|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Jopling: In view of what has been said, and particularly in view of the helpful remarks of the Minister, pointing out that there may be technical errors in my amendment, I think it would be best at this stage if I were to withdraw the amendment. We can come back to it later. But, dare I say it, I think the noble Lord has had a good run for his money at both Second Reading and today. This Bill has no future and the most helpful thing he could do would be to withdraw the Bill, as I ask leave to withdraw the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
20 Apr 2006 : Column 1218
Lord Monson: It was suggested to me before Easter by a very senior Member of your Lordships' House that the present Short Title is seriously misleading, and of course he is right. Bearing in mind that we are constantly and rightly reminded these days of the desirability of shunning spin in favour of transparency, I feel strongly that the Title ought to be changed to the Lighter Evenings and Darker Mornings (Experiment) Bill, so that nobody should remain unaware of its implications.
The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, may argue that we in this House know full well that lighter evenings mean darker mornings, and indeed nearly all readers of what we used to call the broadsheets are equally aware of this. However, I do not think it is patronising to suggest that many readers of what we still call the red tops, and even more so, those who hardly read anything at all, may not be quite so observant. A public opinion poll to gauge support for the Bill under its current Title might produce a much more favourable and enthusiastic result than if the Title were changed in a manner I suggested.
The Public Bill Office told me yesterday that it was considered undesirable for any opponent of a Bill to try to force through a change of Short Title without the consent of the sponsor, and accordingly I did not table the amendment I was intending to table. However, I hope that my noble friend Lord Tanlaw might consider the desirability of being entirely open about the implications of the Title and alter the Title accordingly at the next stage. It is up to him what he decides to do.
Lord Tanlaw: My noble friend has a very good and interesting point. I left out the dark morning side because I thought it was not necessary. I am quite happy to put it back. The one thing I was not prepared to take out was "experiment". In fact I used it for a reason, and possibly some noble Lords may not know the definition of "experiment", as put forward by Roger Bacon. He was a Franciscan friar who taught at Oxford some 800 years ago. He said, in his Opus Maius:
"Without experiment, nothing can be adequately known. An argument proves theoretically, but does not give the certitude necessary to remove all doubt; nor will a mind repose in the clear view of truth, unless it finds it by way of experiment".
That is the point of this Bill, and I am very glad for both noble Lords who put forward their amendments that they emphasised the experiment. This is an experiment and we cannot know the answer to it. In spite of what the Government Benches may say, they cannot know the answer to it unless we have experienced lighter evenings.
Baroness Greenfield rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what account they are taking of the impact of fast-moving advances in science and technology on how young people think and learn in planning future education policy.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the 21st century is offering society an unprecedented raft of challenges. All at once science is now delivering a diverse range of information technology, nanotechnology and biotechnology, with a speed and convergence that we could never have predicted even a decade ago.
For example, one recent survey of eight to 18 year-olds claimed that children were now spending on average 6.5 hours a day using electronic media. Most recently, the trend to multi-taskingthat is, using one or more devices in parallelamounted to an effective 8.5 hours a day. Could this screen and multimedia culture impact on thinking and learning? The journalist Kevin Kelly summed up the issue very well:
"Screen culture is a world of constant flux, of endless sound bites, quick cuts and half-baked ideas. It is a flow of gossip tidbits, news headlines and floating first impressions. Notions don't stand alone but are massively interlinked to everything else; truth is not delivered by authors and authorities but is assembled by the audience".
When we of the 20th century read a book, most usually the author takes you by the hand and you travel from the beginning to the middle to the end in a continuous narrative series of interconnected steps. It may not be a journey with which you agree or that you enjoy, but none the less as you turn the pages one train of thought succeeds the last in a logical fashion.
We can then of course compare one narrative with another. In so doing we start to build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys, which in turn will influence our individualised framework. One might argue that this is the basis of educationeducation as we know it. It is the building up of a personalised conceptual framework, where we can relate incoming information to what we know already. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it significance. Traditional education has enabled us, if you like, to turn information into knowledge.
Now imagine that there is no robust conceptual framework. Imagine that you are sitting in front of a multimedia presentation where you are unable, because you have not had the experience of many different intellectual journeys, to evaluate what is flashing up on the screen. The most immediate reaction instead would be to place a premium on the most obvious feature, the immediate sensory contentwe could call it the "yuk" or "wow" factor. You would be having an experience rather than learning. Here sounds and sights of a fast-paced, fast-moving, multimedia presentation would displace any time for reflection or any idiosyncratic or imaginative connections that we might make as we turn the pages and then stare at the wall to reflect.
20 Apr 2006 : Column 1220
Navigation on the internet is wonderful if you have a conceptual framework in which to embed the responses that flash up. We should not assume that all children nowadays will be so well equipped. The UK Children Go Online investigation by Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics found that 92 per cent of nine to 19 year-olds have accessed the internet from a computer at home or at school, but 30 per cent have received no lessons at all on using the internet. Only 33 per cent of regular users of the internet have been taught how to judge the reliability of online information. We now have access to unlimited and up-to-date information at the touch of a button, but in this new, answer-rich world surely we must ensure that we are able to pose appropriate, meaningful questions.
Does this mean that young people are acquiring different skills? According to the National Literacy Trust, who I would like to thank for their help, there is currently no conclusive evidence that reading standards are deteriorating. On the other hand, there is evidence that the enjoyment of reading has declined in the last five to 10 years. Also, children perhaps have more interests competing for their time. They may be spending a lot less time just playing or doing nothing. Of course, doing nothing would presumably include thinking and letting your imagination roam free.
The Literacy Trust pointed out that reading from the screen was just as legitimate as reading from a book, but we might ask how long this trend will continue. Already the visual icon is often substituting for the written word. Soon the spoken word will be increasingly available. If we soon have voice-interface computerssuch computers are in the near futureembedded in our clothing or personal effects, you might simply need to ask your watch for the date of the Battle of Hastings.
Memory, for example, may no longer be as essential as it was for those of us who had to remember such dates or had to learn reams of Latin grammar. Along with the ability to read and the need to remember, surely we are at risk of losing our imagination, that mysterious and special cognitive achievement that until now has always made the book so very much better than the film. If one is always working with directory trees, where menus are offered with fixed numbers of optionswhere to get to another action one has to plod up and down various branch-lines of thinkingwould that not impose itself on how we think in general?
In this regard, Futurelabuntil recently part of NESTA, but now an independent charity based in Bristolis doing some excellent work. The new organisation is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and aims to incubate new ideas from the lab into the classroom, offer hard evidence and practical advice, support the design and use of innovative learning tools, communicate the latest thinking and practice in education IT, and provide space for experimentation and exchange of ideas between creative technology and education sectors.
20 Apr 2006 : Column 1221
Perhaps Her Majesty's Government should be not only harnessing but amplifying the work of Futurelab by placing it in the wider landscape of a society already under the powerful and unprecedented influences of electronic multimedia. In particular we need a meta-analysis that is nationwide, one of shifting trends in the whole portfolio of learning and thinking skills. I am sure that many parents and grandparents would welcome hard statistics on critical factors such as hours spent in front of a screen, critical age ranges, mitigating influences of other activities, and above all what abilities such as creativity may now be lost and what may now be gained with this new way of processing information compared to those of us educated in the last century. Perhaps the increase in prevalence of hyperactivity might be explained by sustained exposure to an unsupervised IT environment where only short attention spans were ever needed and where the child had no way of practising long periods of paying attention. That is a speculative idea but one that I think should at least be tested.
I am not proposing that we become IT Luddites but rather that we could be stumbling into a powerful technology, the impact of which we understand poorly at the moment. The new technologies are also convergent, embracing not only screen culture but drug culture. A recent excellent summary has been published by Demos entitled Better Humans, which surveys the issue of performance enhancement by invasive procedures such as, most immediately, drugs. Already there were reports last weekend of an alarming increase in the use of Prozac, a mood enhancer. Ritalin, for enhancing concentration, and Pro-vigil, for extending alert wakefulness, are also drugs that are currently medicating the classroom.
The problem with these drugs is that they do not target a single trait such as mood or concentration or wakefulness, not least because we do not yet understand as neuroscientists how such functions are generated as a cohesive operation in the brain: rather, drugs will manipulate, in a very broad spectrum way, the chemicalsthe so-called transmittersin the brain that, in turn, could have both widespread and also long-lasting effects. This area has already been the subject of some admirable studies within Foresight's drugs futures programme, at the OST within the DTI. The subject includes so called cognition enhancerscurrently much debated in relation to being prescribed for attention deficit disorder. In a similar fashion the much discussed abuse of proscribed drugsin particular, cannabisis highly controversial. A central issue in the debate this afternoon is not whether cannabis, compared to other drugs, is less lethal, nor even that it could trigger a predisposition to schizophrenia and depression, but rather that it might well change attention spans and cognitive abilities without that ever becoming apparent as a medical problem.
The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to any and every event: we cannot complacently take it as an article of faith that it will remain inviolate, and that consequently human nature and ways of learning and
20 Apr 2006 : Column 1222
thinking will remain constant. A new idea is that there is room for improvement: so-called transhumanism, described by Professor Fugiama, a professor of international politics, as,
promotes the ability of science and technology to go beyond the authority and the normwhatever that isfor physical and mental human enhancement. The idea of enhancement is sinister in whatever way it would be applied. If, in the unlikely event that everyone could be improved to the same extent, we would end up in a monotonously homogenous world predicated on the assumption that each of us was naturally inadequate. Worse still, and more likely, would be the scenario where only a minority were so "favoured"a sector of society of techno haves increasingly divergent from the techno have-nots.
We must surely choose to adopt technology that will ensure that the classroom will fit the child, and buck the growing trend for technology to be used to make the 21st-century child fit the classroom. The educational needs of the individual are changing and the very nature of the classroom needs to change too. Initiatives such as the Foresight programme have already made significant impact on our thinking about the future of a number of issues in society. Perhaps Her Majesty's Government might consider a similar in-depth project to explore the future of learning and education.
Initiatives such as the Economic and Social Research Council-funded seminar series, Collaborative Frameworks in Neuroscience and Education, have been a catalyst for bringing together neuroscientists and educators to help us start to understand learning and create an evidence base on which 21st-century education can be built. But now is the time to ensure public engagement in the process. We shall need to consider how 21st-century technology can help to deliver a 21st-century education system. We need to do that not by turning the clock back and picking off small or specific projects, but by co-ordinating on a nationwide scale within both the public and private sectors the best of science and technology initiatives.
Many admirable projects are in train but the public need to know about them, and they need to know about each other. One such, our own Institute for the Future of the Mind at the James Martin School in Oxford, is asking four questions. What are the influences on children today? Where is the actual evidence of a new type of impact? What do children need to learn? And, most importantly, how do we deliver these desiderata? No one independent institution or organisation, and no one single project, can take on such a challenge. We turn to Her Majesty's Government to spearhead a large-scale public debate, thereby ensuring that British citizens of the mid-21st century have the most fulfilling lives possible, in the most successful society possible.
20 Apr 2006 : Column 1223
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|