Sometimes educational research hits the headlines. Last November one piece even made the whole of the front page of one tabloid (Lambert, 2016). The broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, had just produced their annual report (232 pages of it!) on parent’s and children’s use of media. For three and four year-olds the average time spent online is just over an hour a day but this rises to an average of over 4 hours if you include TV and games consoles. The full report makes it clear that much of children’s online viewing is on social media, not TV itself which is being replaced by focused solitary viewing. Among the many other findings are that children are generally uncritical when it comes to media (e.g. a widespread belief that if it’s on Google, it must be true.)
Still the research on the dangers of electronic media continues to mount up. A recent Harvard-based study (Kenney, 2016) tracked 25,000 children and found a clear link between smartphone usage and obesity (a 43% increase) and also sugar consumption and sleep deprivation. Of course, the existence of a correlation does not prove either one caused the other but lead researcher Dr Erica Kenney commented that “this study would suggest that limiting children’s and adolescents’ engagement with other screen devices may be just as important for health as limiting television time.”
Another recent trial (McNally, 2016) of an online literacy programme compared with a traditional version, based on over 2,000 pupils from 51 schools, found that children made some 2 months progress with the online programme, but progress on the traditional, offline, equivalent was 50% better. The researchers put this down to the human interactions involved in the latter. Can we say that the pen is not only mightier than the sword but also than the screen? It is all part of the general Montessori maxim that effective learning is led by the hand.
Paralleling the Ofcom and Kenney studies, OnePoll recently carried out a poll of 2,000 parents (Duncan, 2017) looking at attitudes to electronic gadgets in the family. Whilst hardly formal research, the poll found that 90% of parents thought that electronic gadgets were spoiling quality family time. They also found that 70% of parents admitted to missing opportunities to spend time together. The poll was commissioned by a travel company and, perhaps not surprisingly, they found that holidays were a major opportunity to spend time together. But that does rather beg the question as to why, if so many parents are concerned, they do not do something about it.
However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that computers, robots and their ilk are uniformly bad. Hae Won Park at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is presenting a report (Revell, 2017) at a conference on human-robot interactions, where she will report on a study of the effects of programming robotic toys (using Tega, a companion robot that looks a bit like something out of Sesame Street) to interact differently with children. The differences in the robots’ behaviour were not profound. When they lost a game to the child some made neutral comments (like “That was hard”), others more positive comments (like “You tried hard then and succeeded.”). Similarly, when winning, neutral comments (like “I solved it.”) were contrasted with comments which reflect Carol Dwight’s ideas on growth mindsets (like “That was hard, but I tried hard and nailed it.”) The speech cues may have been subtle but the children’s responses were far from that. With positive cues they showed a much greater determination to win and much more concentration on the task. Won Park has also researched using robots for story telling and, with ASD children, for promoting social interactions like sharing. This is the positive side of robotics.
People sometimes ask what Montessori would have made of children with computers. I once asked that question of Phyllis Wallbank, a close associate of Montessori in the 1940s. Her response was unhesitating, “She would have loved them! She would have had the children building robots.” That surprised me at the time but I recently came across a comment in Montessori’s follow up book to Education for a New World, (Montessori, 1989:p.8) where, in reviewing the pre-school years she says that “wherever possible, mechanical contrivances are introduced for every detail of practical life, so that our children may be fitted to take part in a civilization which is entirely based on machines.” For ‘machines’ read ‘robots’ and I think that is conclusive.
Duncan, A. (2017) Tech contributes to fact families spend less than three weeks a year quality time together. Accessed from www.discoverferries.com/
Kenney, E.L. & Gortmaker, S.L. (2016). U.S. adolescents’ television, computer, videogame, smartphone, and tablet use: associations with sugary drinks, sleep, physical activity, and obesity. J. Pediatrics Dec 9th.
Lambert, L. (2016). Under-5s glued to screens 4 hours each day. Daily Mail 16th November pp 1 & 4.
McNally, S., Ruiz-Valenzuela, J. & Rolfe, H. (2016). ABRA: Online Reading Support. London: Education Endowment Foundation.
Montessori, M. (1989). To Educate the Human Potential. (1st pub. 1948) Oxford: Clio Press.
Ofcom. (2016). Children and parents: media use and attitudes report. Accessed from https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0034/93976/
Revell, T. (2017). Robot’s can-do attitude rubs off on children. New Scientist. 3114:p.9.