Monday, 7 October 2013

Screenagers, Reason and Civilisation

Further to the previous post about gaming culture amongst school-age students - and the recent release of Grand Theft Auto V - readers of this blog might find useful, on mulling over the issues raised, the following passage from the excellent 21st Century Boys by Sue Palmer:

"Digital natives, digital learners?

This is not an argument against information technology. It's abundantly clear that the developments of recent decades are at least as significant to human progress as the invention of the printing press. We're at the dawn of a new Renaissance, as momentous as that 16th century rebirth of learning which propelled Europe out of superstition and into the Enlightenment...

But if the values that drove the Enlightenment (and brought humanity this far) are to survive, we must make sure all our children can use technology effectively, not merely for entertainment but to learn and create. Democracy demands that everyone has a mind to learn, not just a fortunate elite who can manipulate the disempowered majority. To use computer technology effectively - accessing hypertext, diving in and out of windows, holding a variety of multimedia information in the mind while maintaining a logical train of thought - boys need to focus their concentration just as efficiently as they do to read and write. Probably more.

It's by no means easy to make (and retain) creative mental connections while at the same time clinging on to the thread of an underlying logic. In fact, it takes a lot of intellectual discipline. Most experts I've met from the field of 'digital literacy' insist that, in order to use computers well, children must be able to read and write first. They intuitively feel that this 21st century way of using the human brain 'piggybacks' on the logical, sequential processes of old-fashioned literacy.

If this is the case, it has enormous implications for education. Children, especially boys, are drawn to screens and screen-based learning from the moment they're born, and in a 21st century world it seems important that these 'digital natives' take their place as soon as possible in the digital world. There's pressure from all directions - media, marketing and government education gurus - to get them hooked into technology as soon as they can manipulate a mouse...

'Kids today are not remotely the same as they were.... their brains are different,' said education expert Ian Jukes at a conference I recently attended. 'Children's brains are adapting to the digital bombardment... they are not teenagers but screenagers!' His argument was that regular frequent exposure to digital technology rewires children's brains in ways that enhance their visual memory and processing skills, so that the current generation has learned to process information in a fundamentally different way from their forebears. 'Digital learners' prefer to access information from multiple media sources (pictures, sounds, colour, video) rather than old-fashioned text, operating, as Jukes puts it, at 'twitch speed'. They use parallel processing and multitasking techniques, applying 'continuous partial attention'. Their expertise is in randomly accessing hyperlinked multimedia information, and their reward is 'learning that is relevant, active, instantly useful and fun.'

This argument is reassuring for 21st century parents. But with a little reflection it's obvious that 'the elaborate procedural habits of formal thinking' won't develop out of continuous partial attention, flicking here and there at twitch speed. It's learning, Jim, but not learning as we've known it throughout human history.

The success of the species so far has relied on application, focused concentration and the capacity to pursue long-term rewards rather than immediate gratification. As, thanks to literacy, more and more human beings acquired these mental strengths the more progress Homosapiens made. As a woman, most of whose sex were allowed access to literacy and learning only a hundred years ago, I'm very conscious of the democratising power of formal thought processes... and, on behalf of my daughter and future generations of women, very anxious literacy should continue to work its magic on the minds of men.

But for most boys - whose nature doesn't fit them for sitting in a classroom, messing about with fiddly little symbols - the development of disciplined attention takes several years of determined effort. As Ian Jukes himself points out, if we encourage them to adapt to the digital bombardment too soon, 'the downside is that children may find it more difficult to follow a logical train of thought'. Since logic underpins every aspect of education and civilisation, this is a serious downside.

In a multimedia world, it would be insane to suggest we keep little boys away from technology until they're literate - it's an integral part of their world and a source of fun and information. But there are many reasons to put sensible limits on its use. We've seen that tuning a boy into screens before he's learning to tune into people may well inhibit his development of human empathy. In the same way, tuning him into quick-fire 'digital learning strategies' before he's mastered the ability to read and write may inhibit his capacity to think clearly and logically. In these two very important respects, allowing a boy to turn into a dedicated screenager before he enters his teens may lead to an unbalanced brain."

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