Instant answers and academic reading: technology and sixth form study

Guest blog by Richard Morgan, Head of Sixth Form and classics teacher at The Perse School.

There is increasing concern regarding the amount of time students are spending on gadgets, the implications for study and thus the potential success for our sixth formers.

Every generation will grow up against a backdrop of change. The big difference in recent years is that the speed of that change has accelerated so rapidly. Gadgets now allow users to text, make phone calls, share updates, post pictures and videos, send instant messages and browse the Internet – all from a single device, and one that is generally never out of reach – making it increasingly difficult to escape from the demands of modern technology. A US study has shown that teenagers spend a staggering 31% of their time ‘consuming media’, that is, texting, surfing the internet, listening to music and watching television.

For the most part this brings huge benefits for learning, and we have embraced the possibilities. Homework and lesson content is made available via Schoology, a platform that is second nature to anyone that has ever used Facebook, and Youtube. Departments are tweeting and retweeting the latest news and views in subjects, prompting engagement with topical issues in their disciplines.

A study by the American think-tank Pew Research highlighted that 96% of teachers felt that these digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience”, 79% agreed that these technologies “encourage greater collaboration among students” and 75% felt the internet had a positive impact on students’ research skills, making them more self-sufficient researchers. This is our experience.

However, while we enjoy these considerable gains we risk losing a crucial aspect of scholarship: academic reading. In today’s world of texting, Tweeting and instant messaging, teenagers have become accustomed to the quick output and retrieval of information, which has inevitably filtered through to their attitudes to study. Teenagers’ unprecedented access to technology has left them with the need for ‘fast facts’ (76% of teachers surveyed believed this to be true) and an overreliance on technology to provide those facts. This has arguably conditioned them to find a quick answer through Google: a quick answer to an often more complex question. Solely knowing and reciting the bare facts will not guarantee success at Pre-U and A level, which require significant levels of application – taking the basic principle and applying it to an unfamiliar situation.

In class, students increasingly ask – ‘do we need this for the exam?’ They want the raw basics that they see as functional, but they miss the vital point that those basics need a context. For example, in a study of the Greco-Persian Wars, the set text the exam board have selected launches into the Battle of Marathon. For the purposes of the exam, only the section from that point forward would appear on a paper. However, if there is no understanding of the fact that the Persians launched a disastrous invasion two years earlier, how can the context of the battle possibly be understood?

Engaging with entirely new concepts or reading a section of text ahead of classroom discussion demands absolute focus, often for a significant period of time. If there is the scope to have it, then a tech-free zone – a version of the “Quiet Coach” – can create the right environment for academic reading.

Academic reading must never be a chore. We all must encourage students to find the joy in reading widely. It concerns me that in the statistical analysis of how teenagers spend time, reading a book does not even feature. Reading is a skill that demands concentration, imagination, interpretation and sometimes tenacity. The value of academic reading cannot be emphasised enough: universities are interested by students that are interesting. To become academically interesting, reading is crucial.

The most exciting and inspiring moments of sixth form teaching will often be sparked by an insight that is from a book or an article a student has been reading beyond the classroom. There are reading lists, there are suggestions, but above all there needs to be a will to read and a determination to read, and this is where a bit of peace and quiet, a sanctuary from the distractions of technology, becomes important, particularly at home where the majority of this reading will take place. Sometimes the instant answer is not the answer.


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