How computers make kids dumb

Is our children rebooting?

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Comment A study of 100,000 pupils in 31 countries around the world has concluded that using computers makes kids dumb. Avoiding PCs in the classroom and at home improved the literacy and numeracy of the children studied. The UK's Royal Economic Society finds no ground for the correlation that politicans make between IT use and education.

The authors, Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann of Munich University, used the PISA tests to measure the skills of 100,000 15 year-olds. When social factors were taken into account, PC literacy was no more valuable than ability to use a telephone or the internet, the study discovered.

"Holding other family characteristics constant, students perform significantly worse if they have computers at home," the authors conclude. By contrast, children with access to 500 books in their homes performed better. The negative correlation, the researchers explain, is because children with computers neglect their homework more.

The Royal Society's quantitative approach mirrors concerned raised by qualitative analysis of technology in education. Children are now awash with "facts", but don't know what to do with them.

Schoolchildren are developing a "problem-solving deficit disorder", and losing the ability to analyze. A better way, experts insist, is to encourage creativity. And the best remedy for this is to turn off the computer and stimulate childrens' imaginations.

The value of creativity, imagination and critical thinking over "information" access is self-evident, you'd think. But an alliance of convenience between technology vendors, who want to stuff more unwanted computers into classrooms, lazy governments, for whom IT is a way of appearing "modern" while cutting education budgets, ensures the issue doesn't stay in the headlines for very long.

In the US, programs designed to connect schools to the internet have become a pork barrel for questionable sales tactics from the some of the industry's biggest vendors.

"Technology is not destiny, its design and use flow from human choices" the US Alliance For Childhood wrote in its critical report Tech Tonic: Towards A New Literacy last September. This was a follow-up to the Alliance's scathing report Fools Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, which is also available in Spanish. Both are free PDF downloads from the Alliance's website, and a good resource for concerned parents.

"The pervasive use of advanced technologies and their low cost have reduced hands-on experiences for children, including the simple but overwhelmingly rewarding experience of taking things apart and putting them back together. Without this, technology becomes a mystery, leading to a perspective that might well be called 'magic consciousness'," observe the Alliance for Childhood authors.

"This consciousness is a perversion of the magical enchantment that naturally pervades a child’s world and is too quickly destroyed by adult insistence on viewing the world mechanically."

Long distance information

A few grown-ups would benefit from following the recommendations too. For years technology-advocates have made the lazy equation that "information" is "power" - but "information", we're belatedly discovering, doesn't in itself mean anything. As anyone who's watched the quality of online discussions deteriorate over the past ten years, "problem-solving deficit disorder" isn't entirely confined to schoolchildren. Many of today's debaters prefer "Fisking" - line-by-line rebuttals where facts are dropped like radar chaff - to rational debate or building a coherent argument.

During the 2004 Presidential TV debate season, technophiles advocated extending this approach to real-time "fact checking" of the candidates. But not all facts have equal value. And neither do they necessarily supply context - a blizzard of facts obscures the moral choices a voter weighs in making his decision.

For people who consider "facts" are an adequate substitute for knowledge, Google and the internet couldn't get here quickly enough. ®

Related links

The Royal Economic Society
[UK] The Alliance for Childhood [US]

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