Too often, tech gadgets disrupt rather than aid learning

Kelly Yang says for all the benefits that technology provides, being too connected can, and often does, distract students from learning

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 9:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2014, 4:07am

The average 12-year-old today is fundamentally different from the average 12-year-old of 10 years ago, when I first started teaching. It's not just that they watch different movies or read different books. They multitask better on tech gadgets and, according to researchers, all that clicking, swiping and scrolling is taking its toll on the way children process information, read, write and learn.

From the huge glass panel that divides my office from our classrooms, I often sit and watch students. And I count. I count how many times the kids check their e-mail, their Facebook account, reply to a text, click on a link to a YouTube video, laugh at a clever joke on Twitter, or scroll through cute photos on Instagram - all while trying to work.

What I saw at first was this: kids would write two sentences, then switch to YouTube. Five minutes later, they'd write two more sentences, then go to Tumblr. On average, kids switched apps at least 20 times before they'd finished an essay - if you could call the few sentences strung together randomly an essay.

That's when I stopped counting and turned off the Wi-fi. Essentially, I turned laptops into typewriters.

My students looked at me like I had two heads. How are we supposed to e-mail our work to ourselves, they asked. I gave them a thumb drive. They said they needed to do research and add that into their writing. That's true, but was it worth having all those e-interruptions as well? The answer is no.

I understand the importance of research. But a larger danger looms: children are increasingly unable to do things without interruption. This gets worse the moment they have their own computers and phones. The way they write, read, and do homework fundamentally changes when they are bombarded with distractions.

Recent studies by Professor Maryanne Wolf at Tufts University confirm that all the time spent on the internet is doing strange things to our brain. The "non-linear" style of "reading" that is the internet - all that linking, scrolling, skimming and jumping through text - is starting to invade the physical world. Scientists warn that we're losing the ability to sit down and read a book, cover to cover.

This is alarming. Books are not meant to be summarised by SparkNotes or watched as a movie. The fact so many are is a tragedy. Similarly, essays are not meant to be written in-between YouTube videos. No good writer I know learned the art while texting.

And so, every day at work, I try hard to take away people's electronics. Like an airport security guard, I ask everyone to stow their laptops and mobile phones. Then I hand out pieces of lined paper, to give my kids a chance to read and write the way I learned to do so - without interruption.

Some say this approach is a waste of time; that technology will inevitably take over; that we should embrace it, and teach kids how to do more with technology, not less. Who knows, maybe they're right. Maybe one day, I will be replaced by a computer. But, until that day comes, I will continue my life's work, circling my students while they write, eyes and ears scanning for the next "ding".

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.