Saturday, November 15, 2008

Young British minds

In important ways, the country’s children appear to be becoming dumber.

Michael Shayer of King’s College London has been testing children’s thinking skills since 1976, when he and colleagues started studying the development of reasoning abilities in young people.

In 2006 and 2007 he got 14-year-olds to take some of the same tests as 30 years earlier.

The findings, to be published early next year, are sobering.

More than a fifth of youngsters got high scores then, suggesting they were developing the ability to formulate and test hypotheses.

Now only a tenth do.

The tests did not change, so the decline was not caused by different content or marking.

And since they explored the ability to think deeply rather than to regurgitate information or whizz through tasks, the results matter deeply.

In the purest test of reasoning, pupils were shown a pendulum and asked how to find out what affects the rate at which it swings.

“Their answers indicated whether they had progressed from the descriptive thinking that gets us through most of our days, to the interpretative thinking needed to analyse complex information and formulate and test hypotheses,” Professor Shayer explains.

In 1976 more boys than girls did well, a fact the researchers put down to boys roaming further out of doors and playing more with tools and mechanical toys.

Both sexes now do worse than before, but boys’ scores have fallen more, suggesting that a decline in outdoor and hands-on play has slowed cognitive development in both sexes.

Britain’s unusually early start to formal education may make things worse, as infants are diverted from useful activities such as making sand-castles and playing with water into unhelpful ones, such as holding a pen and forming letters.

This interpretation is supported by another, more positive, finding from the research: that fewer children do very badly now than did 30 years ago.

When asked to speculate further on why fewer British teenagers now display mature reasoning,

Professor Shayer eschews local explanations and puts the blame squarely on television and computers.

They take children away from the physical experiences on which later inferential skills are based, he thinks, and teach them to value speed over depth, and passive entertainment over active.

That chimes with other researchers’ findings of cognitive gains on tasks that require speed rather than close reasoning—useful, perhaps, as the pace of life accelerates, but hardly a substitute for original thought.

So what of children elsewhere?

Britain’s are not the only ones kept inside for fear of traffic or paedophiles, or slumped in front of a screen for much of the day.

“There is no similar evidence from elsewhere,” says Professor Shayer. “No one has looked for it.”

Perhaps they should.

The Economist.

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