s own and a robust inner identity. If you are constantly being cued by someone else’s second-hand imagination on the screen, it could make a big difference. The development of this type of mindset will also be unprecedented – never before has humanity been in that situation. 

We need therefore to think about what kind of person we want the future 21st-century citizen to be. What kind of things do we want them to know and learn; what talents should they have; what set of skills will acquit them well?

It is not good enough to say, "being good at IT" – that is a given. A while ago Michael Gove, when he was the education secretary, said that every child should learn a poem. My own view is that a parrot can learn a poem.

The whole point is that the child should understand the poem. Facts on their own are pretty boring, whereas true knowledge is how you use those facts, relate them to each other and put them together in a framework.

Thanks to technology, we now live in an answer-rich, question-poor world. If you have so much information coming in you need somehow to convert it to knowledge, a means of joining up the dots, and that is where an inspirational teacher comes in.

If serious money is being spent on high-tech devices, we need to think whether that will really achieve the best ends. In a report commissioned by Nesta in 2012, Decoding Learning, it was concluded that, "in the last five years, UK schools have spent more than £1 billion on digital technology. From interactive whiteboards to tablets, there is more digital technology in schools than ever before. But so far there has been little evidence of substantial success in improving educational outcomes".

Perhaps that money could be better spent on teachers’ salaries. If the end point is an inspirational teacher, nothing saps away the energy and enthusiasm needed for being inspirational more than being on the breadline or worried about money.

Susan Greenfield’s book Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their marks on our brains is out on Thursday 



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