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09 MAY 2006

Education within a context of fast-moving advances in science and technology

"Baroness Greenfield rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what account they are taking of the impact of fast–moving advances in science and technology on how young people think and learn in planning future education policy.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the 21st century is offering society an unprecedented raft of challenges. All at once science is now delivering a diverse range of information technology, nanotechnology and biotechnology, with a speed and convergence that we could never have predicted even a decade ago.

For example, one recent survey of eight to 18 year–olds claimed that children were now spending on average 6.5 hours a day using electronic media. Most recently, the trend to multi–tasking – that is, using one or more devices in parallel – amounted to an effective 8.5 hours a day. Could this screen and multimedia culture impact on thinking and learning? The journalist Kevin Kelly summed up the issue very well:

'Screen culture is a world of constant flux, of endless sound bites, quick cuts and half–baked ideas. It is a flow of gossip tidbits, news headlines and floating first impressions. Notions don't stand alone but are massively interlinked to everything else; truth is not delivered by authors and authorities but is assembled by the audience'.

When we of the 20th century read a book, most usually the author takes you by the hand and you travel from the beginning to the middle to the end in a continuous narrative series of interconnected steps. It may not be a journey with which you agree or that you enjoy, but none the less as you turn the pages one train of thought succeeds the last in a logical fashion.

We can then of course compare one narrative with another. In so doing we start to build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys, which in turn will influence our individualised framework. One might argue that this is the basis of education – education as we know it. It is the building up of a personalised conceptual framework, where we can relate incoming information to what we know already. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it significance. Traditional education has enabled us, if you like, to turn information into knowledge.

Now imagine that there is no robust conceptual framework. Imagine that you are sitting in front of a multimedia presentation where you are unable, because you have not had the experience of many different intellectual journeys, to evaluate what is flashing up on the screen. The most immediate reaction instead would be to place a premium on the most obvious feature, the immediate sensory content – we could call it the 'yuk' or 'wow' factor. You would be having an experience rather than learning. Here sounds and sights of a fast–paced, fast–moving, multimedia presentation would displace any time for reflection or any idiosyncratic or imaginative connections that we might make as we turn the pages and then stare at the wall to reflect."
(House of Lords debates, 20 April 2006, 3:18 pm : Column 1220)

Baroness Susan Greenfield. (2006). 'Education: Science and Technology', Lords Hansard, UK.

Fig.1 Michelangelo (circa 1511). 'The Creation of Adam'.

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