Screen Time and Sleep

These are two topics on which I’ve written quite often, mainly because these days they are right at the top of the agenda when it comes to causes of worry and anxiety for parents (and anyone working with children). The fear levels tend to rise in the weeks of ‘idle leisure’ of school vacations when children feel free to indulge themselves.

Screen time and usage is something really quite new, both for children and adults, and so people struggle with very differing opinions about what’s right, healthy and makes sense without causing harm. For many parents, seeing their child frittering hours of meaningless time on mindless ‘online’ activities, the suggestion that we should be using more ICT in the classroom and as part of the learning process is met with some alarm. The internet is seen (sometimes because of parents’ own experiences) as a place of loss of self-control, the ultimate procrastinator’s pit of damnation. Their fears for their children are very genuine – my child will become habituated, if not addicted, to messing around mindlessly, won’t do what’s necessary to learn and study and will, as a result, be left behind in the race to succeed in life.

Recognising these fears and concerns, many experts have sought to research and experiment to shift these debates from the realms of conjecture to something based on real evidence. From time to time, there are some very good appraisals of where that research has reached. This NPR article I came across recently is such an example;

NPR – Education – On Kids And Screens, A Middle Way Between Fear And Hype

The article takes a sensible and nuanced line, avoiding sensationalizing. Key messages include;

a) Yes, there are risk issues for children, and we should be talking about them. However, that discussion should be balanced by more talk of the benefits to be had.
b) Buying the hardware/ software then handing it over to children and disengaging increases the risks. Adults need to remain engaged with the child and the technology to be sure they really understand what’s happening.
c) With a little creativity, parents can use the internet as much as TV to bring families together, rather than atomising – use of shared screens, watching or absorbing things together and having debates and discussions sparked by the material.
d) Technology use in schools is a problem area – it’s tending to only really be used creatively in the classrooms of odd individual teachers with a ‘techy, nerdy’ leaning rather than being embedded effectively in learning processes. There was a lot of early hype and at times this was more about wowing everyone with something new, rather than being clear that real, genuine learning benefits were resulting. Now, it’s time to move beyond that through more solid changes that work through curriculum, teacher training and school infrastructure development

In short – we need to get less ‘hypey’ about the technology, work to understand what’s happening with it more rationally and make our messages for parents and children far more nuanced about what’s in their best interests.

The topic of sleep in relation to children is usually very strongly entwined with issues of parents’ abilities to establish firm, consistent and effective home routines and habits around sleep issues that become natural and positive for children. As a result, it can be a painful touch point for some parents when they find themselves confronted with the evidence that they’ve not been as good as they might (or as good as some others) at getting effective home routines in place for their children. At times, this debate gets mixed up with the one above related to screen time and usage.

Who, as a parent, wants to willingly confront issues of their own inadequacies or shortcomings? Plus, what really is the evidence on the issues of sleep?

Well, the most obvious evidence is the clear data that shows we’re all sleeping less (often a lot less) than our ancestors accompanied by some fairly weighty evidence that this is all having detrimental effects on our health – physically and mentally. Here’s a recent article that shares some pretty startling data linking later bedtimes in young children with much higher levels of obesity in the teen years;

Stgist – Study says kids who sleep early are less likely to become obese teens

It’s important to understand that an article like this is saying that there is correlation, not cause proven in this statistical data. This does mean that claims can be made about one (late sleeping) can be a pre-cursor or evidence for the other (teen obesity), but not that one is caused by the other. Nevertheless, it all adds to a growing body of evidence for the life disadvantages that come for a child when strong disciplined home routines in the early years are patchy or non-existent.

I believe this has to be seen in a similar perspective to the development or management of positive life habits in people of any age. When Western countries had the big drive against smoking, there was a lot of stigma attached to a person who failed to quit. The suggestion was that such people were weak, lacked willpower or self discipline to do what was necessary to change their bad habit in to something positive. This was made worse by implications that such people weren’t just letting down themselves, but society as a whole!

We now know that such sanctimonious approaches really didn’t help. vast numbers of people were genuinely trying to deal with the issues, but by being stigmatized they were left with the impression that trying and failing (to quit) was almost worse than not trying as it demonstrated very visible human weakness and frailty. What worked for many of these people was an acknowledgement that changing ingrained habits is hard, has its good and bad times, but that each failure is not terminal.

I believe we must see the same approaches to help parents with establishing sleep and bed routines with young children. All are different. Some will get good routines quickly and easily and retain them. others will struggle for a long time to get good routines, but once they have them will retain them. Then there are others who will swing through periods of good and bad habits. We need to do more to help this latter group with strategies, especially when so much of the evidence points to significant benefits and points out an ever growing set of risk factors associated with the bad habits.

In the meantime, one of the most important factors is to be properly informed and to be making decisions from a position of knowledge and understanding.

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Free Access to Knowledge

In April 2011 I had an incredible two weeks during which I travelled backwards and forwards across the USA meeting some of the big thinkers and change makers in the field of education. One of the most impressive, without a doubt, was Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy;

Disintermediating Educational Content
The Khan Academy

When I met Sal I came away with a sense that here was a man who had a sense that the work he was doing had the potential to fundamentally change some things in the world, so they would never be the same again. Also, when I asked him whether he had any specific plans towards India, he didn’t have a time frame, but was certain that it was exactly the sort of place where he saw his impact being greatest.

There is a lot about Khan’s work that reminded me of the writings of Dr Clayton Christensen, especially in his book “Disrupting Class” about how technology innovations were going to bring far more than just incremental or evolutionary change in the education field;

The Change Power of Online Education

So, if I was surprised at all to see news this week of a press conference involving Sal Khan and Ratan Tata, with announcement of an initiative to make vast amounts of free learning content available in Indian vernacular languages, it was more by the fact that it had taken this long! To my mind, there’s no question, this has way more implication than many will realise for some time.

Hindu Business Line – Coming Soon – Education for Anyone, Anywhere, on a Device

One simple question – when anyone can get free access to knowledge and lesson shaped blocks of learning for free, how do teachers add value and how does school serve the learning experience in ways that justify their fees?

ICT and Children – Extreme Measures

The ICT (Information and Communication Technology – a broader term than simply IT) juggernaut is steamrolling its way through education throughout the world with many schools and whole education systems taking drastic (and very expensive) action on instinct, feeling that they’ve got to be part of the wave, but really not sure of all the implications.

For every movement, you’ll be able to find a counter-movement somewhere. When it comes to ICT, surely this private school in London represents a pretty extreme set of reactions;

Quartz – Article – Banned Technology – In School and Home

I share concerns with many others about what happens to children when they are exposed to ICT so extensively at a very young age and have often written about those issues here on the blog. However, I’m not sure that banning addresses those issues, especially in a world where major companies have been making announcements over just the last month about how they intend to bring “free” internet to millions in the poorest countries of the world (more on that later).

I think the article raises a number of interesting issues:

a) To what extent does a private school (as a commercial provider of a service) have the right to impose strict rules on its ‘customers’ regarding behaviour in their home as well as on the school premises?
b) Would it, in all practical terms, work? Is it even possible?
c) Even if possible, will such a ban serve a worthwhile purpose?
d) What risks are there for a child growing up cut off from the reality of ubiquitous technology?

With regard to point a), I guess some will say that if the parents know what they’ve signed up for, want the education from that school enough and are prepared to make the commitments, then there’s not so much wrong with the school setting down certain expectations about what will go on at home as well as at school. Whilst i’m all in favour of schools that stand for their values and who work to set down some core principles, I believe the way to work with parents is as partners. It is important that educators don’t take the lazy route of giving what parents say they want for their children, but rather take the time to educate and advise parents on what they should want, and why. It’s important that we don’t make the mistake of treating parents like children!

Whilst they’re not necessarily on the same level, couldn’t this be compared to communities that deny children blood transfusions when they’re sick because it goes against their religious beliefs? Whilst as parents, guardians and educators we have a duty of care over children it really isn’t a right of control that goes beyond the needs of society. So, for example in more and more countries the law prevents a parent from using physical forms of punishment with their own child. Could an education approach like this be seen as risking the delivery of only one set of messages, beliefs and views about the world, denying children access to wider and alternative perspectives.

Can a child really get away from the media, TVs and computer screens? How far would you have to go to enforce this kind of policy? For example, restaurants, airports, malls and shops have screens and media. It’s in taxis and buses, on planes and on billboards in the street. Would such children be prevented from having friendships with children of any other schools? Surely, sleepovers and visits to such friends’ homes would be way too much of a temptation? Would we prevent the child from joining a sports team or club because they use video cameras to analyse players’ performances and then watch them back? What about the child’s wider family? No more trips to Grandma’s house because she has a TV?

How will parents live their lives if they’ve signed up to this kind of commitment on behalf of their children? No TV in the house? Never working on a laptop in the evening? Or, sneakily rushing the children off to bed as early as possible, so that they can secretly engage in elicit technology use behind their children’s backs?

Will it just simply lead to blatant dishonesty? Children, potentially lying to their parents and even whole families attempting to hide their infractions from the all seeing, prying eye of ‘Big Brother school? I’ve even seen in India that attempts to impose ‘screen time’ limits or to suggest that there are particular types of programmes a parent doesn’t want their child watching leads to creative underhand behaviour as the child relies on loyal friends to offer them the alternative routes to the alluring, out-of-bounds things they’re being denied. After all that, if directly challenged they have no choice – lie completely! Should parents and educators be creating such situations in which children will almost inevitably be lured in to dishonesty, thereby undermining trust and family bonds? When the evidence of such dishonesty emerges the emotional bank accounts take a real pasting.

There have now been many research articles and commentaries referring to the ‘digital divide’ or ‘digital deficit’ – the shortcomings in learning for children who don’t have access to the internet compared to those who do. Now, I’m the first to admit that this is the excuse for the kind of subterfuge that sees Google, Microsoft and Facebook making out to the world they’re heroes for bringing internet accessibility to poorer countries and communities (while I fear it will actually be a trojan horse for pumping enormous volumes of highly profitable advertising and ‘agenda based’ messages to young and impressionable minds).

nevertheless, are we really going to create situations where there are vast areas of employment opportunities not open to these young people when they grow up? With their lack of exposure to technology and media, will these children grow up to be merely quaint and outdated? Those of us who have become very familiar with all aspects of media, especially online know that there’s a vast array that is inaccurate or at best worthless. There’s the well written and the amateurish, the naive and the thought-provoking, the quality and the ‘chaff’. There’s also the creative, enlightening and sometimes downright dangerous. I believe that young learners today need to be acquiring critical skills about how to decide and discern between all these different messages – the 21st Century skills of Media Literacy. Can a student who is cut off from and denied access to such material learn to engage with it critically?

Then, when it comes to writing, students need to learn difficult but critical skills about how to absorb the ideas of others, build them in to new and original ideas without abusing the rights and ownership of the originator. Plagiarism and ‘passing off’ others’ ideas as one’s own is now a vast problem and challenge – good for the law courts, but ultimately bad for creative and original discourse in any field. This isn’t happening more because children today are less moral, lazy or dishonest. Rather, I believe, it’s happening because as vast amounts of writing become accessible, they struggle to find a path through what exists to reach their own original thoughts. Also, too often, educators are overtly or covertly discouraging original and independent thought causing students to feel it’s safer to simply replicate the thoughts and views of others. Effective use of source materials takes practice, and I’m not sure that children cut off from the online world will get the exposure they need to master those skills.

In the end, I’m left with three big concerns;

Firstly, are these well meaning educators who genuinely believe it is their duty to protect these young people from the perils and evils of mass media exposure? Or, is there a more sinister intention to propagate particular perspectives and world views amongst these children, free from balancing and countervailing voices, views and opinions?

And secondly, if we’re unhappy about the more negative aspects of what children get exposed to in the media, as educators don’t we have a duty towards all children to raise our voice to get the content cleaned up or segregated in ways that are beneficial for all children. Instead, this seems to me like taking a handful of children and enclosing them in an ivory tower.

Finally, there has long been a strong force in the rearing of children, parenting and education that starts from the premise that children cannot be trusted, that they are inherently listless, wilful and if left to make their own choices and decisions will always make the wrong ones. This manifests in the control structures in schools, sticks and carrot approaches to rewards and punishments in parenting advice etc. Here, these educators who might at first seem quite progressive and innovative in going against the tide are actually really being quite traditional and backward in their approach. The starting assumption is that no amount of teaching, guidance or advice about safe surfing, the perils and downsides of excessive screen use etc. will lead children to make good, healthy positive choices and decisions in their lives. Therefore, we (the adults) must impose draconian ‘all or nothing’ controlling regimes until we deem them old enough and fit to make decisions (i.e. they’re not children any more). I would like to have higher aspirations for children and a greater belief in their innate goodness. Yes, they’ll make mistakes, but when they do I believe we have to look at how we guided them and how we might do so better, rather than see it as justification for taking all decision making away from them.

Walk Away From That Screen, Kid!

The explosion of screens in our lives has been unprecedented in terms of the speed that things have happened. As a result, there are a lot of uncertainties about the implications, how much (or whether) screen use should be controlled.

This is an interesting summary of the current viewpoints in the USA, the first of two articles from New York Times, tied to a PBS broadcast on the subject;

NYTimes – Well – Blog – Screen Addiction Toll On Children

The first thing that struck me was that, for such a fast developing phenomenon, the data cited isn’t up to date enough. My guess is that if similar data was gathered today, it would reveal even more stark findings and extremes of what’s happening. In terms of the impact all this is having on children we really are in a very uncertain place – there just is no precedent for anything like it before.

For a number of years I was one of the (few?) parents who worked to keep a daily limit on screen time. The positives that came out of that were that my son read more, played outside more and, I believe, spent more time interacting with and reflecting upon the real world around him. The downsides were; his perceptions that he was wronged because he was the only one in his peer group subject to such rules, temptation to dishonesty and breaches of trust to find ways to circumvent the rules. Just as alcoholics will go to extraordinary lengths to get hold of drink, to conceal it and consume it, so the latent technology addict latches on to all sorts of spurious justifications. One of the simplest against a parent is the accusation that because they spend time with technology, so they have no right to limit the child’s. The fact that one is using it for work related email, research, report preparations, spreadsheets, writing etc. while the other uses it for mindless gaming and social chatter is apparently neither here nor there.

As my son got older it was inevitable that the trade off of asking him to take more responsibility in his own life would come with less sense in imposing such a rule. Once the restrictions were off, inevitably screen time went up a lot. Do I worry about its implications in his life? Yes, I do. Do I get concerned that with the combined ranks of those who wish to convince young people that life lived online is better than the real world his self-control, responsibility and commitments to make the best of his own life won’t be strong enough?

In Western countries when TV got bigger, regulations were there to control what could be seen when and what methods could be used to exploit or ‘suck in’ consumers. Likewise, the advertising industry was subjected to specific sets of rules about what it could do, what was acceptable, especially around children. The internet comes with none of these checks and balances.

More needs to be known, and quickly. There also needs to be advance thought given to future implications of newer developments like virtual reality – yet to become mainstream, but with enormous implications. Today, perhaps the hardest aspect to deal with is that as parents or educators we are not well-enough informed to know what is right or wrong, what is or isn’t dangerous. However, our ignorance is certainly not bliss and could be something we rue greatly in the future.

The students of our school have now been on summer vacation for around two and a half weeks. I hope, for their sake, that they’re not all buried deep in a screen right now. I would love nothing more than for them to cut their screen time in favour of some outdoor activity, reading, art or even just time to chat and play with siblings. What’s the saying – moderation in all things!

5 Changes for 5 Years

here’s an article from Fast Company that explores five ways that education is likely to change in the next 5 years.

Fast Company – 5 Big Ways Education Will Change By 2020

To me, the big takeaway (no real surprise), is that education isn’t yet fully changing in response to technological changes and advances – but isn’t going to be able to resist for ever. If the education delivered is to be relevant and effectively prepare young people for the world of today, then the impact and change from technology is going to be far greater than we’ve seen so far.

And the other one that struck a chord – student voice will be listened to! Well, plenty have talked about that for a long time. It would be great to see, but I’m still not holding my breath about that one!!

Connectivity as a Force for Change

Nicholas Negroponte is a man who has never seemed afraid of those who were inclined to ridicule him. I well remember the early days of his MIT-based One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and the massive waves of media and ‘pundit’ cynicism to what he was setting out to do. Even today there are plenty ready to remind him of the sheer size of the targets set for the project early on compared with what was actually achieved. However, to me, this looks like one of those classic cases of “shoot for the stars”. Whilst you don’t necessarily hit the massive goal, you certainly get a lot further out there than with incremental thinking.

Recently, Negroponte was akey note speaker at the ASCD Annual Conference in the US. Here’s a report of his presentation which makes interesting reading:

Nicholas Negroponte at ASCD National Conference

I enjoyed the story he tells about what happened when a set of laptops and a solar panel were dropped on the outskirts of an illiterate village in Ethiopia. Mind boggling and a reminder of the similar kinds of experience Sugata Mishra had in India with his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments.

Surely, nobody today can argue with Negroponte about the power of connectivity/ education and the potential for leveling the playing field for mankind through harnessing the access to knowledge that comes with IT and connectivity. When so much is possible it still leaves me marveling why at the other end of the scale carbon copy ‘straight from the box’ schools keep being erected and created on old paradigms and old thinking. Well, of course, the reality is – I know why that’s happening – it’s very profitable and so much less trouble than trying to do real, radical creative work in new education for new times.

The other part of the article on Negroponte’s talk that really got me thinking was the best explanation I’ve seen yet for why coding has a place in schools and should be part of the curriculum, even from quite a young age. That’s one i need to think about some more.

Technology Extending the Classroom

Google recently announced ‘Google Classroom’ that comes in to compete in the same area as programmes like Blackboard and Moodle.

Fast Company Video and Article

I see these as exciting developments as the competition will spur greater innovation and creativity. Also, I hope that the net effect will be to encourage far more teachers to be prepared to put their toes in the water. Having been involved with projects based on use of Moodle in the past, I’m convinced that such virtual learning environments offer considerable opportunities for empowering learners, freeing up teacher time for personalised facilitation and generally making more effective use of time in school.

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