Will screen-based learning rot the brain?

Note on Aug 17th 2011: I need to update this post (below) as Susan Greenfield has frequently pronounced, misguidedly, on this subject over the past 5 years. Also, there has been quite a lot of research around the differences between multimodal digital reading and conventional reading. For example, this research by Maryanne Wolf asks: “Will an immersion in digitally-dominated forms of reading change the capacity of the young readers to form and to develop their deep reading processes?” I suspect that it will be difficult to measure this change, because it rests on an assumption that young people used to read single narratives deeply before the emergence of the internet, and it assumes that you don’t follow threads of enquiry in deep ways across several online sources.  I believe the key difference is that we are now active readers, or that reading is more likely to be a form of research.

Anyway, I originally posted this below on April 2006.

There’s a long set of responses to Jackie Ashley’s article on Susan Greenfield’s warning to the House of Lords about the need to research the effect of technology on our brains and the way children think and learn.http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1759704,00.html
Here’s my post to the Comment is Free blog on the Guardian site:

I thought I’d have a proper read of Susan Greenfield’s piece rather than pick over Jackie Ashley’s muddled article. Greenfield skims over a lot of ground, conflates lots of ideas and begs loads of questions, but I think she means well in arguing, ironically, that the key skill in education is learning how to ‘pose appropriate, meaningful questions’. She also supports Futurelab’s work, which is good work because it positively embraces the potential of new technology to generate enquiring minds. She is calling for an open debate and I would suggest that an agency like Futurelab is best placed to articulate the questions. However, it’s fun to pick holes so I can’t resist pointing out where she begs some questions: 1) She assumes that young people aren’t reading sustained narratives anymore. But I remember seeing that there had been a huge increase in children reading fiction (need to check that though). In my schooling, 23-34 years ago-ish, we didn’t read sustained narratives but bits of text on the blackboard and in worksheets. My sustained reading was voluntary. If you look at the 50 years of mass secondary education, much of the effective learning would be through crafts, science experiments, physical and social activity. Very few children learn mostly through reading and writing, although some do and then they may find the time for sustained reading out of school. 2) She says that in a multimedia presentation ‘you would be having an experience not learning’. But doesn’t brain-based learning theory say that you learn through sensory reinforcements and experiences? 3) She assumes that children are spending most of their time learning via screens and seems to have wiped teachers and other mentors out of the equation. I understood that access to ICT and multimedia presentations in schools was still too limited. 4) She assumes that children or teachers don’t make time to reflect or talk during or after seeing a multimedia presentation or film. She suggests that films (e.g. films of books) will make us lose our imaginations, but films can inspire children to read books, write books, write comics, invent new stories, imagine other worlds, want to travel, want to solve the world’s problems. The heart of the issue she raises is the ‘wow’ and ‘yuck’ factor, that our responses to stimuli will become too superficial. The way to avoid this is to invest in education, to ensure that education enables young people to develop critical thinking skills, to take ownership of their learning and to learn through experience, through problem solving, and to have as much access as possible to web-based information, films, books, sounds and more to help them solve these problems.


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