Technology vs. tradition: creating the perfect learning environment

How can we strike the right balance between the technological and the traditional when it comes to learning environments so that everyone can be confident about the skills learned by young people and the benefits of the learning environment? Josephine Lister, editor of HundrED, a non-profit initiative, discusses the thinking of leading UK experts

We have a habit of pitting things against each other, trying to neatly divide life into boxes when, realistically, this is neither possible nor desirable. Take the debate of nature vs technology in learning environments; it’s a combination of approaches that exposes children to the most learning experiences. When considering tradition and technology in education we shouldn’t think of them as separate, but rather consider how can we combine them effectively, making best use of the resources at hand.

Digitally re-programmed brains

Technology’s a potentially difficult issue in education as it’s fundamentally changing the way our brains work. Pasi Sahlberg, professor at Harvard University, discusses this phenomenon stating that, “Research suggests that the use of the internet, and especially reading hyperlinks, changes the brain. The brain adapts to processing this kind of information and to a rapidly changing action – looking at one thing for 10 seconds and then shifting attention to another. Because of this change in the brain, traditional reading may, ultimately, become challenging.”

In addition, the investment in technology can also be problematic, depending on the budget and infrastructure of the school. However, these factors shouldn’t mean we exclude technology in schools as this is also potentially harmful to young people’s future prospects. There are skills shortages in STEM industries because, for generations, education has not kept up with the changing demands of the workforce.

A brave new world

New technologies can seem intimidating to teach but, when they’re in place, it becomes evident that these ‘new skills’ actually rely on skills we have always wanted to inspire in young people. For example, one Finnish project trialling 3D printing in schools updates school practices whilst reaffirming the need for children to build their creative, research and critical thinking skills – attributes which have always been important.

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Some education experts are still wary of introducing technology too soon, as Janni Nicol, advisor for the Steiner Waldorf education, argues. “Children have lots of time to work with technology at a later stage and to use it creatively. If they use it too young, it takes them over; they’re absorbed by it rather than able to use it.”

Janni has a point. The majority of British children spend less time outside than prison inmates according to Free the Kids! Therefore, it’s important to make sure that children are encouraged to spend as much time outside as possible.

Don’t power-off just yet

However, this doesn’t mean scrapping technology; the two can intertwine seamlessly as researcher Bryan Alexander explains, “A casual glance in a makerspace shows people working energetically with analogue physical tools – with yarn, with plastic, with wood. But you also see them casually relying on laptops, smartphones, YouTube videos for instruction, and they film themselves and share it with everybody else. So, these really intertwine. Especially for younger generations the separation is less and less important.” We can see this mingling of the physical and the digital in interactive games such as Pokémon Go, which can provide an excellent example for educators.

Technology and nature have always been in contention; one looks to the future while the other provokes a reminiscent idealism of the past – not to mention the financial implications of technology which can be a huge hurdle for schools who have seen their budgets cut. This is why it’s so important to look to the examples that are working. No school has the cash or the desire to gamble with a child’s future but, by doing nothing, children may fall behind. So, let’s look to the schools which are pioneering this change and help to spread those inspiring ideas.

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