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Screens and learning

At the start of the pandemic an EdTech colleague told me that lockdown had catapulted his industry into the future faster than could ever have been imagined. In many ways, technology has been a saviour for education, business and social connectivity over the past two years. We embraced Zoom, Teams, Google Meet to stay connected. But as the world opens again, we need to reflect whether something fundamental to human development may have gone missing on the way.

By mid-2020, the scientific journal Nature was already talking about how Zoom fatigue was making our brains go fuzzy as we interacted with screens all day – a mix of lethargy, brain fog and exhaustion from having to process visually and auditorily so intensely for hours on end. Our clinics, too, were starting to hear parental concerns of more emotional meltdowns when their children came off online school. But even beyond brain-fog and meltdowns, what is the cost of online education to holistic learning, particularly in early childhood?

In Singapore, research highlighting an increase in adiposity among children who were online more often – subtle but clear indications that children (and adults, too!) were not engaging their whole bodies in the way they used to, which was influencing fat distribution and absorption.

Children are not moving enough which is important for optimum physical and sensory development. This in turn impacts focus, attention and memory which are all improved by being embodied. When we engage our core muscles and our central nervous system, we activate deeper and better learning. Evidence from working with neuro-divergent children shows that embodied learning, or sensory body play, is the foundation of good cognitive learning. Simply, the brain is deeply connected to the body and if we sit all day we don’t learn so well.

Children also need to learn through multisensory touch, through ‘feeling’ the atmosphere of people moving and being in the room with them. They need to understand 3D form – and know what their friends look like from all angles, not just in front. If we only experience the world in 2D or simulated 3D, our visual-perceptual skills change, our sense of our bodies in space changes and this impacts our confidence navigating the real world, being in crowds, travelling on the metro, driving a car, playing sport. We need touch, we need smell, we need movement.

For children to move, to feel their bodies in space, to understand the elements and learn a love of the physical world is fundamental for learning, as well as being important for weight control, physical fitness and overall wellbeing.

Social and emotional developmental issues are impacted by too much screen time, too, as we do more up-close and focused work using less of our peripheral vision. We start to see and perceive differently if we are always online. The way we interpret light and form changes and we wire our limbic brain differently.

So much social communication is non-verbal. Recent research suggests that communication is over 80% embodied, so very little is the actual verbal content. That takes us back to the importance of movement and its link with social and emotional understanding and wellbeing.

This has interesting implications for EdTech. We sense intuitively the emotional energy coming off someone, through our own body awareness and sensing skills, as long as they are physically present. The way they move and their physical essence tells us so much, but that is often deadened when seen through a screen.

Interaction with teachers and their real-time responses is also important for emotional learning, and much of that is lost through the screen. Those of us educated before the digital revolution remember how if we liked the teacher we were more likely to enjoy the subject they taught. Relationships are key to learning.

We also know that if we feel seen and affirmed by the teacher our neurons fire better and we learn more. Work on attachment theory has shown the neuro-biological power of eye contact and individualised affirmation. Having taught online, I know as a teacher I have to work much harder to pick up on the cues that children give me. I only have the visual and auditory systems to tell me how they are doing, so I can’t sense how they are feeling in the same way as I could in a classroom. The unspoken physicality and 3D sensing of relationships off screen cannot be underestimated.

There is still a lot of research to do on the long-term impact of EdTech but let’s heed the lesson of the ages that we do know: children need positive relationships to learn, and they need learning to be multi-sensory – not just seeing and hearing but all the senses need to be activated to develop their brains fully. Most importantly, they need to have their social and emotional capacities developed: non-verbal skills, intuition, personalised self-belief, embodied communication and good sensory integration. Technology is fantastic, but let’s not lose our embodied, intuitive humanity in a rush to embrace it.

To understand more about the importance of sensory learning, check out our animation:

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