The Education Partners

The True Digital Leap to the School of Tomorrow

Technology in the classroom has so far had little positive effect on childhood learning.

That’s the stunning finding of the OECDs September 2015 report “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection.” The report found that despite billions of dollars of frantic government spending, where ICTs [information and communications technologies] are used, their impact on student performance has been “mixed, at best,” in the words of the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher. “In most countries, the current use of technology is already past the point of optimal use in schools,” said Schleicher. “We’re at a point where computers are actually hurting learning.”

This supports a growing body of other research indicating that, with some exceptions like distance and special needs learning, there is little evidence that digital tools are inherently superior to analog tools in the hands of qualified teachers in teaching children the fundamentals of learning, especially in the early years.

For policy-makers, educators and parents, the implications of this research are enormous, and critical. The OECD report suggested that teachers need to be better trained in ICT. But it also found that children may learn best with analog tools first before later adding digital platforms, and that a few hours a week of classroom screen time may be optimal for children, beyond which learning benefits drop off to diminishing, or even negative, returns.

This argues not for the 100% screen-based classroom proposed by some enthusiasts, but for a far more strategic and cost-and-learning-effective model. In this vision of the “school of tomorrow,” teachers will use the analog and digital methods of their choice, including a few hours of student screen time per week – with a significant portion of school time being a “digital oasis,” where students learn through proven analog methods like paper, pencil, manipulatives and physical objects, crayons and paint, physical books, play, physical activity, nature, and face-to-face and over-the-shoulder interactions – not with digital simulations, but with the ultimate “personalized learning platform” – highly-qualified, flesh-and-blood teachers.

This kind of approach is already blossoming in many classrooms around the world, as teachers and students harness and control the power of technology, properly applied and integrated.

Right now, for example, at the University of Eastern Finland's Normaalikoulu teacher training school, instruction is delivered through a careful mix of analog and digital tools.

In the school's science lab, the fourth grade class is deeply immersed in building physical prototypes of LEGO MINDSTORMS robots. Small teams of twelve-year-olds gather around instruction charts on desktop screens, then get on the floor on their hands and knees to collaborate in the complex task of assembling wheeled micro-robots that can talk, move and play music. Their teacher Jussi Hietava explains that the children are learning not only critical STEM skills, they are building "soft skills" of teamwork, leadership, negotiation, trial-and-error and collaboration. Children are encouraged to giggle, wiggle and squirm from time to time, since that's what children are biologically engineered to do, in Finland and everywhere else. "They are having fun while they learn," says the teacher. "Why not? They are children!" As a popular Finnish educational saying insists, "The work of a child is to play." 

At the end of the session, the children are turned loose in the freezing ice and snow of the schoolyard for their mandatory hourly 15 minutes of outdoor free play, a physical activity break that all Finnish children enjoy every single hour of every school day (on top of gym class), that Finnish educators believe boosts children's learning, concentration, executive function and behavior, as well as their mental and physical well-being. After the outdoor free-play break, the children race back into the school building in a state of joy, refreshed and ready for their next activity.

In another class, the same fourth-graders spend two hours in the school's well-equipped carpentry shop, hammers and saws in hand, building elaborate creations of wood, ceramics and metal. According to Hietava, the students are learning creativity, persistence, self-assessment (they keep written journals of their creations), collaboration, and embracing learning through making mistakes and experimentation. There isn't a single student electronic screen in sight.  

In both classes, the students appear totally immersed in a state of "flow", or creative and productive absorption.              

And in the global headquarters city of LEGO itself, inside the three-year-old International School of Billund in western Denmark, the concept of learning through play is being taken to the ultimate extreme. The LEGO Foundation-supported school offers children aged 3 to 16 an International Baccalaureate program through a curriculum based on creative play, delivered through a rich variety of analog and digital tools, including, naturally, LEGO education kits and programs.

"We want pupils to use their hands," said the ISB's head of school Camilla Uhre Fog to a journalist from the Times Educational Supplement. "We're very hands-on. When hands are involved in learning, children really remember. If you're in the middle of the creative process there is nothing worse than clearing up - if you cease the flow then you lose the dream, you lose everything."

Just outside the school, which boasts the latest in classroom technology, is a small forest and a country stream, both of which are considered part of the school environment, and essential "learning platforms" to keep the children rooted in the real world of mud, grass, trees, butterflies and nature. A visit to this remarkable "school of tomorrow" suggests that the "Holy Grail" for childhood education is not technology or "digitalization", but play -- defined as everything that engages a child's curiosity, creativity, experimentation, engagement and intellectual and physical expression -- of which electronic screens are only a piece, and possibly a much smaller piece than many of us now assume.

Digital tools are quite obviously here to stay, and offer great potential to enhance the childhood learning experience. But screen-based learning products should be rigorously tested and validated by independent research, and classroom teachers, before precious resources are spent on them. Technology should be a servant of the classroom, not the master.

The successful “digital leap” in childhood education is not toward 100% screen-based learning or the indiscriminate proliferation of screens in the hands of children. 

It is toward the careful, measured, evidence-based use of digital tools in the classroom as an effective complement to proven analog tools, without wasting time and money on products with little demonstrated value to authentic learning.

William Doyle is a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar from the United States and a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on media and education at the University of Eastern Finland, where he is researching the schools of tomorrow. He has also been a New York Times bestselling author and award-winning TV producer and executive for firms including HBO, A&E and PBS.

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