You can’t blame technology alone for young people lacking “focus” at school

You can’t blame technology alone for young people lacking “focus” at school

Yesterday, a new report Growing Up Digital in Australia was released, providing insights from some 2000 teachers and school leaders across the country on the collision of education with technology, and how this impacts young people’s behaviours at school. 

The aims of this research are important – that is, to understand “how digital technologies are being used, the benefits and distractions they pose to students and whether they are bridging the divide of equity, or widening it.” It is critical to engage in this conversation, especially when young people are still being educated in a curriculum designed over 70 years ago. 

However, already a dangerous narrative has been drawn out of the research, and one which highlights a timeless issue that research about young people poses – that is, young people need to be consulted and involved in the issues that impact them, and the research about them. 

Yet, in a piece highlighting the new report in The Conversation, titled “Students less focused, empathetic and active than before – technology may be to blame” the story being told is solely from the perspective of educators and parents. 

The report found that nine out of 10 teachers and principals in Australia have noticed an increase in emotion, social and behavioural challenges among students compared to five years ago. Three out of five educators believe there is a decline in “readiness to learn” and two-thirds have noticed more students arriving to school tired. 

This line of reasoning seems to rely on the assumption that technology is the blame for everything. There are many unanswered questions about the potential causes of young people’s alleged lack of concentration, empathy, and motivation for physical activity. It’s important to consider the many and varied sources of mental health challenges that young people face, including climate anxiety, concerns about the future of work, the unprecedented public health crisis, and the persistently low trust in politics. These are just some of the key issues highlighted by young people when they are asked what they care about, what worries them, and so on (see Mission Australia’s annual survey, Triple J’s annual census, and probably almost any other mass survey of young people’s opinions to see where a lot of their distractions and challenges come from).  

Statements such as young people are “less focused, empathetic and active than before” raise questions of their own. How exactly do teachers measure empathy in this context, and focused on what? Active on what? Who’s defining these things? Certainly not young people. 

Perhaps, this research is really about the individual views of teachers and school leaders, rather than a certain truth of the matter. If these are the views of teachers and principals then this suggests quite a lot about why 15% of young people don’t finish school and why a lot more are disinterested in learning. Maybe there are conflicting perspectives between teachers and young people on what things matter. And if so, the intense focus on preparing for either NAPLAN tests or ATAR results is causing students to be less focussed and empathetic towards teachers. The issue may instead be that teachers and school leaders are struggling to form empathetic relationships with their students, to understand the needs of their students on a personal, individual level. 

And in no way can the blame be put all on teachers themselves. But the education system itself is set up to curtail deep engagement and relationship building. The tick and flick approach to education in Australia, the one-size-fits-mostly-all (excluding those few FLO students) design of the curriculum and the way to learn obviously would create this chasm between students and teachers. 

Further, the report does not seem to explore how technology is delivered in the classroom and the potential impact this has on young people’s engagement in the material world. It’s easy to blame technology for disengagement, but the content of that technology may be the cause of the problem. Are young people being engaged in applied learning, where they create rather than consume digital tools? Does the current curriculum actually teach young people skills like focus and empathy, and how to embed activity into life in a way that works for the individual? 

The point is, that while it’s very important to engage teachers and school leaders and learn from their expertise, it is equally important to involve young people in the conversation. Instantly blaming technology for young people’s disengagement in the world around them is lazy, and sidesteps the real questions we should be focussed on: is our education system actually designed to effectively engage young people in the 21st century? Are young people’s ideas, concerns and values being reflected in their curriculum and learning spaces? Are there actually very valid reasons for young people’s supposed lack of focus, empathy, and activity? And how many adults lack focus, empathy and physical activity? Surely it’s possible that young people are learning from the world around them and the world around them equally struggles with these things. 

What we do know is the education system is broken. Australian schools are failing to deliver for young people, to prepare them for work, and to support them with the skills they need to navigate careers and transitions for the rest of their lives. For real engagement with young people, the system needs to be designed with them. This is echoed by the National Youth Commission Australia’s consultations with young people across the country: outdated curricula, inequality between schools, lack of consultation with young people, and broad assumptions about their reasons for being disengaged are the root issues. 

1 Comment

  • Lisa
    April 18, 2020

    A well thought response to the survey report. I found this article through the link posted in The Conversation.

    As a parent of students aged 12-21, I view digital technology as an incredible opportunity for kids to connect with a vast array of educational resources, far beyond the capacity of a parent or teacher to individually provide. My kids all had access to electronic devices and the Internet at a young age and I encouraged self directed learning through broad, deep and critical discussions on a diverse range of topics and then advised them to pursue further reading. They have also learnt & developed a broad range of skills from the Internet, including techniques for running, field athletics, swimming, martial arts, musical instruments, dance, speedcubing, chess, programming, cooking, sewing etc. The more they learn from the Internet, the more motivated they are to apply and hone their skills in real life so ironically they now spend less time on digital screens than most of their peers. They are fully engaged students with excellent academic results.

    Many parents I encounter use screen time as a reward/punishment system. I suspect this shapes many young kids to view electronic devices as a source of fun & entertainment, rather than as an essential learning tool. I have never restricted access for my kids and digital electronic devices have just become everyday items in our home, much like the television to my generation. Some people are ‘addicted’ to tv whilst others selectively watch documentaries and special televised events, so digital technology has the potential to enhance or distract – it’s the individual’s response which determines the effects of technology.

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