Just Another Guy with Opinions

Are Kids Becoming Dumber?

Posted by shadmia on November 3, 2008

A study conducted by a research team suggests that today’s 14-year-olds are no smarter than the 12-year-olds of 1976. The team of researchers led by Michael Shayer, professor of applied psychology, at London’s King’s College, tested 800 13 and 14-year-olds and compared the results with a similar exercise in  1976. Prof. Shayer says the results are “almost certainly due to the rise of TV and computer games and over-testing in schools.”

The tests were intended to measure understanding of abstract scientific concepts such as volume, density, quantity and weight, which set pupils up for success not only in maths and science but also in English and history.

In one test the kids were asked to study a pendulum swinging on a string. The were asked to determine why the speed of the pendulum was changing. Even though the average achievement was about the same as in 1976 the proportion of teenagers reaching top grades, demanding a ‘higher level of thinking’, fell dramatically…… only 1 in 10 achieved that level compared to 1 in 4 back in 1976. Other tests revealed similar results.

Professor Shayer believes most of the downturn has occurred over the last 10 to 15 years and can be traced to two main developments: National curriculum testing in schools and the electronic media (TV and video games).

National Testing

Professor Shayer blames national testing and targets that tend to make teachers prepare students to take and pass tests, at the expense of developing more advance skills.

‘The moment you introduce targets, people will find the most economical strategies to achieve them,’ said Professor Shayer. ‘In the case of education, I’m sure this has had an effect on driving schools away from developing higher levels of understanding.’

An Ofsted report said millions of teenagers were finishing compulsory education with a weak grasp of maths because half of the country’s schools fail to teach the subject as well as they could. Inspectors said teachers were increasingly drilling pupils to pass exams instead of encouraging them to understand crucial concepts. The report said:

‘It is of vital importance to shift from a narrow emphasis towards a focus on pupils’ mathematical understanding.’

Electronic Media

Professor Shayer also believes that changes in how today’s kids spend their free time has had a detrimental effect on brain power. TV, with its numerous channels, has encouraged passive viewing. Computer games have cut down the time available for playing with tools, gadgets and other mechanisms.

Another researcher, Dr Aric Sigman, previously reported that the decline in intellectual ability was linked to a shift away from art and craft skills in both schools and the home.

Dr Sigman said practical activities such as building models and sandcastles, making dens, using tools, playing with building blocks, knitting, sewing and woodwork were being neglected. Yet they helped develop vital skills such as understanding dimension, volume and density.

Educators are beginning to take notice. Earlier this month the Government bowed to mounting pressure and scrapped SATs for 14-year-olds. They have also created an independent exams watchdog and promised a return to traditional, open-ended questions at A-level plus a new A* grade to mark out the brightest students. A spokesman for the Department for Children said: ‘Good teachers do not need to teach to the test and there is no evidence that such practice is widespread. ‘

‘We have already taken steps to reduce the testing burden, but targets and testing are integral features of any work to drive up standards.’

Professor Shayer warned that without the development of higher-order thinking skills, the future supply of scientists will be compromised. ‘We don’t even have enough scientists now,’ he said.

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