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.
- Digital Natives Do Not Exist, Claims New Paper - Big Think ›
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Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
A vertical map might better represent a world dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic.
- Europe has dominated cartography for so long that its central place on the world map seems normal.
- However, as the economic centre of gravity shifts east and the climate warms up, tomorrow's map may be very different.
- Focusing on both China and Arctic shipping lanes, this vertical representation could be the world map of the future.
The world, but not as we know it<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTkwMjIyNn0.qmQfwUdjQka8JX6q4KGANagleiuucpWay5ytMenZxUU/img.jpg?width=980" id="b95e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ac088ec55c0585a93a9a310faab9a4c7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A Chinese 'vertical world map,' showing the world in a different perspective from the one we're used to.
Image: Prior Probability<p>Europe is tucked away in a corner, an appendage of Asia dwarfed by neighboring Africa. North America is stood on its head, facing the rest of the world from the top of the map — cut off from South America, which cuts a solitary figure at the bottom. Africa is justifiably huge, but equally eccentric. </p><p>The eye scouts elsewhere for a place to land: not the Indian Ocean, which dominates the middle of the map, but some terra firma. Antarctica and Australia are too small, mere stepping stones for the land mass of Asia. Ultimately our gaze is drawn toward China, the lynchpin of this unfamiliar world. </p><p>Managing to leave both poles intact, this "vertical" world map is about as far away as you can get from the classic Mercator projection – which slices up both, giving center stage to a puffed-up Europe. Perhaps this new map will become more familiar soon: It may do more justice to the world of the near future, dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic. <br></p>
China's 'ten-dash line'<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTI4MzQyNn0.sBe0oFTif4Jef1vWh1kAnUylU_QMPXT5xQjm-5aA3sA/img.jpg?width=980" id="a3b81" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="80fc6e4f5c9c1c978f698be2c8de5484" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
'China without any part left out': includes Taiwan and the islands and atolls in the South China Sea, surrounded by a ten-dash line
Image: Global Times<p>While there's no indication that this map represents the Chinese government's "official" worldview, it is no secret that China has a thing with maps – and more specifically, the country's representation on them. </p><p>In China, the country's current economic success is seen as a redress of the unequal treatment meted out by western superpowers in the 19th century. China's world dominance is a return to a more natural state of world affairs, many feel. Cartographic rectifications are a symbolically significant corollary of that sentiment.</p><p><a href="https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/12/china-cracks-down-on-politcally-incorrect-maps/421032/" target="_blank">Fines are regularly imposed</a> on companies – domestic and foreign – that fail to represent China to the fullest extent of its external borders, disputed though they may be by others (e.g. India, Taiwan and any of the countries with claims overlapping China's in the South China Sea). But the People's Republic's cartographic obsession doesn't end at China's territory itself. It also includes the country's position on the world map. <br></p>
The Kingdom at the Middle of the World<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTkwODEzMX0.SGrAZBH6iJVggFYSaIahzv9GvfEh17y1SwUNINbVicQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1774c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="99790d80a909d17a948f7c5d463d7d98" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Early Japanese color copy of Ricci's world map
Image: public domain<p>China's name for itself is <em>Zhōngguó</em>, which means 'Central State' or 'Middle Kingdom', reflecting its ancient self-image as the civilized center (<em>Huá</em>) of the world, with wild tribes (<em>Yí</em>) at the edge. That view is not unique to China. Vietnam, for example, at certain times also styled itself as the "central state" (<em>Trung Quóc</em>) – considering the Chinese in turn as the uncouth outsiders.</p><p>It may be surprising to recall, but Europeans themselves once considered their own continent a relative backwater, viewing Jerusalem as the true center of the world. That changed with the Age of Discovery, which placed Europe at the center of an ever-expanding world. Maps reflected that worldview, and largely continue to do so. That's why today's standard world map still has Europe at its center – with China off toward the periphery on the map's right-hand side. </p><p>The most notable feature of the very first major modern world map produced in China, the <em>Kunyu Wanguo Quantu</em> (1602), is that it places China firmly at the center of the world. Produced for the Chinese emperor by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, it was the first map ever to combine that perspective with modern western knowledge: it was the first Chinese map to show the Americas, for instance. </p><p>That representation may not have taken off elsewhere, but it will be instantly recognizable to Chinese students, as it's the standard format for world maps in China's schools today.<br></p>
America on its head<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMzQ5NTc0MH0.EqadI2Yp-2dPwi3VccFZelIDK4V9t0ZOfTfHjdB6wVw/img.jpg?width=980" id="97104" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2b66e8de389b3d736bc28e019e445cd0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Upside down you turn me: North America on its head, in Chinese characters
Image: Prior Probability<p>For those used to "classic" Eurocentric world maps, Europe's marginalization may come across as a bit of an upset. America's new position on the horizontal Chinese world map is less jarring: It merely moves from the left- to the right-hand side of the picture. But then there's this vertical world map, which deals a similar blow to the American land mass: divided in two and pushed to the upper and lower edges of the map.</p><p>Unfamiliar? Sure. Shocking? Perhaps. Wrong? Not really. First off, no world map is totally right, since it's mathematically impossible to transfer the surface of a three-dimensional object onto a flat surface without some distortion. And since the world is a globe, where you center that map is a matter of purely subjective choice.<br></p><p>Those choices have historical reasons. Mercator's map was not specifically designed to put an inflated Europe at the center of the world. That was just a side effect; its main purpose was to aid shipping: Straight lines on the map correspond to straight lines sailed on the seas.</p>
By 2050, a completely melted Arctic could enable the Transpolar Passage, shortening trade routes between Asia and Europe and boosting business for Alaskan ports like Nome and Dutch Harbor.
Image: The Maritime Executive<p>The vertical world map, showing the relative proximity of China (and the rest of Asia) to Europe and (even the East Coast of) North America, has a similarly maritime <em>raison d'être</em>, or it will have by mid-century. <a href="https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/the-arctic-shipping-route-no-one-s-talking-about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Experts project</a> that by 2050 (if not sooner), the Arctic will be sufficiently ice-free to enable the so-called Transpolar Passage, i.e. shipping straight across the North Pole. </p><p>That would shave more than three weeks off a traditional sea voyage between Europe and Asia, via the Suez Canal – and even be significantly faster than other northern alternatives like the Northwest Passage (via Canada) or the Northern Sea Route (hugging the Siberian coast). Since ships would not need to go through locks or pass over shallow waters, it would also remove current restrictions on tonnage per ship. <br></p><p>The only country seriously preparing for such a future: China. None of the other Arctic powers is giving the Transpolar route any strategic thought. On the other hand, China's Arctic Policy document, released in January 2018, already matter-of-factly refers to the Transpolar route as the 'Central Passage' – one of several 'Polar Silk Roads' that China seems to want to develop. And they already have the world map to go with it.</p>
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Who profits with for-profit prisons?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97ac37e6c7f6f22ec130ea2d56871701"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dB78NV2WpWc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The Labour Economics study suggests that privately-run prisons do convicts a few favors at the moment of sentencing. However, proponents of private prisons often point to other benefits when making their case. Specifically, they argue that private prisons reduce operating costs, stimulate innovation in the correctional system, and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested and return to prison.</p><p>In regard to recidivism, the research is mixed. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank">One study</a> compared roughly 400 former prisoners from Florida, 200 released from private prisons and 200 from state-run facilities. It found the private-prison cohort maintained lower rates of recidivism. However, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2005.00006.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">another Florida study</a> found no significant rate differences. And two other studies—one from <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Oklahoma</a> and another out of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0734016813478823" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Minnesota</a>, both comparing much larger cohorts than the first Florida study— found that prisoners leaving private prisons had a greater risk of recidivism.</p><p>The research is also inconclusive regarding cost savings. <a href="https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/economics_of_private_prisons.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Hamilton Project analysis</a> noted that such comparisons are difficult because private prisons, like all private companies, are not required to release operational details. In comparing what studies were available, the authors estimate the costs to be comparable and that "in practice the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers"—about $7,000 less than their public peers. They add that competition-driven innovation is lacking as the three largest firms control nearly the entire market.</p><p>"We aren't saying private prisons are bad," Galinato said. "But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn't be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go."</p>
What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?
- Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
- The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
- "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."