This year's must-see documentary is The Social Dilemma on Netflix, which highlights the downsides of social media in terms of adolescent mental health, political polarisation, and consumer manipulation. It's a terrifying behind-the-scenes expose, told through the eyes of those who helped to create the technology, and were initially so optimistic about its power to change the world for good.
How does a school which prides itself on being ahead of the curve on digital learning and preparing a cosmopolitan pupil body for the globally connected lives they will lead address that challenge? Kingham Hill was one of the first schools in the UK to appoint a digital literacy specialist; it was also right at the forefront of restricting the use of devices and giving our boys and girls a sense of proper balance in their lives.
KHS enjoys an idyllic 'bubble' in a scenic, rural Cotswold setting. When smartphones were banned during the School day some years ago, we noticed that almost immediately pupils were enjoying that setting more; breaktimes were noisier, with the sound of children running around the extensive grounds, chattering happily in social spaces, or simply tossing a Rugby ball to and fro on a pitch. Teenagers arrived for lessons with happy, animated faces, sometimes red with perspiration, but always enlivened by social interaction. Of course they complained about it; they were developmentally eager for that dopamine rush provided by social media, which the Netflix documentary explains so well. As the adults in the room, we were glad that the landscape wasn't littered with addicts' silos of individuals glued to their screens, and making no progress in all the social cues and skills that are so vital to professional success.
What is also vital to professional success is digital literacy: the ability to communicate effectively and manipulate information using IT software, as well as navigating the opportunities and challenges of life online with wisdom and character. That curricular programme, overseen by our lead specialist, is a key part of the daily timetable for pupils from 1st Form upwards (Year 7 or 6th Grade in other currencies). Each pupil has their own laptop or Chromebook, enabled by the IT department on a network that safeguards them from all the various cyber threats that might impede their education or personal development. Equally important in that education is the cultivation of virtues, through the School's 'Equipped to Flourish' programme. Surfing the net, exploiting smart technology, and creating digital content would have been science fiction to all but our immediate ancestors, and yet ancient character education is as relevant as ever it was. Discernment, judgement, balance and ethical behaviour are more, not less, vital, as the consequences for professional and personal trajectories are more immediate and transparent than ever they were. Technology should be a wonderful servant; it can be a terrible master.
Computer science is another area where we see that blend of ancient and modern in harmony, rather than in conflict. Coding is a form of language, and a very useful one too, of course! It sits quite naturally in a classical tradition which values word and number; language and order. It teaches the ability to think logically and critically, and provides lucrative vocational avenues for those who learn to do so. Interestingly enough, the helpful nature of restriction and balance is articulated in Michael Lewis' 2014 book Flash Boys, which describes the antics of Wall Street firms frantically seeking to outdo each other in trading connection speeds, given the vast profits at stake. In the book, Lewis asks himself the question of why it is and was that such a great proportion of top Wall Street IT programmers are Russian. Avoiding controversial political answers(!), his own thesis is that by and large, they learned their programming in the difficult Soviet era of the 1980s. They had the benefit of a rigorous mathematical education, but extremely limited time on public computers to test their coding, in contrast to the luxuries of Silicon Valley. Paradoxically perhaps, conceptualising using pen and paper forced them to be sharp, innovative, and precise.
Brain science shows that information is retained more effectively in long-term memory if pupils write rather than type. We think they need to be able to do both. Handwriting in exercise books may seem quaint as the primary method of learning, but the evidence suggests that pupils will operate more effectively online if they have a traditional grounding in grammar, mental maths, and the kind of linear thinking required in composing on paper. There is something of an analogy with science; you need to understand Newtonian physics before you can make the paradigm shift to Relativity Theory. We've lost count of the number of employers, reinforced by annual messages from the CBI, who have told us that they want job applicants who can write a decent letter of application, express themselves accurately and cogently on paper and in person, and demonstrate effective numeracy. An educational leader in the UK recently said that learning times tables was redundant, as pupils could look them up on their phones. We would regard that as a fundamental educational misconception; it's back to that metaphor of servant or master.
Simon Sinek is a contemporary commentator who advocates restriction and balance in the use of technology, particularly for adolescents. Because of its addictive nature, it can tie the brain into unhelpful coping strategies (in the same way that most alcoholics begin doing so at that stage of their lives). He contends that joy and connection are becoming more difficult for all of us, and that view is supported by neuroscientists like Professor Susan Greenfield. The Oxford academic's research, published in the 2015 bestseller Mind Change, shows how digital technologies have the power to physically rewire our brains, for good or bad. Most obviously, we are seeing attention spans shorten, as the nature of life online pushes us towards the immediate, and bombards us with competing demands for that attention. We want our pupils to know how to curl up and enjoy a good book, talk with a friend without notifications intruding, and enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life in our beautiful surroundings.
Our boys and girls will spend much of their lives online professionally, and interact with others on social media, but the social dilemma is that it is not there that they will learn to form true and lasting relationships, or develop the resilience to form real character and experience true joy in life. They need to learn to operate effectively as digital natives, but they also need to know how to remove the filter, and disconnect in order to truly connect.