Recently, I have been working closely and regularly with Early Years level children in a non-classroom based setting. The age range of these children is three to seven. All of these children attend a private, fee-paying school in Edinburgh with excellent staff, beautiful grounds, and an abundance of fantastic resources at their disposal. The school is very well equipped, and offers a wide range of learning and teaching opportunities, from one-to-one music lessons and regular Outdoor Learning lessons taking place in a wide variety of the magnificent school grounds, to regular access to iPads and other wonderful new-age technology. Technology is a huge focus of 21st century teaching, and general life nowadays, so it’s great that they have access to these kinds of materials to help further their learning. As an outsider looking in, you’d see that the pupils of this school are getting a magnificent start in life with regards to teaching and learning, which they certainly are, but is there more to child development and overall learning than this? Is technology perhaps getting in the way of a genuine connection between children and the adults in their life?
If you were King or Queen of the world, what would you do? What would you change? This question was asked to the group of children I have been working with during a drama workshop several weeks ago. It was certainly a thought-provoking question for them – and some of the answers still give me a giggle thinking about them now! Five year old Leo* especially loved this question, and came up with a new answer roughly every 20 minutes (usually after he’d been asked to do something!). If you and I lived in this world under Leo’s rule, it would be imperative that your chocolate bar was eaten before anything else at lunchtime, that sandwiches were always cut diagonally instead of down the middle (this one could land you in jail if disobeyed!), and no one would ever, ever, have to wear shoes in the sandpit. Pretty reasonable requests if you ask me! However, more recently he said something that has stayed with me, and plays on my mind a lot when I’m thinking about my own professional practice:
“If I was King of the World, I’d ban phones.”
This statement took me by surprise a bit, as the majority of younger children I know are usually ecstatic when presented with the opportunity to play the latest smartphone game.
“Why would you ban phones, Leo?” I asked him. He looked at me, very seriously, and replied;
“Because whenever Mummy and Daddy bring out their phones, they don’t play. They always look at their phones, and say they’ll play in just a minute, but they never do. I hate phones.”
This short conversation with Leo really broke my heart. We, as adults, view the invention of smartphones and other technology as revolutionary and efficient – which it is, of course it is – however for this five year old child, his parents’ iPhones were just a brick that took away their attention and time. Now, this has stuck with me personally as I think that a lot of us in this increasingly modern world are guilty of being too ‘plugged-in’, myself included. Watching people walk down the street, how many are texting? How often do you mean to read a book, or start that piece of work, or paint a watercolour portrait of your neighbour’s dog, but get sidetracked scrolling through Facebook instead and before you know it two hours have passed, and your window of opportunity to be productive is gone? How often do you send a text, and find yourself getting frustrated when you haven’t received a response after 12 minutes? I know I am guilty of all of these things. How many things, then, do you think we miss on a day-to-day basis because we are glued to our screens?
You might be asking what on Earth any of this has to do with learning and teaching, and I promise I’m getting to that! Recently, I found out that the fine motor skills of children have declined drastically in the last 10-15 years, along with the level of vocabulary and communication skills seen amongst children of a primary school age. Why? Because children are placed in front of screen after screen in their earliest years and during their most crucial developmental stages. Studies have shown that there has been a massive decline in parents reading to their children, or singing nursery rhymes. These things are vital to a child’s early language capabilities and development. “If you don’t use it, you lose it” has never been more true, and it saddens me to think that early childhood conversation falls under that category.
So, with the ever-expanding development of technology, how can we, as teachers, work to ensure that while we are moving with the times and incorporating this technology into our teaching, that we aren’t losing other valuable skills, and that we are truly nurturing and connecting with our pupils? I believe that there should be time set every day within a classroom for the pupils and teacher to just talk. I would encourage parents and families to do the same in their own homes. I understand that every single person leads a busy life, but even half an hour set aside every day to simply talk to one another can greatly benefit a child’s development – along with their emotional wellbeing (and ours!). So I encourage you; sit down, communicate, connect.
Technology is a wonderful tool, and furthers education in so many rich and diverse ways, and also allows us to connect with people from all over the world. Never stop using technology to help you further your practice – or your life, but while you are connecting with people from the other side of the planet, don’t forget to also connect to those sitting right next to you.
On that note, I will leave you with one final thing to think about. A question I know you have been dying to be asked. If you were King or Queen of the World, what would you do? What would you change? Because the thing is, none of us can ‘rule the world’, but we can control our own lives, and work every day to improve them. I am going to start by switching my phone off for a couple of hours. What steps can you take right now to start achieving your goals?
*Leo is a false name.