Anna Davidson - Is technology constraining the skills children need to succeed?

Are the brains of our children being shaped by technology? If so, how? And does it matter? For ten consecutive years I have taught counted thread embroidery, principally cross stitch, to 3rd graders (year 4, UK). In that time more than 750 students have learned to stitch, follow a chart and create something beautiful. This year something changed. Perhaps it is significant, perhaps not.

There has occasionally been a student who really struggles to learn what was needed….maybe two students in ten years. This year eleven students amazed me by being completely unable to complete the task; the project had to be adjusted so that they could embroider a gift for their family. Is something happening?

After so many years of teaching students counted thread embroidery and being thrilled and excited by their acuity and enthusiasm, I was pulled up short by what unfolded as the weeks passed. Time to examine more closely what was being taught and how it was being learned.

To learn the skills required to embroider a small Christmas tree on a square of fabric the student needs sufficient dexterity to thread a needle with the help of a needle threader which they must learn how to use. They need to have an emerging sense of working in three dimensions, which means that when the needle passes through the fabric to the back to make one stitch it needs to re-enter the fabric from the back in order to make the next stitch. This year, instead of being a slight annoyance to the student at the beginning of their learning, their lack of three dimensional awareness was a big stumbling block to progress for many weeks. For example, having taken the thread though the fabric to the back many students brought the needle around to the front again, thus wrapping their thread around the outer edge of their fabric. (See picture at the bottom)

While they are managing stitch formation they have to follow a chart and place the stitches in the right place on their specially woven fabric. This year eleven students found this aspect of their task overwhelming. In order to help them I placed marks on their fabric to show where the stitches needed to be and adjusted the size of the project to one in which they could achieve success. The standard of finished projects reflected these difficulties.

In the 19th century all seven year olds could manage a needle and thread to mend and create household linens and clothing. It was a life skill. Dr. David Eagleman a Stanford Neuroscientist, avers that “The No. 1 thing (educators) need to know is that kids’ brains are physically different from the brains of kids a generation ago because of the way they’re taking in information— because of this fast-paced digital intake”. He teaches that educators need to adjust their teaching techniques to embrace this fact and teach students while recognising that their brains have been formed by a fast-paced digital world.

It is possible that my eleven struggling students are emerging evidence of brains without the neural connections to embrace hand skills and three dimensional visualisation. It is possible…but does it matter? There are eleven students struggling to stitch this year. Will there be twenty students next year for whom this activity is just too hard? I have read about students arriving in school without the finger muscles to manage a pencil in the first years of school; about surgery students struggling to use the tools and techniques of surgery due to poor dexterity. If it does matter, and I think it does, what is to be done if our students’ brains are neuroplasticity formed in their early years without the connections that a skills hungry society will need?

Stacey Walsh, elementary school teacher, observes, “Technology in the classroom has, in ways, been beneficial to students, especially in the increased speed with which students can access information ….the easy and speedy acquisition of information, is negatively affecting students. They struggle with patience, perseverance, grit and stick-to-itiveness when it comes to completing or even starting a task that may require time and thought.”

So if Dr Eagleman is correct and students’ brains are physically different to students’ brains a generation ago, then it is likely that in our classrooms we are educating students whose brains are not well acquainted with fine motor dexterity, and may lack the connections that will embrace a complex task requiring perseverance and grit.

It is my view that teaching crafts such as embroidery, knitting and carpentry will provide students with hands-on creative endeavours which are difficult, will require focus and patience and will allow their fingers to build brain connections that will serve them well into a creative adulthood. Yes, there is little doubt that our children’s brains are being shaped by the fast paced world in which they live. We, as their teachers, have the means to help them embrace all their latent talents both digital and manual.

By Anna Davidson, Teacher and embroiderer, from the United States.

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