Technology impedes pupils' mental process

27th March 2009 at 00:00

Who would be a child in today's Scotland? According to The Sunday Times, tens of thousands of them are failing to master basic literacy and numeracy by the age of 14. The newspaper had to employ the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the most recent figures, and these demonstrate that minimum standards in reading, writing and maths have fallen in 12 of the 24 local authorities which provided data. I think we must consign to the dustbin of falsehoods any lingering beliefs that standards haven't fallen.

The question is why? Might there be a link between these statistics and research findings by Baroness Susan Greenfield? Her research seems to demonstrate a link between internet activities and poor attention span. What intrigues me is her suggestion that regular web users display a need for constant reassurance, typical of small babies. She further expanded by expressing her fear that technologies are infantilising the brain, causing limited concentration bursts and the desire to live only in the present in the company of constant noise and bright lights. This concusses young brains, thus incapacitating their immature cognitive pathways. Can't read? Won't read?

There are other worries to add to Greenfield's list. Some psychologists argue that addictive use of digital technology is altering the way young people think. There is no requirement to think through a whole essay; we can edit and delete. The domains of planning, reasoning and problem-solving involve complex strategies in the brain and if they are not used they will atrophy and presumably die. GPS navigation systems are extremely useful devices but are killing off the skill of map reading. Brain development is faltering.

Schools inevitably compound the problem. It is deemed to be an excellent thing for classrooms to be performing pantomimes of interactive technology of every possible variety. I am not advocating a return to chalk and talk. I happily beam "YouTube" videos onto my whiteboard, because sometimes they do augment learning. But it's just another tool and should never be allowed to be more than that. Kids have to have access to textbooks too, even in times of scant resources. If they do not read textbooks, the skills of interpretation and evaluation also disappear.

Authorities send their missionaries out to schools to give them a smack across the knuckles and a sermon about raising attainment, when in reality it is not the fault of teachers that kids are failing to master reading, writing and number handling. A considered and deliberate shift in strategy is urgently needed. There is plenty of research evidence to support a change in focus.

For instance, a recent report from the Scottish Centre for Social Research states that children's cognitive ability at the age of almost three years is enhanced by being read to frequently at 10 months, as well as engaging in activities such as painting and singing. Crucially, this is independent of socio-demographic factors. Reading is the one activity which enables the brain to process language on an extraordinary scale.

What to do? We could start by being honest about the extent to which the excessive use of technology is impeding our children's capacity to explore the full potential of their internal mental processes. This truth is staggeringly horrifying and future generations will reflect on us with bitterness - that is, if they can still think.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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