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Artillery Row

Rage against the machine

Schools should be a safe space away from the ghoulish blue light

“The next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”

— Wendell Berry

I dragged my wife to our first school open day last week. I’ve worked in education for fifteen years, but it was my wife who first noticed it: “What’s with all the screens?” We were shown around by an 11-year-old, who looked up occasionally from his iPad to gesture at a classroom here, a dining room there.

In every classroom, even art, each child had an iPad open on their desk and would flick their eyes between it, the teacher, and the huge interactive screen at the front. The students, scrupulously polite, seemed curiously devitalised for children so young, their eyes “glazed with screen burn”, in Paul Kingsnorth’s phrase.

Add or subtract a few specifics about whether it’s an iPad, Chromebook or some other device and this is the experience of most children in this country: primary and secondary, state and private. The UK is an outlier in the speed and enthusiasm with which it has adopted screens in the classroom. A Cambridge University study into interactive whiteboards found that, at 99+ per cent adoption, they had “been introduced in British classrooms at a rate unprecedented anywhere else in the world”. On top of these whiteboards, most schools either supply their own devices or offer a Bring Your Own Device policy. During the pandemic, almost two million devices were delivered direct to families.

Devices have become so embedded that we no longer question their presence. Educational research is usually a blood sport but about screens in the classroom there is a rare unanimity: there should be as few as possible, especially at primary level.

The rich associational life identified by Burke as the bedrock of civic life might once have acted as a check on digital atomisation

Aside from the prosaic reasons (the expense of buying and maintaining them, the time lost in setting up and fixing their endless issues), researchers have been of one mind for years on the pedagogical penalties they impose: they detonate children’s powers of attention (Carr; Hari; Williams; Crawford); trap them in the self-defeating delusion of multi-tasking (Willingham); swamp them with unhealthy levels of dopamine, cortisol and adrenaline which impedes the development of delayed gratification (Payne); undermine the school’s precious task of building up domains of knowledge (Christodoulou); and act as on-ramps to smartphones and social media, which have contributed to the devastation of teenage mental health (Twenge and Haidt; Turkle).

They have caused, says Prof Earl Miller in Johann Hari’s recent book Stolen Focus, a “perfect storm of cognitive degradation”. And that’s just inside the classroom; at home, according to the American College of Paediatricians, screen use correlates to emotional distress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, obesity, increased aggression and low self-esteem.

If the case for screens is so flimsy, why aren’t schools limiting their use more? That technology should play some role in our schools is not disputed. Digital technology can source native language teachers from around the world online, extend other parts of the curriculum (one hard-to-find Economics teacher could serve multiple schools across the country for instance), and assess children in ways that analogue alternatives cannot.

The teaching of computer science and coding languages should be as central to a good education as the teaching of modern foreign languages and yet, since 2015, in a telling paradox, the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE level has decreased by 40 per cent. But the broader claims made for the profusion of screens in the classroom — that they help children collaborate, prepare them better for the 21st century etc — are bogus in the extreme.

Their presence at the heart of our schools therefore speaks to a loss of faith in the educational project more broadly. Unable to agree on a telos for schooling, uncomfortable with older purposes such as the induction of children into relationships with knowledge and virtue, we use screens as meretricious substitutes for a wider conversation about the purpose of schooling and the purpose of life.

In what now feels like the daily battleground for our attention, schools should be in the business of putting in front of our children things worthy of their attention: the great ideas; the slow beauty of the natural world; a three-dimensional multi-sensory pageant of books, maps, art, timelines and the sort of tactile experiences that, in the title of Matthew Crawford’s book on this theme, “pull us beyond our heads”.

Schools should, in the parlance of the day, be a “safe space” away from the ghoulish blue light — should help children build up their powers of attention and habits of mind so that, emerging into our digitally saturated world, they might have some hope of directing their attention wisely: surely a truly valuable 21st-century skill.

Screens were important in the pandemic, but we must not be blind to the way that massively powerful technology multinationals have used the crisis to render themselves indispensable in a strategic land grab (as documented by Ben Williamson). And screens took their toll too. The “Machine Age” that Paul Kingsnorth reckons we are now living in has winnowed our lives, accelerating what Mary Harrington calls the “war on relationships”.

The number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE level has decreased by 40 per cent

With children spending on average more than six hours per day online (not even including screen in school), now is the time for a hard reset. It is not too late. Not just that but, if we agree that our society has an unhealthy relationship with screens, schools are in fact the perfect vehicle for such a reverse. The rich associational life identified by Burke as the bedrock of civic life — of churches, clubs, and other communities — might once have acted as a check on digital atomisation. They are now gone; decades of neoliberalism have done them in. Only the school remains — the last moralising community.

Do we have to wait until we have the dirigisme of the French to enforce a state policy of restraint? If the government’s long-held plans to do so are anything to go by, we’ll be waiting a long time. Likewise, the liberal dream of making this a matter for individual families will continue to mean that only the very determined or the very wealthy (witness the tech titans with their own kids) will be able to resist, while those who need society’s guardrails the most will, as ever, be left to flounder.

Schools are exactly the right scale to support what families and teachers yearn for but cannot do on their own: peergroup-wide strict limits on the use of screens. The strong and conscientious leadership of schools like Michaela, Heritage, Acorn and Emmanuel show that it can be done. Now is the time for other schools to join them.

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