Letter to the Minister of Education – Please don’t increase screen-time!

To the Hon. Minister Hipkins,

There seems to be an assumption from government that online learning is the best out-of-school option. However, evidence from across a variety of disciplines shows that learning-in-relationships outstrips online learning in terms of academic and social outcomes, all aspects of wellbeing, and child development. Therefore TOP encourages you, Mr Hipkins, to view COVID-19 as a chance to think differently about education in New Zealand and encourage alternative learning approaches.  Afterall, the educational choices we make have consequences for the kind of society we ultimately help to create.

Schools are already starting to trial online learning lessons. Globally, corporations are also developing apps and resources to take learning online. TOP does not want online learning to become our new normal, or for learning to be driven by corporate models rather than educational philosophy. 

While we agree there is a place for some interaction via screens, students spending hours staring at computers to ensure their learning is standardised is not the ideal outcome. Rather, we see online interaction as an opportunity for students to share something they have learned from the real world, so that their individual learning can be recognised, stimulated, and rewarded by their teacher or peers. 

Furthermore, TOP believes teachers would be better off spending the time away from the classroom on quality, self-directed professional development, rather than working out IT issues.  This is our opportunity to do education differently in New Zealand. Let’s not waste it! 

What the evidence says

A growing body of literature associates excessive screen time with poor sleep and stress regulation (high sympathetic arousal and cortisol dysregulation), impaired vision, reduced bone density, depressive symptoms, ADHD behaviour (leading to inaccurate diagnoses), reduced social coping, increased craving behaviour and brain structure changes related to cognitive control and emotional regulation. Our children do not need more screen-time than usual during the COVID-19 challenge.

Emotion is an important part of learning

Most educators know that emotions and feelings affect students’ learning and performance. We also know that people’s thoughts and feelings are influenced by their socio-cultural context.  Recent advances in neuroscience have further highlighted connections between emotion, social functioning, and decision-making. These insights have the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the role of affect in education, i.e. we feel, therefore, we learn. 

Therefore, before we can expect our children to engage with learning, we need to tackle the social and emotional challenges they face. Love, trust, respect, care, and compassion are the cornerstones of society and the unschooling movement (refer below). Neuroscience tells us that if children are emotionally or physically stressed, the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that does everything your family dog can’t do) struggles to function. 

From a healthcare perspective, children are whole beings. Their physical, spiritual, familial, and mental health must be nurtured equally for them to learn effectively. If they don’t feel good about themselves as learners, as citizens in their social world, or don’t feel comfortable in their cultural, gendered, and self-identities, they will struggle to learn and develop healthily. Perhaps this pandemic is our opportunity for parents to reconnect with their children?

Relationships matter in learning

One way to maintain learning-in-relationships for children during the COVID-19 shutdowns is to consider the homeschooling/unschooling models.  Unschooling means the choice and control for learning reside with the child (i.e. what many children do until age five in New Zealand). This approach assumes that children are naturally curious and will follow their interests and passions.  With homeschooling, parents act as teachers in a classroom, planning lessons, assigning and marking work, and following a state-directed programme. In practise, these philosophies often overlap within the daily routine of a home-educated child.  

New Zealand’s home education community (i.e. parent-led, home-based education) represents 0.8% of total school enrolments, with 6,500 students registered to be homeschooled. In the United States, by contrast, home education is much more common, diverse, and representative of society. So TOP focuses on evidence from the US to discuss the potential benefits of homeschooling.

There are about 2.5 million homeschool students in the US, and it is their fastest-growing form of education. Home-based education has also been growing around the world in many other nations, e.g. Australia, Canada, France, Hungary, Japan, Kenya, Russia, Mexico, South Korea, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. People who homeschool are demographically varied – about 15% are non-white/non-Hispanic. These families are not dependent on public, tax-funded resources for their children’s education. Financial savings associated with homeschooling represent over $27 billion.

Homeschooled students typically score 15 to 30 percentile points (23 to 42 points for black students) above public-school students on standardised academic achievement tests. This is irrespective of household income, the parents’ level of formal education, whether parents were ever certified teachers, or the degree of state control or regulation of homeschooling.

Home-educated students also perform well (typically above average) on measures of social, emotional, and psychological development. Research measures include peer interaction, self-concept, leadership skills, family cohesion, participation in community service, and self-esteem. They regularly engage in social and educational activities outside the home and with people other than their nuclear family. Learning takes place through reciprocal interaction with others, mindful reflection, play, curiosity, exploration and failure. 

Therefore, The Opportunities Party is urging the Government to encourage unschooling/ homeschooling, rather than reinforcing notions of standardised learning via devices during this shutdown period.  We should encourage parents to connect, play and learn with their children. Getting kids to a ‘certain level by a certain age’ in specific subjects is no longer appropriate.

All children benefit from 4Cs learning, including teenagers

Learning is a life-long process, not a series of outcomes. The four “soft skills” of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking (4Cs) are crucial for children facing an uncertain world. Indeed, the 4Cs are considered to be the “super skills” that will be needed in the 21st century, as they help develop the qualities children need for success in education, careers, and citizenship. They’re all the things that robots can’t do (yet).

Furthermore, children of all ages will benefit from developing a growth mindset, namely, believing that intelligence can be developed through effort and perseverance.  “Grow-the-brain” initiatives, like the power of ‘yet’, can be powerful tools for developing growth mindsets.  Teaching students to engage with the process of learning, such as celebrating failure rather than being devastated by it, and viewing teaching as a reciprocal relationship between educator and learner (rather than simply a transference of knowledge) will further develop growth mindsets in our children.  

TOP view the school shutdowns as an opportunity to change the rhetoric of education in New Zealand, to tell the education story differently, to encourage teachers to engage with self-directed professional development along these lines, and for children to reconnect with themselves and their immediate families.

So, how should parents help kids develop a growth mindset, entrench the 4Cs, and engage with the process of learning?

Follow children’s lead

Kids are natural learners. From before they can talk, they are able to communicate their desires, ideas, and enthusiasm for learning. Young children in particular are naturally exploratory, creative, and imaginative. It’s the academic pursuit of knowledge transfer within the school system, particularly in specific subjects, that has killed off children’s natural curiosity.

All children have different interests and talents. They prosper from exposure to a broad range of experiences and ideas. Let’s take this opportunity to re-engage their curiosity, creativity, and desire to explore.

Teenagers in particular (when the conditions are appropriate) often design highly creative inventions, succeed following failure, and are willing to take on risk. Until about 20 years ago, we assumed that teenage behaviour was mostly affected by hormonal changes in puberty.  But recent brain scans and psychological experiments have found that adolescence is a critical period of change in the brain, much of which is responsible for the unique characteristics of adolescent behaviour. Far from being a defective or inferior version of an adult brain, the adolescent mind is both unique and brilliant. This is a crucial time in which to engage with 4Cs learning.

TOP recommends doing education differently

TOP sees the school shutdowns as an opportunity to learn differently. We believe that parents, who have the closest relationships with their children, are best-placed to teach social and emotional skills.  Communities that have been under-resourced in the past, and where children are therefore very vulnerable, will require additional support in terms of education and wider economic initiatives. Certainly, TOP believe that open access to online devices in communities with low supervision could cause more harm than good.  

In summary, we beg you, Minister Hipkins, to not increase screen-time beyond what our children used to, because no-one will benefit from that!

Ngaa mihi nui,

The Opportunities Party


Dr Naomi Pocock is TOP’s education spokesperson. TOP’s other education blogs include:

How can we fix education in New Zealand?

Will participation in early childhood education actually reduce future crime in NZ?

Nature play in schools – A mainstream option?

National & Labour – Both tinkering around the edges of education


Showing 2 reactions

  • Naomi Pocock
    commented 2020-04-06 18:27:25 +1200
    Thank you Stuart! We hope to make such changes if we’re voted in, but in the meantime, we’re certainly pushing hard to make changes like these, and are being listened to. Kia kaha.
  • Stuart Macann
    commented 2020-04-05 07:33:09 +1200
    Excellent! It probably won’t happen for the normal political reasons (i.e. hard to sell to parents/voters). But still this is a fantastic summary of a bunch of important research and ideas. Thanks.