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This is a continuation of yesterday’s rant on a poorly conceived video by Channel News Asia (CNA), “Can e-learning make you dumb?”.

The presenter (and his writers, if he had any) equated educational apps with e-learning. Any apps might be used for e-learning, but they do not represent e-learning. Furthermore, labelling an app “educational” does not make it so. It is about HOW any app is used that makes it useful for schooling, education, or learning. This principle seemed to be lost on the makers of the video.

Today I critique the video in the order in which its ideas were presented.
 

 
The video started with the now iconic dragon playground as a representation of how kids used to play in the past. Its message was clear — nostalgic thinking was better even if it did not consider changing contexts and fallible memories.
 
Nostalgia quote.
 
The presenter then interviewed three sets of researchers and clinicians.

The first was a researcher from the National Institute of Education, Singapore. There was nothing new from this segment if you keep up with educator blogs or current papers on screen time.

The strategy was the same — highlight unwarranted fears and conveniently leave out the importance of supervised and strategic use of apps by children.

The most alarming segment of the video started with this question from the presenter:

These apps are just bad at teaching our children. What if they could also be messing our children’s brains in the long run?

The presenter started with a tiny sample of non-identical twins (n=2) to test executive function after one twin played with app and other sat and drew. He then showed how the app-using child seemed to have problems following instructions compared to his non-app kin.

The presenter claimed that his illustration was a “ripoff” of an actual study. So was the original study just as poorly designed and implemented? Any critical thinker or researcher worth their salt would ask questions like:

  • Were there no confounding variables that could have affected the results?
  • How can anyone control for all contributing factors?
  • Were the treatments switched after a sufficiently long rest period?

The only statement from the presenter that I agree with was his admission that “this is far from a scientific experiment”. His pantomime attempt to put the app-using child in bad light was neither valid nor reliable.
 
Texting Congress 1 by afagen, on Flickr
Texting Congress 1” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by afagen
 
The presenter then interviewed two clinicians. “Interview” might be too generous; it was more like selectively confirming bias.

The first item on the interview list was the fabled harmful screen time. In doing so, they conveniently lumped all devices with screens to harmful screen time and ignored more nuanced definitions and revised guidelines from authorities like the American Pediatric Association (see this curated list of resources).

For example, one of the two clinicians pointed out the harm of passive screen time from watching too much TV. However, this did not discount active screen time.

If you do not know what active screen time looks like, I share a snapshot of future instructors I teach and mentor. This group was using apps with their learners.
 
Active screen time.
 
The other clinician said active use involved two-way communication or interaction with the environment. However, the video producers opted not to balance their bias with examples of such active screen time. They seemed to focus on children only as passive consumers and not active producers of content.
 

 
Not content to fearmonger about short-term effects of using apps, the interviewer also asked how the apps affect the career prospects of children. Read that again: Career prospects of children. This tangent then led to children leading lives of crime. I kid you not.

Reasonably logical and critical people do not need research or “research” to realise that the interviewer was over reaching here.

As if to appease the interviewer’s agenda, one researcher gave an example of a distracted child in a classroom. Really? This could be any child, app user or not, or to a child with ADHD.

There is no research that says that children sitting still are ultimately successful. Nor should there be. Not only are such studies unethical, they are illogical. No one can claim that a single factor (like app use) determines a child’s career prospects.

That same researcher suggested that a distracted child could suffer from bad grades, have poor health, and end up committing crimes. How can anyone draw a single, clear, and unbroken line that links a child’s app use to an adult’s job prospects or likelihood to commit crimes?

If the researcher was prone to exaggeration, then the interviewer was prone to oversimplification. He declared on camera:

I didn’t realise that just more screen time can develop to more crimes in society.

The real crime was that Channel News Asia pushed such drivel on screen.
 

 
The final expert interviewed by the presenter did what most people do with the delayed gratification study — misinterpret it.  The emphasis of the study was not IF a child delayed gratification, but HOW they did so.

The expert used the misinterpretation to highlight how apps provide instant gratification. Both the expert and the video producers conveniently ignored that both rewards and app use can be about the decision-making processes and the choices a child makes.

The CNA video was an attempt to pander to base fears instead of challenging viewers to look beyond the obvious. The question (“Can e-learning make you dumb?”) was designed as click bait and was a misdirect.

The answers were like a poorly written General Paper by a scatter-brained junior college (JC) student. That JC student was not a distracted app user. She was not supervised by her parents nor guided by teachers. She was not taught to question critically or research thoroughly.

An app alone cannot teach; an adult needs to be involved to monitor, moderate, and mediate. An app alone cannot make you dumb. Uninformed use, uncritical processing of the CNA video, or misguided beliefs in misinformation make you or your children dumb.

Apps do not make you dumb or keep you ignorant. Only dumb people who choose to be wilfully ignorant do.

 
I discovered this piece on Channel News Asia, “Can e-learning make you dumb?” (Note: To view the video, you must reduce your browser security by unblocking all insecure elements. If you see the video on loading the page, your need to lock your browser down!)

I take exception to this question, so I will make an exception. I am going to react to it at face value first.

I could cite the maxim that is the Betteridge law of headlines (see link here or the excerpt below). The answer to the question “Can e-learning make you dumb?” is no.

Betteridge law of headlines

To be fair, the law also applies if the question was phrased “Can e-learning make you smart?” The answer is also no. The questions are oversimplifications; e-learning alone does not make you dumb or smart.

That aside, the video focused on gaming apps that vendors and providers classify as “educational”. This is not the same thing as e-learning. So the question was an intentional misdirection and this raises another question: How might click bait get you views?

I was dumbfounded by the original question. No, I was not speechless. I found a new level of dumb instead. The question reeked of confirmation bias, luddite thinking, and wilful ignorance.

How do I know this? The blurb for the video was that the apps were “highly addictive and they can mess with the brain”.

To provide some balance, consider how skilled educators and informed parents might turn the negative “addictive” to the positive “addicted to learning”. And “mess with your brain” is fear mongering for what is a fundamental cognitive process called dissonance; it is integral to learning.

The headline, blurb, and accompanying video were an effort to spout the tired and uninformed rhetoric instead of actually making a difference. If there is anything dumb, it is the messages it tries to propagate. I outline and critique those signals tomorrow.

Today I link a YouTube video and a call by one of our Deputy Prime Ministers (DPM), Tharman Shanmugaratnam: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ will not cut it for Singapore’s education.


Video source

We were all taught that we have five senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. These senses are obvious and seem irrefutable, but they are oversimplifications.

We actually have a myriad of basic senses. Two of the less obvious ones include proprioreception (sense of space) and equilibrioreception (sense of balance).

It is easier to just teach everyone that we have only five senses. We are taught these in kindergarten or in primary school. However, most adults probably do not realise they have more than five senses even if they have a basic degree.

We do not seem worse for not knowing. This is an indicator of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. It is being satisfied with or indifferent to the status quo because we choose not to be receptive or reflective.

The only-five-senses-as-fact is broken. We had more studies discover and verify more senses, but somehow we choose not to update what we know and teach.

Arguing that teaching these extras makes things more complicated does not make sense. Teaching these “new” facts leverages on the wonders of the human body and illustrates the importance of the scientific method.
 

 
We need to be critical and humble enough to spot the cracks in WHAT we teach and HOW we teach it. We need to consciously keep breaking old mindsets and expectations like test is best.

CNA quoted DPM Tharman:

“The biggest mistake we would make is think that because we are doing well in the PISA test, or we get a good rating by the Economist Intelligence Unit or anyone else, that therefore we keep things as they are,” Mr Tharman said.

“The biggest mistake is to think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Because in education, more than in any other field, we will only know how well we are doing 20 or 30 years from now.

“If it ain’t broken, experiment. That’s the way we will secure our future.”

DPM Tharman was our Minister for Education from 2003 to 2008. Even though he has a new portfolio now, I am glad that he singled out changes in education as a pillar for holding Singapore up.

The PISA scores remind us that Singapore is doing well on testing stage. The type of schooling and education that helps us do this is like relying only on our five basic senses. We have so much more to discover and develop.

The CNA article and DPM’s speech highlighted more sets we need to challenge ourselves with. These included:

  • Avoiding the “lottery of birth” and ensuring social mobility
  • Reducing emphasis on academic-only measures and providing time and space for creative efforts
  • Not trapping ourselves with false multiculturalism

Like our “extra” senses, these education experiments will make us more complete.

Did you read last week’s Channel News Asia report on how Singapore schools plan to devote 20% of curriculum to use ICT to support learning?

I did and so did Swee Kin, a former colleague of mine, who now lives and works in Dunedin, New Zealand. He twittered his reaction:

30% in 1997, 20% in 2010 – Schools plan to devote 20% of curriculum to use ICT to support learning: http://bit.ly/ambUWf

His tongue-in-cheek remark was in reference to how we as teachers back then had to reduce syllabi by 30% in order to accommodate relevant forms of technology. In a follow up reply to me, he wondered if this accommodation might drop to 10% in 2017. Hah, who knows? It might!

What I’d like to see drop to 0% was the example that CNA chose to use as technology: “interactive” white boards [see screenshot, click to see larger version].

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. IWBs are expensive and they do not change pedagogy for the better. Even though they could serve as bridges to other more powerful and meaningful technologies, they leave teachers largely in their comfort zone. So they stay put. Embellishing tired, old pedagogies with IWBs does not make them new or effective.

Yes, some teachers might call students to walk to the front and manipulate something on the board, but how is that different from what was done with a chalkboard or whiteboard? How is it more interactive, engaging or meaningful? Why don’t learners have access to resources all the time with ICTs like Internet-connected netbooks or iPod Touches instead?

IWBs are a form of IT (information technology), not necessarily ICT (information and communication technology). Just because a teacher is using it at the front of the classroom does not mean the students are getting the message. That “C” is all important because it enables us to chat, critique and collaborate with learners, teachers and experts inside and outside the classroom. When married with progressive pedagogies, ICT can develop creative and critical discourse.

I also take issue with the role of ICT to “support” learning. ICT should also be used to also enable learning instead of being relegated to merely enhancing it. We use ICT at work everyday to enable work, so why not in school?

You might have read this Channel News Asia (CNA) article about MOE’s latest buzz phrase. I’ve highlighted two parts of the article but I actually have three things to say about it.

2009-08-26-moe_vision

First, teachers now have a vision statement: “Singapore Teachers: Lead. Care. Inspire”. A former colleague of mine that I follow on Facebook said:

slightly bemused at MOE’s new vision statement: ‘lead. care. inspire’. Indeed, but who’s going to do the actual teaching? (not to mention marking!)

It’s tongue-in-cheek, but typical of what an experienced teacher might say. In reality, the vision might play out as teach, mark, cry (teacher), scold, cry (student), teach…

Second, most teachers would recognise the picture that CNA used. Sadly it still represents the typical classroom. So tell me: How do teachers lead, care and inspire with PowerPoint? Oh wait, maybe they will upgrade and use “Smart” boards or “Interactive” White Boards! (Long time readers will know that I am being sarcastic.)

At this point, I highlight an article that a former trainee of mine, Laremy, brought to my attention about a teacher education programme in the UK, Teach First, that emphasizes that teaching is difficult. They do this in an attempt to recruit and retain the best talent. Here’s a snippet from the article:

Unlike government recruitment drives, which tend to present teaching as appealing, even easy, Teach First describes the job as tough and demanding because the right people are those who are attracted by the most daunting tasks.

This is in direct contrast to our MOE-sanctioned ads that show teaching or teachers as inspiring , hip or surrounded by a permanent mist that magically makes everything better. I also recall that MOE used to have a recruitment ad that said: Teach, if you care. My response then (and still) is they should have gone with Teach, if you dare.

So back to the CNA article which reports that MOE has signed 3,040 teachers. Our NIE records indicate that we have 2,233 as of 18 Aug 09. The remaining 807 are either in cold storage or they will join us next year. If they dare!

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