‘A Groundbreaking Study Shows Kids Learn Better On Paper, Not Screens. Now What?’ – Slashdot

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In an opinion piece for the Guardian, American journalist and author John R. MacArthur discusses the alarming decline in reading skills among American youth, highlighted by a Department of Education survey showing significant drops in text comprehension since 2019-2020, with the situation worsening since 2012. While remote learning during the pandemic and other factors like screen-based reading are blamed, a new study by Columbia University suggests that reading on paper is more effective for comprehension than reading on screens, a finding not yet widely adopted in digital-focused educational approaches. From the report: What if the principal culprit behind the fall of middle-school literacy is neither a virus, nor a union leader, nor “remote learning”? Until recently there has been no scientific answer to this urgent question, but a soon-to-be published, groundbreaking study from neuroscientists at Columbia University’s Teachers College has come down decisively on the matter: for “deeper reading” there is a clear advantage to reading a text on paper, rather than on a screen, where “shallow reading was observed.” […] [Dr Karen Froud] and her team are cautious in their conclusions and reluctant to make hard recommendations for classroom protocol and curriculum. Nevertheless, the researchers state: “We do think that these study outcomes warrant adding our voices … in suggesting that we should not yet throw away printed books, since we were able to observe in our participant sample an advantage for depth of processing when reading from print.”

I would go even further than Froud in delineating what’s at stake. For more than a decade, social scientists, including the Norwegian scholar Anne Mangen, have been reporting on the superiority of reading comprehension and retention on paper. As Froud’s team says in its article: “Reading both expository and complex texts from paper seems to be consistently associated with deeper comprehension and learning” across the full range of social scientific literature. But the work of Mangen and others hasn’t influenced local school boards, such as Houston’s, which keep throwing out printed books and closing libraries in favor of digital teaching programs and Google Chromebooks. Drunk on the magical realism and exaggerated promises of the “digital revolution,” school districts around the country are eagerly converting to computerized test-taking and screen-reading programs at the precise moment when rigorous scientific research is showing that the old-fashioned paper method is better for teaching children how to read.

Indeed, for the tech boosters, Covid really wasn’t all bad for public-school education: “As much as the pandemic was an awful time period,” says Todd Winch, the Levittown, Long Island, school superintendent, “one silver lining was it pushed us forward to quickly add tech supports.” Newsday enthusiastically reports: “Island schools are going all-in on high tech, with teachers saying they are using computer programs such as Google Classroom, I-Ready, and Canvas to deliver tests and assignments and to grade papers.” Terrific, especially for Google, which was slated to sell 600 Chromebooks to the Jericho school district, and which since 2020 has sold nearly $14bn worth of the cheap laptops to K-12 schools and universities.

If only Winch and his colleagues had attended the Teachers College symposium that presented the Froud study last September. The star panelist was the nation’s leading expert on reading and the brain, John Gabrieli, an MIT neuroscientist who is skeptical about the promises of big tech and its salesmen: “I am impressed how educational technology has had no effect on scale, on reading outcomes, on reading difficulties, on equity issues,” he told the New York audience. “How is it that none of it has lifted, on any scale, reading? … It’s like people just say, “Here is a product. If you can get it into a thousand classrooms, we’ll make a bunch of money.’ And that’s OK; that’s our system. We just have to evaluate which technology is helping people, and then promote that technology over the marketing of technology that has made no difference on behalf of students … It’s all been product and not purpose.” I’ll only take issue with the notion that it’s “OK” to rob kids of their full intellectual potential in the service of sales — before they even get started understanding what it means to think, let alone read.


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