Screens and Children

A revolution encompassing all humanity. Nothing will be as it once was. We are facing some real mutants. — psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik

Screen Baby
Screen Baby

Teachers and parents know that today’s children are not quite like their predecessors. Much has been said about the impact of digitally powered  screens on the capabilities, attitudes, and habits of today’s young people. The views fall into three categories: appreciation of new talents, horror at the current state of childhood, and simple resignation.

Babies are born into a world of “screens”. Some indications suggest that at school age children will spend five hours a day using one. In college, they will use a laptop to send over 80 text messages a day.

The optimistic observers see “digital natives” who are curious, energetic, fluid, and rapid. They point out that new technology anxiety goes back to Socrates and his fear that writing would adversely affect people’s memory.

Nonetheless, Oxford neurology professor Susan Greenfield claims, “When they surf the Web or play on the Web, their brain, which is under construction, is exposed to an activity that is so intense that it disrupts their development.” This can result in difficulties concentrating, communicating with others, projecting themselves, and lack of empathy. Some claims have even been made about a general decline in IQ. (This is a contentious assertion. For an intelligent discussion of our cognitive history see James Flynn’s Ted Talk.)

Other researchers examine the effects of different tools on the brains of children having observed that pianist- and violinist-brains are imprinted differently. Unlike the brain of the “print” era (reflective, linear, slow, accumulating intelligence) the screen brain is more fluid, rapid, fragmented, and automatic. These changes correspond to a shift in the location of brain activity from the pre-frontal cortex (site of self-awareness, judgment, and abstraction) to the posterior regions, involving visual and sensorial parts of primary intelligence.

Other brain-based concerns focus on the addictive use of screens. Excessive use (according to some, more than nine hours per week) leads to an increase in the size of the brain’s reward system. Some research shows that children addicted to screens secrete dopamine in a way similar to other addicts.

There are other fears as well. A child addicted to screens may be less motivated to exercise his body or his imagination, to produce his own mental images, to amuse himself, or to tolerate suffering or frustration. He may no longer know how to play, an activity essential to developing imagination, a sense of humor, and ultimately, a means of avoiding depression.

Parents, and many others, accept the proliferation of screens as simply inevitable and a sometimes cure for children’s boredom. The take-away from all of this may be that the human brain, like all other elements of our physiological, psychological, and societal structures, evolves in response to changing times. This raises the question, “What is it about the nature of our times that favors brains that are more curious, energetic, fluid, and rapid as opposed to reflective, linear, slow, and intelligence accumulating ?” Educators must wonder, as well, what does teaching entail when the basic learning apparatus has changed from the days of their youth.

The Great Idea of Parker Palmer

Current pedagogical debate often focuses on the shift from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning. The former is characterized by the Mathematics professor who says, “Our primary responsibility as mathematicians is not to students but to mathematics: to preserve, create, and enhance good mathematics and to protect the subject for future generations.” At the other end of the debate, we risk “mindless relativism” and teachers yielding “too much of their leadership; it is difficult to confront ignorance and bias in individuals or the group when students themselves comprise the plumb line.” —Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Parker Palmer
Parker Palmer

To understand Palmer’s view requires an understanding of the “Great Idea”. He says,”If we want a community of truth in the classroom, a community that can keep us honest, we must put a third thing, a great thing, at the center of the pedagogical circle. When student and teacher are the only active agents, community easily slips into narcissism, where either the teacher reigns supreme or students can do no wrong. This can lead to disinterest and poor engagement on the part of learners or to a teacher’s capitulation to relative truths where everyone has their own truth. A learning community that embodies both rigor and involvement will elude us until we establish a plumb line that measures teacher and students alike—as great things can do.”

This is what Palmer calls a subject-centered approach.  The great idea is the topic, or the discipline, under examination. In Physics it might be Newton’s Third Law, in Literature it might be the use of foreshadowing in a Shakespearean play. Such great ideas have motivated great teachers when they were students. They are the concepts, theories, and techniques that teachers love to teach because they hold some special value or significance in the world.

Putting the Great Idea at the centre of classroom activity means that the idea itself becomes the source of all truth about it. Teacher and students are co-learners who can never exhaust all the worthwhile inquiry into the subject. In this way the subject ceases to be a second-hand account of some isolated and distant reality and comes alive as yet another important human phenomenon.

PISA: New Skills Measured in International Student Test


This Fall (2015) the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exam will test tens of thousands of 15-year-old students in 51 countries on reading, math and science.

A new and controversial series of questions to measure collaborative problem solving skills will evaluate the outcomes of games, jigsaw puzzles and experiments accomplished with the help of a virtual partner. The belief is that working with unseen partners, especially online, is becoming an essential skill for career success. It is the way of the future in the workplace.

Countries motivated by international competitiveness and, notably, companies like  Cisco, Intel and Microsoft, are promoting “21st-century skills” for new employees: the ability to think critically and creatively, to work cooperatively, and to adapt to the evolving use of technology in business and society.

The 15-year-old PISA exam, coordinated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a coalition of 34 member countries and their industrial leaders, now tests a more specific set of skills—group problem-solving using the Internet. PISA officials believe this addition will push governments to better prepare their young people to function in the global economy. Participants will record outcomes of games, solve jigsaw puzzles and perform experiments in collaboration with a virtual partner while communicating through a chat box. This addition to the test is based on the belief that working with partners online will be the norm in the workplace of the future.

One criticism of the new question domains is that problem-solving skills may not be the same across disciplines, even though John Dewey and others have insisted that they are.

Test scores on the 2012 test
Test scores on the 2015 test