Get ready for the real dystopia

No, I’m not talking about Brexit. I’m talking about what happens when toddler use of addictive technology and lack of parenting mix together to produce a somewhat hellish scenario that is now beginning to show itself in primary schools and is yet to affect teaching and learning in secondary schools.

Since going on a reading journey via Hirsch and then to the Far East for some research and information about maths teaching, I’ve been getting into the whole Confucian vibe of late. The main reason is that every time I read about some aspect of maths teaching or classroom practice in the Far East, there always seemed to be this underlying wisdom influencing and providing a holistic reason for that particular practice. The more I read up on Confucianism, the more I understand why X, Y or Z happens in schools. For example, the reason children sit facing the front is not just because it helps children to concentrate on what the teacher is saying or doing, it is also to do with the much bigger picture of harmony within society that arises out of structure and order, respect for wisdom and experience of (usually) older people. I also love the reverence for education and the discipline of individual study as being seen as the means to becoming a better person. So, if we want to emulate maths teaching and learning as they do in Shanghai, we need to think about the what and how of mathematics teaching (because it is vastly superior to what we currently do) and then go way beyond that to the dao, or ‘way’ of the mathematician (or general student) and how he/she is formed, as they do in the Far East. It’s such a shame that we in the West tend to do the exact opposite to our children.

As a mother of teenagers, I am finding out far too late that this sort of education should start at a very early age in order to counter the only things that do happen naturally and that tend to become entrenched well before puberty sets in: bad habits, lack of focus and laziness. Fortunately, I am a self-confessed Tiger Mum and my children have, overall, benefited, but what I am realising is that I haven’t been Tiger-Mum enough to counter all of the insidious effects of child-centred education and Western society’s tendency towards promotion of child-centred/led parenting. However, the situation for disadvantaged children is far worse and, as I have mentioned before on this blog, secondary teachers have yet to experience what primary teachers are now starting to experience: children who are not only not parented very well, but are suffering the effects of being glued to a screen from around the age of 2:

Not only are children’s minds closed to learning, but increasingly they are closed to all interaction with other human beings.

Before going on to relatively new problem of children being unable or unwilling to interact with other human beings, I will briefly describe just a few examples of how children’s minds are closed to learning well before they attend secondary school:

  • Lack of discipline in the home means children feel empowered to shun hard work and caring authority of teacher
  • Lack of parenting wisdom and sleep routines in particular means that children come to school without having had a proper night’s rest and this tends to manifest as ADHD type symptoms (very different to how adults behave when tired)
  • Child-centred education encourages the child to pursue what is interesting or fun at the time, which for many children means that what is necessary and important is put off almost indefinitely
  • Typical practice in primary schools inadvertently trains the child to ignore the teachers (who have knowledge to pass on) and instead listen to peers who not only have no knowledge, but may provide what I call ‘anti-knowledge’ and continuously distract a child from being able to think, focus and generally develop good study habits

Now let me tell you about this other factor which we have yet to really feel the full force of. This is the effect of children spending vast amounts of time glued to a screen from an incredibly young age. You may argue that this has been the case for a couple of decades now, but I would argue otherwise. You see, what has facilitated this is the invention of user-friendly tablet computers and the normalisation of their use within the family home. As you can see from these statistics, back in 2010 tablet computer use was pretty niche, and it’s only relatively recently that it has become a normal thing for every family to have at least one tablet computer and for it to be automatically given to a toddler as a pacifier. Unlike parking a screaming toddler in front of CBeebies (which is what we all used to do years ago when the going got tough), parking a toddler on an iPad is a whole level up in terms of entrenching bad habits because they will be playing games that artificially stimulate over and over again the reward pathway of the brain, creating little compulsive addicts in the process. 

How does this play out?

Well, if we consider that iPads and tablet use became mainstream from about 2013, this means that the shitstorm is only just starting to happen in primary schools. Children are rocking up not only unable to speak in a sentence (because their basic vocabulary is so poor due to lack of communication), but they are also less used to looking at a human face. It is quite scary to think about 5 year olds who don’t automatically turn to face the adult who is speaking because this means that they are missing out on correct enunciation of vocabulary (mouth movement) and understanding of human emotion as interpreted by facial expressions. Further, no amount of animation in the adult’s voice or body movements will be as exciting as a rewarding and addictive game on the iPad which displays incredibly realistic and brightly coloured fantasy animals dancing about. Not only do we have children whose minds are closed to new knowledge and instruction, but their senses are now shut off too since they don’t even want to look at or listen to an adult, and then you consider the steady increase in glue ear conditions that are so much worse these days due to lack of effective antibiotics. The continued artificial stimulation of the reward pathways of the brain from such an early age due to iPad use would surely affect how children are able or willing to persevere with hard work at school, even if teachers attempted to make all lessons fun and interesting.

All is not lost though and I do believe there is a way to help children. I think the first step is to acknowledge what is happening and the second is to try and emulate what Far Eastern societies do which is to think about how to facilitate the development of the scholar from a young age. This whole situation makes me think, of course, that methods of teaching and learning associated with traditional education actually need to be in place from the start (for example, having children face the front rather than each other), but I’m even starting to think about whether it is a good idea for there to be such huge IWBs being on all day long in primary school classrooms. After all, it is the teacher who has the knowledge to pass on, not the enormous computer screen. If you go in most primary classrooms you will see them organised to encourage the child to look at the IWB (other than each other) rather than the teacher during input time.

Sometimes I even wonder at the increasing moodiness of children these days. Have you noticed it? When we teachers were little children, we didn’t strop and huff and puff as much as little children do in today’s classroom. Perhaps children are like this because they’re actually coping with a mild version of withdrawal and are in ‘need’ of their fix, but do not have the maturity or communication skills to be aware of this.  We should in no way accept this, but seek to mitigate against it. Exactly how is another matter entirely……

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16 thoughts on “Get ready for the real dystopia

  1. I also think there must be consequences of the iPad addiction we see. I also know what you mean (having a teenager of my own) about earlier training. A 14 year cannot effectively judge what is best but unless they have some habits of obedience they will do whatever they can get away with.
    My theory about the moodiness is slightly different but I can see your point. When I was a child and read Enid Blyton or CS Lewis moody or unreasonable kids were ‘bad uns’ and you would not want to be like them. I do think enormous amounts of Blyton shaped my morality! Grange Hill was so frowned upon at the time because it encouraged kids to have sympathy with the ‘bad uns’. Since then the moral message of teen TV has become that all that behaviour is excusable as it is part of a journey. Kids role models engage in this huffy sort of behaviour constantly. It makes me wince when I see the TV my kids watch because it socialises them into thinking that sort of huffy or combatative behaviour is a norm or excusable whereas Enid Blyton made me feel ashamed if I behaved in those ways. Our kids then act out those behaviours in their own social interactions. There is a book called ‘Nurture Shock’ which talked about some research showing that all these modern TV problems rather than teaching, for example, conflict resolution, just lead to kids trying out the forms of behaviours themselves. Well that’s my theory anyway!

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    • I completely agree. The tablets are an issue, but, for me, a greater concern is what they actually watch and do with them. Current children’s shows have glorified whining, sarcasm, teasing… to the point that some kids don’t understand when they’re call out for that behaviour. This is completely anecdotal evidence, but I raised two kids with zero screens for the first 4-6 years no TV either, then a third with computers in the house, and the difference is striking. BUT, I find some of the books they read today also have that same type of dialogue. The entire culture has shifted towards the bratty.

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  2. I think the rot started with television. Even when I was young–and that’s a long, long time ago–it was pretty unusual to grow up without a telly. We never got one until I was 13, and save for a brief flurry before I discovered girls, I never really got into the habit, and have never owned a set in my life. I don’t even have a sound card in my PC, so virtually the only time I ever see any TV is if I go to a pub when the football is on. My friends know that my visit will be extremely brief if they’re watching telly; it’s seldom that they’re watching anything so engaging that they can’t bear to turn it off.

    When my son was growing up, I reckoned he got to see more than enough telly around at his friends’ houses. I only knew one other family where there wasn’t a set, and it was conspicuous that our children were far more articulate and relaxed in the presence of adults than other kids. Home-schooling was another common factor that no doubt made a difference; their lives weren’t confined by their own ‘peer group’. My son’s non-verbal intelligence is no better than average, but when he was tested by a retired schools medical officer (who still used Stanford-Binet!), his verbal intelligence at age 10 was equivalent to that of a ‘superior adult’. This was despite not learning to read until we taught him ourselves.

    Although I know two young parents whose addiction to smart phones and tablets looks set to be inherited by their young children, others–like my son and his wife–are determined to deny their children digital dummies. But as ever, what is important is what you put in its place. There’s nothing more powerful than the example we set as adults–and teachers, beset as they are by layers and layers of management and control by people with a political agenda–have to be truly exceptional to display the classical virtues.

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  3. I utterly agree with your analysis and particularly with your four bullet points. When ‘learning’ is discussed in relation to English schools, in terms of such things as the EEF evidence base, I keep coming up against the unspoken barrier which is that of ‘culture’. England hasn’t had the ‘dao’ as you put it, since at least the late 70s, when I arrived to do my ‘o’ levels, and probably for a lot longer. Now, I find I’m increasingly seeing parents who don’t want their children to engage. They no longer support homework. They give credence to the notion that it’s all too ‘stressful’ and they object to an expectation that their child does what is required in terms of practice to learn.

    I’m a fan of technology – but I’ve yet to see it used effectively in schools and I certainly agree that the fixation with tablets and smart-phones is a largely destructive, detrimental process. It manifests itself in disturbing ways. If I can make an analogy, it’s like giving a child a pencil but only so they can use it to stab holes in things. For example, given that rare commodity, ‘free time’ these days, pupils shun practical activities and ask if they can go on the ipad. If allowed, they resort to stupid activities which don’t involve any particular skill or outcome.

    Recently, however, I have persuaded a mum to remove access to her daughter’s tablet and phone. The girl was getting sometimes as little as 2 hours sleep and not functioning, obviously, the next day. The results are staggering. She is now alert and happy. Previously massively under-attaining, she is now rapidly making up lost ground.

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  4. As Bob Dylan succinctly put it, “the times they are a changing”.

    I believe we are seeing the first generation where parents do not have the knowledge or understanding to successfully parent their kids. So it also goes for educators.

    In 10 years time cars will not have drivers, people may well holiday on the moon, augmented reality will transform the way we all live and AI will perform many tasks better than we can perform them today. Many people in the UK and around the globe will not be employed in productive economic work.

    You will then not have to “google it” because your AI and AR will be one step ahead and will have looked it up and displayed it (or delivered it in some other way). The “you can’t just google it” rant will itself be redundant.

    By 2020 40% of graduates globally will graduate in China and India and more students will be graduating than ever before at a time when arguably many tasks previously done by graduates will be performed by AI.

    I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton, woodentops, blue peter and the Seekers (old not new). We can all look back nostalgically but we do kids today a disservice by suggesting that reading Enid Blyton will prepare them for 2025 and beyond better than continuous use of an ipad. AR will be work and used constantly, these kids are ahead of their time…..just.

    Sleep deprivation and similar effects are clearly not beneficial but there is no need to throw out the baby and the bath water.

    In contrast to one of the comments above, at 58 years old technology is revolutionising my teaching and the learning of the young people I teach. I don’t just say that for effect, I know it for a fact. Just because schools often misuse technology does not indicate that technology is useless, just that many schools are not awfully productive.

    Schools are not designed to deliver education via 21st century technology. Schools are designed to deliver education with 16th/17th technology. In 20 years it is likely that schools will be consigned to the scrapheap.

    Your kids will be waving their copies of Enid Blyton, like Canute trying to command the tide while the kids you complain are using too much technology will be those who thrive.

    You really should start reflecting upon whether you really have what it takes t educate young people or whether you should move over an let the technology in.

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    • And yet the argument isn’t about the best uses of technology – hence my ‘pencil’ analogy. It’s not the TECH that’s the problem. We really should be using it to revolutionise teaching and we really aren’t, bar a few enlightened enthusiasts like yourself, perhaps. You’re right about the ancient paradigm in schools and I look forward to your future where we’re all in a MOOC using VR. Nevertheless, my experience of pupils and technology knocks the ‘digital natives’ notion into a cocked hat. They have no understanding of the wealth of information at their fingertips, until I, an enthusiastic digital immigrant, point it out to them. My pupils are far less able to engage in research than my peers were in the 1970s with our tatty encyclopaedias and our trawling of the Reader’s Digest.

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      • “My pupils are far less able to engage in research than my peers were in the 1970s with our tatty encyclopaedias and our trawling of the Reader’s Digest.” Yes, possibly because today they have less knowledge and you need know stuff to find out more stuff. Hirsch makes a great comment in his book ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ that “google is for cognitive insiders,” to illustrate this point.

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    • This reminds me of the futuristic vistas of the 1950s, where we’d all be riding around in little airmobiles to do our shopping in multi-story supermarkets. No one bothered to specify how these technological marvels would work–it was just assumed that human ingenuity would find a way.

      However, what surprises me about your vision is that all of the evidence we’ve seen so far indicates that kids growing up in digital bubbles are hopelessly unprepared for adult life. Building Schools for the Future was predicated on this digital future, yet already at least one of these ludicrously expensive palaces has been demolished.

      While there is no doubt that technology can be useful in the right hands, there is no independent evidence that schools that rely heavily upon educational software produce superior academic results. Larry Cuban, one of the wisest American educational bloggers, has pointed out that every development in communications technology since the invention of paper has been seen as revolutionary, yet the fundamentals remain the same: good teachers use whatever technology is most suited to their needs. And surprisingly enough, textbooks are making something of a comeback.

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  5. You should read Hannah Arendt some time…she writes in several essays that evil happens when people don’t think (Eichmann, for ex). Thinking happens only in periods of solitidue when we can attain a 2-in-1 state of mind and listen to our consciences (her favorite Shakespeare piece was Richard III, with the scene where he is arguing whether he is evil or not is spot-on). This, in turn, is supplemented by study–where the mind is focused on something particular. Lack of solitude/thinking/focused study allows for shallowness and a lack of awareness when evil decisions are placed before us—non-thinkers are more likely to just go along with the crowd or listen to what “authorities” say. See this: http://filosofa.be/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/ha-rendt-some-questions-of-moral-philosophy.pdf

    She also disliked the student-centred stuff as well: http://www.digitalcounterrevolution.co.uk/2016/hannah-arendt-the-crisis-in-education-full-text/

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  6. Have you not the self awareness to realise that what you are doing is the same as every generation in history – moaning about the youth of today?

    There is such a sense of superiority in your blog.

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    • I think you are misinterpreting. I am concerned because I care about the next generation and because, as a rare teacher who has had a previous career, I know a little about what trouble might await children who are not prepared for the realities, harsh realities, of the world that awaits them.

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  7. I spend quite a lot of time working in Asia and believe you me, their technology addiction exceeds ours – look at the queues that last for months outside the Apple store in Hong Kong every time a new product is launched. Or consider the fact that China are considering getting rid of cash and replacing it with technological payments through phones. Chinese children spend a great deal of time on screen. The problem is not the time spent, but the activity done. My son has used his iPad to teach himself Japanese, Korean and some basic Mandarin. He has found friends in those countries he can Skype and chat to (under our supervision of course). He has also taught himself some Greek so that he can self order and organise when we’re on holiday. He uses YouTube to learn new songs on the piano and guitar and decided he was going to be Buddhist based on his online research into world religions. He’s ten years old and this has been going on for three years. None of this additional education has been provided by school. My older children, now grown up have similarly used technology to learn things that have given them work and in the eldest’s case, a good promotion. So we need to be careful about making sweeping generalisations about technology and about an entire continent’s culture.

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