The Secret Life of Four and Five-Year-Olds, featuring the University of Bristol’s Professor Paul Howard-Jones, returned to our television screens recently. He talks to us about classroom tech and cultural learning

Praised for its insight into what goes on beyond the nursery gates, the Channel 4 show saw tech take over this series as kids got to grips with innovative new equipage. This is an area of particular interest to Professor Howard-Jones, whose research explores the benefits offered to education by emerging technologies.

What did you feel about this series?

I was looking forward to our ‘Britain and the Rest of the World’ episode. One of the amazing things you see when observing children at this age is how they create their own culture – traditions, values, patterns of behaviour. I knew it was going to be interesting to see the fusion of cultures happening on screen. Watching four-year-olds is a bit like watching adults in time-lapse – with stuff happening incredibly quickly – as they learn about each other’s way of working and negotiate some way of working together. Culture, and our ability to learn culturally, is pretty much responsible for placing our species at the top of the food chain – but cultural differences between and within nations can also divide us. Learning about different cultures is key to avoiding conflict so being able to observe this happening was fascinating. What I wasn’t expecting was the massive impact of Harlo’s US culture, and particularly his emphasis on guns. This created a lot of discussion about what to do about this and how to treat it in the show – ultimately we went for providing Harlo with chances to talk about and explain his interests, and allowing the viewers to make up their own minds. 

What was the most interesting revelation?

It was amazing seeing Arthur apparently making friends with a robot. It felt like a glimpse into the future when we’ll have robots as part of every good quality nursery environment – if they can encourage empathy and social skills!

Most memorable moment?

Over all the series, I found Vinnie (from Bristol) hilarious. His shameless love of fun had me in stitches – the way he tucked into the strawberries and chocolate without a care for the rules. A real lovable rogue…

…I wasn’t expecting the impact of Harlo’s US culture, particularly his emphasis on guns…

What are you researching this year?

We’re trying to understand more about action video games – what it is that makes them so engaging and, potentially, such good teachers. Increasingly, education is competing with the leisure industry for our children’s attention. If we could find the magic ingredient in video games and harness it for educational purposes…

So what is tech doing to young digital natives?

It’s not the technology, it’s what you do with it. It’s a strong influence on our brains and you can see that. For example, there are parts of our brains whose size is predicted by the number of friends we have on Facebook. That’s not a coincidence – these regions are related to social memory and they grow because our brain is shaped by our environment. Rather than just worrying about screen time we should be looking at what children are using tech for and encouraging what I call ‘digital hygiene’ – making sure tech is being used to support well-being and learning not undermining it. Some examples: research shows that teens tend to benefit from using social media to maintain existing face-to-face friendships, but not when they use it to make new friends. Video games can improve a range of cognitive functions but on school nights they can also disrupt slow-wave sleep and consolidation of what’s been learnt the previous day. Essentially, my message is that parents, teachers and children need more information in an accessible form. When you try to boil down messages to a simple limit on screen time it’s not that helpful.

Any advice for teachers implementing tech?

When they think about using technology, they should ask what learning processes they hope will take place and how the tech is supposed to support those. We are now introducing all teachers we train at the university to how the brain learns and supporting them to think scientifically about the underlying processes. I believe this is key to effective teaching, particularly when planning activities that may involve technology.

…We should look at what children are using tech for; encouraging ‘digital hygiene’…

Tell us a little about your new book

Observing these children close really impressed on me how sophisticated the human brain is – even at four years old. How did humans get to have this amazing brain? So I’ve written a very accessible book Evolution of the Learning Brain. It tells the story of how we got a smart brain and has advice on how to get smarter. It starts with how our brain evolved from simple learning mechanisms we see in bacteria and ends with humans creating the internet.

What do you want people to take away?

A few things. Our learning brain took us to the top of the pile; that’s the reason we’re top predator and it’s only our learning brain that will get us out of the environmental crisis that we’ve created along the way. Our understanding of how it learns is blossoming now we have technologies such as neuroimaging. We need to use this knowledge to bring education up to date so we can learn more effectively; only a massive increase in
our ability to learn across the global population can save us from the current threat of mass extinction.

What else is in store for you in 2019?

Working with UNESCO more and introducing an international course about neuroscience and education. I’m also just starting to work with archaeologists, trying to untangle the contribution of informal education at the dawn of civilisation. That’s very embryonic work and I’m on a steep learning curve but it’s a fascinating project.

How’s the Bristol Uni research environment?

Full of people willing to work across disciplines. That’s almost a definition of creativity in academic terms. None of the world’s problems are going to be solved by single disciplines so it’s great to be somewhere where people feel excited about sharing ideas, time and projects.