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Smarter than a smartphone

Teppo Turkki learns that technology is not the be all and end all for the future of learning.


Teppo Turkki


Technology opens windows to sources of new knowledge, but what is the most important thing from the viewpoint of learning? Analogical learning methods are challenging the central position of technology around the world.

My daughter, of upper secondary school age, came to my office to pick up a book – or three books, in fact – to write an essay on the Korean War. I made a suggestion along the lines of “wouldn’t it be quicker to get that information from the internet, where there are really good history sites on the topic?”.

No, it wouldn’t do this time. The essay had to be completed without an online connection, Google or a computer. My daughter, who attends an international Asian school, told me that only books could be used as source material. The text and the references in the essay had to be based on information from these books and be analysed and interpreted herself. That applied to source references as well. And the essay had to be written by hand using a pencil. The aim was to make her think by herself.

I felt somewhat surprised.

An interesting debate about the use of information technology and computers in teaching and in schools is currently being carried out in different parts of the world. One of the themes is the criticism of the omnipresence of digital technology in teaching in schools. Another is the desire to lessen the primacy of googled information in learning processes and strengthen young people’s own deeper thinking processes.

In April, the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia published an article, which describes how several top schools and private schools, among them Catholic schools, have reduced the use of tablets and laptops in classrooms. Social media as a part of learning is being shied away from. The rector of Sydney Grammar School, John Vallance, when interviewed, said that the traditional teaching methods are still more effective as far as deep learning is concerned.

The critical attitude towards technology by Australian elite schools sends a message contrary to the view held by the Australian government, which has aimed to create a “revolution in digital teaching” through an investment of 1.5 billion euros and by bringing laptops and technology to every school bag in Australia.

To justify their decision to limit the use of technology in schools, the schools holding dissenting views point to the “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection” report published by the OECD in the autumn of 2015. According to the OECD’s leading education expert Andreas Schleicher, countries that have made significant investments in ICT technologies have not been able to show improvements in learning outcomes in important subjects such as the mother tongue, maths or natural sciences. Even less so in their Pisa results. The effects can even be contrary to those expected.

Let’s leave Australia now and look at California where many managers and technology experts of Silicon Valley’s technology companies enrol their children into schools emphasising traditional analogical learning methods.

My colleague Justin Cook emailed from Boston a link to a New York Times article, which is quite striking in its view on technology. According to that article, leading technology professionals of many top technology companies (like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard) operating in California’s Silicon Valley want their children to attend schools where digital technology has been removed almost entirely from classrooms. By manual manipulation, playing, drawing and especially by interaction, the primary school children of those professionals will be learning and developing skills that require problem-solving capacities, perceptual abilities and various co-ordination facilities. The didactic core of these “analogical” Californian schools consists of physical experience and embodiment, joint activities, learning multi-dimensional attentiveness and “mindfulness”.

Parents who in their work in Silicon Valley develop and use information technology advocate a traditional school environment for their children, are using the same arguments as the OECD report above: there is no clear evidence that technology as such would improve learning or learning outcomes. For Californian parents, genuine commitment and interest in the growth and development of their children, in particular by parents and teachers, are more important than endless online databases and games.

Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s leading expert on education and a visiting professor at Harvard University, threw fuel onto the fire of the Finnish debate on the future of schools’ reliance on technology by pointing out in an interview in Ilta-Sanomat (in Finnish) that young “digital natives” who supposedly are smarter and more skilful than their parents are just a myth. Sahlberg maintains that a Finnish youngster with computer skills is no more intelligent than his/her parents. Often just sending an email or googling can create problems for young people.

In the interview, Sahlberg’s attention is drawn to the fact that especially in developed countries the declining learning outcomes of young people can be linked to the increasing time spent on the internet, display terminals and smartphones. With Finnish youngsters there is a kind of reverse development taking place, the time spent by a young person on the internet reduces the time available for real human encounters, genuine engagement in debates and the development of empathy. According to Sahlberg, we need information technology, but the direction that the Finnish digital leap should take is not yet certain.

The view of the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher is more straightforward: if we want our children to be smarter than smartphones we must learn to think better and teach our children to think better as well. From the viewpoint of young people’s future, it is still important to take care of basic skills in mathematics and the mother tongue. By concentrating on core thinking skills we can guarantee young people a significantly more equal springboard to participate in digital reality than by the government’s decisions on education investments – mainly on information technology, digital equipment or online services. Technology is essential for opening windows to the sources of various kinds of information. However, as far as learning is concerned, its most important aspects are teachers’ abilities to teach and to guide students towards using technology to navigate through the huge variety of knowledge and information.

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