Does digital technology make students stupid?
Conventional wisdom believes "screen time" disrupts mental development, but research hints at a more complicated relationship between our minds and digital technology.
- Worry over test scores has led many to blame digital technology for waning educational achievement.
- New studies show that the persistent effects of "screen time" are not yet understood and may be short-lived.
- Many experts argue the best approach is to teach students the strategic and selective use of digital technology.
We've been here before. When books were the fresh new tech, Socrates believed they would spread an epidemic of forgetfulness. A millennium later, aristocrats fretted that the printing press would lead to mental overload among the masses. Then parents worried that calculators handicapped arithmetic skills and that e-mail would prove more harmful to IQ than pot.
Now, there's a new mind-mushing invention on the scene: digital technology.
According to a PBS poll, 53 percent of people believe that technology is making us dumber. Polling more than a thousand experts, the Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project found that 42 percent believed "the hyperconnected brain is shallow" and maintains "an unhealthy dependence on the Internet and mobile devices." And Nicholas Carr's Pulitzer Prize finalist book, The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, says it right in the title.
But the worry over digital technology's place in the classroom isn't just the latest flare up of mob technophobia. It's fueled by high-profile events coinciding with the mass adoption of digital tech among students, leading to a strong associative relationship.
Digital technology enters the classroom
Consider Finland. At the beginning of the century, Finland's education system gained renown as the best in the world. It was a top performer in the 2000 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), scoring high in math and science and number one in reading. Educators flocked to the country to uncover its secret pedagogic spice.
But between 2006 and 2012, the country's scores fell sharply while other top performers remained steady. Several theories have been proffered for the trend reversal, among them the increased adoption of "screen time" technology.
As educator and policy adviser Pasi Shalberg told the Washington Post, Finnish girls outperform boys in reading, mathematics, and science. Finland is the only OECD country where girls outperform boys in the latter two subjects
Girls generally read for pleasure more than boys, and PISA test questions lean heavily on reading comprehension. As such, the appearance of digital technologies among school-aged children may have "accelerated this trend" — with boys' diminishing reading skills anchoring their test scores down.
Shalberg further posits that increased time spent on the internet for media and socializing may lead to difficulties in concentrating on complex issues, such as those found in math and science.
Another high-profile example comes from the United States, where technology's introduction into the classroom has been met with mixed results. As reported by the New York Times, Kansas students have staged sit-ins and walkouts to protest the use of Summit Learning Platform. Meanwhile, a Connecticut school district has suspended use of the same digital education system.
A personalized learning system backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Summit Learning uses online tools to generate customized education aimed at promoting self-directed learning. However, some students have found the screen-focused lessons isolating and anxiety-inducing, while parents worry over the effects an untested system will have on their children's mental development.
We the Parents, a parental organization that opposes mass-customized learning, believes systems like Summit are risky given their lack of proven efficacy. In a letter to the Indiana Area School District board, one member spelled out their concerns over Summit, including the argument that screen-based education removes children from the interpersonal connections that facilitate proper learning.
The letter states: "But lack of evidence does not give us 'a pass' to proceed without caution, and the truth is we have many clues that do not bode well when it comes to heavy uses of technology and our children's educational or socioemotional wellbeing" and "there is no real way to assess his learning outcomes until this little experiment on our children is measured later, after the damage has been done."
In other words, we are social learners, not digital ones.
Can we determine digital technology's lingering effects?
Examples like these have primed popular imagination to distrust digital technology's role in our cognitive development and maintaining mental acuity. But some recent studies have complicated the issue.
"There have been so many books and articles about how we may be relying so much on technology that we are losing some of our cognitive abilities ... but it hasn't been well studied. I can count on one hand the number of people studying the lingering effects of smartphone usage," Peter Frost, a professor of psychology at Southern New Hampshire University, told the Concord Monitor Report.
Deciding to analyze those lingering effects, Frost took his question and performed a study. First, Frost and his team analyzed college student phone usage and short-term cognitive abilities. They found that more smartphone usage correlated negatively with social problem-solving, but positively with the ability to make observations and judge the credibility of information.
He then assigned 50 undergrads to use their phones for less than two hours a day, while another group of 50 was assigned to more than five hours a day. At the one-week mark, the high-use students showed a diminished ability to interpret and analyze data. But at the four-week mark, that difference disappeared.
"The findings of this study suggest that, even in the rare cases where smartphones might alter cognition, this effect is likely transitory [and that] the mechanism by which smartphones initiate this temporary change remains an open question," Frost writes.
Another study, reported on in New Scientist, found that children who interacted with screens developed fine motor skills earlier, and no correlation was found that screen time interfered with developmental milestones like learning to walk and talk.
"[Digital technologies offer] unprecedented power, but there are still many important questions about these maddening, valuable devices that we have been unable to answer. What is clear, however, is that many initial reactions have been more knee-jerk than evidence-based," writes New Scientist consultant Douglas Heaven.
But you may have noticed something missing: causal links.
While the adoption of digital technology predates Finland's score drops, there's no direct evidence to suggest cause and effect. Another possible explanation offered by Shalberg includes Finland's post-2008 economic hardships. And although Summit Learning touts a collaboration with Harvard researchers, it has not let researchers study its specific platform.
Looking to the studies, we stumble into a chicken-and-egg problem. Do the students with improved judgement bolster such skills with their phones, or are students with such abilities more prone to high-usage? Does the phone help toddlers practice fine motor skills, or do more advanced children simply reach for the digital technology sooner?
Learning in the face of uncertainty
In many ways, researchers studying digital technology's effects on students face the same barriers as the nutritionist. Whether looking at diets that are digital or nutritive, it's difficult to persuade people to change their lives substantially over a protracted period of time. How many people do you know that would freely renounce all digital technology in the name of science? Or parents that would assign their child to a digital regimen where the deleterious effects are unknown?
And even should people agree, they can't be put in a lab for years to prove they stuck to the program. Our digital-laced reality means variables will creep into the data, and researchers end up relying on surveys to gather results.
None of this is to say that science can't ultimately provide evidence-based answers; just that such evidence is tricky to suss out and that digital technology is new and changing rapidly.
In the face of such uncertainty, many experts argue we should avoid the indiscriminate adoption of digital technology. Instead, our approach should be one of intention, only adopting the technologies we need to achieve a desired outcome.
This is the philosophy espoused by Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism, Douglas Rushkoff's Team Human podcast, and websites like the Tech Edvocate. Some developers are also adopting this philosophy, such as the digital-learning platform Cerego.
Cerego's adaptive-learning tools are designed to nurture learning and long-term retention. Students engage with the platform for cognitive work, but the lessons are spaced out to give their minds time to consolidate the information and to allow for non-digital learning experiences. The goal is to build stronger neural connections with the information, and approach it from multiple angles.
This approach stands in contrast to other digital systems, which profit through each point of engagement and so distract with continuous notifications designed to keep you on the platform.
"If I offered you an ax, you could use it as a tool of incredible destruction, or it could be a great benefit to you," Lewis said in an interview. "It's all about finding the right tool for the right mission. But remember: you wield the ax, not anybody else."
In a case study with Arizona State University's Global Freshman Academy, astronomy and health-and-wellness students who used Cerego and completed all the course sets scored better than students who did not, suggesting improved retention of foundational knowledge. (Though, in keeping with our theme, these results are correlative.)
And we've been here before. When calculators became widespread in elementary schools, parents and pundits worried that they would irrevocably harm the students' ability to learn mathematics. But math teachers chose to integrate them into the classroom with intentionality. Today, they teach students the "selective and strategic use" of calculators, improving not only math skills but reasoning and problem-solving skills in general.
As the evidence on digital technology continues to be cataloged, it seems the best approach is to consider it neither salubrious nor harmful. As such, the question shouldn't be whether they make students stupid. It's whether we are employing them in a way that deters or promotes mentally engaging activities.
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Credit: Gunawan/Nature magazine
Students who think the world is just cheat less, but they need to experience justice to feel that way.
- Students in German and Turkish universities who believed the world is just cheated less than their pessimistic peers.
- The tendency to think the world is just is related to the occurence of experiences of justice.
- The findings may prove useful in helping students adjust to college life.
The world is just? That’s news to a lot of people.<p>The study is the most recent addition to a long line of work focusing on the belief in justice, our behavior, and our reactions to evidence that might suggest injustice occasionally occurs. This study focuses on a personal belief in a just world, (PBJW) rather than a general belief in a just world (GBJW). The difference between them must be highlighted.</p><p>GBJW is the stance that justice prevails all over the world and that people tend to get what they deserve. PBJW is more focused on the individual's social environment and their belief that they tend to be treated justly. While several studies show PBJW correlates with a higher sense of well-being and a variety of other positive effects, a high GBJW is associated with less life satisfaction, negative behavior, and callousness towards the suffering of <a href="https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-1-4939-3216-0" target="_blank">others</a>. This study controlled for GBJW, and focused on PBJW as much as possible. </p><p>To assure that culture was not a factor, the study included students at universities in both Germany and Turkey. </p><p>The researchers gave students at the four participating universities a series of questionnaires that asked if they ever cheated in class, if they perceived the world to be just, if they though that justice always prevailed everywhere, their tendencies towards socially appropriate behavior, their life satisfaction, and if they felt like they were treated justly by their teachers and fellow students. </p><p>The answers were statistically analyzed for relationships. While some of the connections seem trivially true, others were surprising. <strong></strong></p><p>PBJW turned out to only be an indirect predictor of if a student was likely to cheat. Both a belief in a just world and a lower likelihood of cheating were mediated by the justice experiences of the students, with more of these positive experiences lowering the rate of cheating and improving their belief in justice. This was also associated with higher levels of life satisfaction. </p><p>These effects existed across all demographics in both countries. </p>
What does this mean? Is a belief in justice a self-fulfilling prophecy?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/6oMv-azHNCA" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>In a way, it seems to be. People who have reason to think the world is just to them tend to interpret events in a way to sustain that belief and behave in a just manner. In a larger sense, the take away from this study is that experiences of justice, both from peers and instructors, is vital to student's wellbeing and understanding that the rules that exist about cheating are part of a larger, legitimate, system. </p><p>The researchers, citing previous studies on the perception of justice, note that "justice experiences (1) signal that university students are esteemed members of their social group, which in turn conveys feelings of belonging and social inclusion and (2) motivate them to accept and observe university rules and norms. These cognitive processes may thus strengthen their well-being and decrease the likelihood that they cheat."</p><p>The authors also suggest that if you want people (not only students) to act justly; consider treating them with "civility, respect, and dignity."</p><p>Sometimes, all it can take to help somebody act virtuously is to treat them well. Likewise, people treated harshly can rarely find reason to play by rules that don't protect them. The findings of this study will certainly add to the literature on how we perceive justice in the world around us, but might also help us remember that there are real consequences to our actions which can be much larger than we imagine. <strong></strong></p>
This could change how researchers approach vaccine development.
- The reason children suffer less from the novel coronavirus has remained mysterious.
- Researchers identified a cytokine, IL-17A, which appears to protect children from the ravages of COVID-19.
- This cytokine response could change how researchers approach vaccine development.
A member of staff wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) takes a child's temperature at the Harris Academy's Shortland's school on June 04, 2020 in London, England.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images<p>Experts don't want to place kids at the back of the line, regardless of how strong their immune systems appear. At least one company, Moderna, <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-vaccine-for-kids-moderna-plans-pediatric-trial-2020-9" target="_blank">hopes to begin testing</a> vaccines in pediatric volunteers by year's end.</p><p>Innate immune response is especially high during childhood (compared to adaptive immunity). This makes evolutionary sense: nature wants an animal to survive until its ready to procreate. Turns out the children in the study possessed high levels of cytokines that boost their immune response. The biggest impact is made by IL-17A, which appears to protect the youngest cohort from the ravages of the coronavirus. </p><p>While both age groups produced antibodies to fight off the infamous spike protein, adults that produce neutralizing antibodies actually suffer a <em>worse</em> fate. Herold says this "over-vigorous adaptive immune response" might promote inflammation, triggering acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). </p><p>This matters for vaccine development. As Herold says, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Our adult COVID-19 patients who fared poorly had high levels of neutralizing antibodies, suggesting that convalescent plasma—which is rich in neutralizing antibodies—may not help adults who have already developed signs of ARDS. By contrast, therapies that boost innate immune responses early in the course of the disease may be especially beneficial."</p><p>Herold says current vaccine trials are focused on boosting neutralizing-antibody levels. With this new information, researchers may want to work on vaccines that boost the innate immune response instead. </p><p>With <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/science/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker.html" target="_blank">at least 55 vaccine trials</a> underway, every piece of data matters. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
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