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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Is technology producing a decline in critical thinking and analysis?

Stuart Wolpert
Media Officer, University of California, Los Angeles

This report summarises research undertaken by Patricia M. Greenfield, University of California, Los Angeles, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles. A more extended article on this topic written by Professor Greenfield appears in the 2 January 2009 edition of Science. Stuart Wolpert is a media officer for UCLA.


Technology has changed familiar patterns of learning. As technology has played a bigger role in our lives, our visual skills have improved while our skills in critical thinking and analysis have declined. This article reports on these and other findings of Professor Patricia M. Greenfield, a psychologist who has analysed more than 50 studies on learning and technology, including multi-tasking and the use of computers, the internet and video games.

A wide range of research evidence indicates that ‘visual intelligence’ as measured on IQ tests has been rising globally for 50 years, and people’s visual intelligence also appears to be better sustained over the course of their lives. In 1942, people's visual performance, as measured by a visual intelligence test known as Raven's Progressive Matrices, went steadily down with age and declined substantially from age 25 to 65. By 1992, however, results from the same test showed a much less significant age-related disparity in visual intelligence over this age range.

Many factors have contributed to the rise in visual intelligence, including increased levels of formal education, improved nutrition, smaller families and an increasingly complex society. Much of the advance, however, is attributable to the increased use of technology, especially visual media, which develop skills such as spatial orientation and the interpretation of images.

Such skills put learners in a good position to effectively use materials from the vast array of multimedia resources available on the internet and other digital environments. They also prepare students for the growing range of applications for sophisticated visual skills in the workplace. In medicine, for example, a surgical procedure known as laparoscopy now calls for surgeons to develop skills in the use of images on a two-dimensional screen to navigate a three-dimensional space. A study has found that surgeons who were skilled video game players performed 39 per cent faster on laparoscopic tasks than the worst video game players, and made 47 per cent fewer errors.

The demands of screen environments such as sophisticated computer games or websites have also improved learners’ capacity to divide their attention between different components of a screen. Managing divided attention is a prerequisite for multi-tasking, and multi-tasking skills can be usefully applied in a number of educational and vocational contexts. A study by New Zealand researcher Paul Kearney examined how participation in a realistic video game affected proficiency in a military computer simulation, in which the player was required to operate a weapons console, locate targets and react quickly to events. Participants who had played the video game prior to taking part in the simulation performed significantly better than a control group who had not played the video game.

With students spending more time with visual media and less time with print, the use of visual media in the classroom allows students to draw on the knowledge and experience that they have developed outside the school context. There are also implications for assessment. Assessment methods that include visual media will provide a fuller understanding of students’ knowledge. Schools should make more effort to test students using visual media, by asking them to prepare PowerPoint presentations, for example.

Technology is not a panacea in education, however. The cognitive benefits of video games need to be balanced with their potential negative effects.

Studies have found that participants who watched news reports on screens that also displayed competing information such as ‘news crawls’, stock market data and weather information, remembered significantly fewer facts than those whose attention was undivided. Other studies have shown that students given access to the internet during class, and encouraged to use it for study purposes, had a poorer understanding of the material covered in class than students who did not have internet access.  

Real-time media such as television or video games do not allow time for critical thinking and reflection, which are important for the development of inductive problem solving, and imagination.

These skills are better developed by sustained reading for pleasure, which is also a more effective way to improve vocabulary. With the prevalence of visual media, students are reading less, and as a result, these key, complex skills are underdeveloped.

Schools should ensure that students have the opportunity to access and work with a broad range of media, balancing new media with traditional forms of reading. Parents should encourage their children to read and should read to their young children. No single medium can develop the variety of skills needed by today’s learners. A balanced media diet will facilitate both the visual intelligence skills obtained through new media, and the deep processing skills best learnt through traditional media.


Subject Headings

Visual literacy
Technological literacy
Information literacy
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Computers in society
Audiovisual education