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An empty classroom as children learn from home An empty classroom as children learn from home  (ANSA)

Professor Wolf: In education, know the difference between paper and screen

Neuroscientist Professor Maryanne Wolf explains why Pope Francis was right in saying that education is key in bettering the world post-Covid, especially as we come out of the pandemic to a much more technological way of doing things.

By Linda Bordoni and Francesca Merlo

Friday morning in the Vatican saw an International Convention organized by the Centesimus Annus Foundation, entitled “Solidarity, cooperation and responsibility: the antidotes to fight injustice, inequality and exclusion”.

The convention, taking place between 21 and 22 of October aims to highlight and define a path upon which to build a better world.

Professor Wolf

Among the guest speakers was Professor Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice at UCLA – The University of California, Los Angeles.

One of professor Wolf’s main topics of research has been on “the recognition that the medium upon which we read makes a different circuit in the brain”.

Speaking to Linda Bordoni shortly prior to the convention, Professor Wolf explained that “we have a reading brain circuit that's brand-new – it’s plastic - it's only several thousand years old, but when we read on different mediums, that circuit is used in different ways”.

Education: from paper to screen

This is what is happening as the world faces this incredible transition, which we could describe as being, from paper to screen.

Pope Francis is asking us to build a better post covid world and points to education as one of the tools we have in order to do that. Challenges arise when faced with this “paper to screen” reality.

Professor Wolf explained that when reading on a digital medium, we are reading very differently from when reading from paper. Instead, we skim, we browse, we word-spot. “We are not giving the same amount of time, brain-time, to very important, more sophisticated, deep reading processes, like critical analysis and empathy”, she said.

This is a point that she would like to make clear, for our children and for anyone with any kind of challenge: “When you're reading at a skimming level, you aren't necessarily giving attention to the kind of details that will enable you to comprehend the message more easily and better”.

The Covid dilemma

This is where the Covid dilemma comes in, said Professor Wolf. “During Covid, we are all on digital screens”. This happens during school time, when children spend time on their screens rather than with their teachers.

With regard to children with disabilities, continued Professor Wolf, there are several issues. One of these is that “they aren’t necessarily getting the kind of personal attention from the teacher that will enable them to be more individualized in their instruction”. She explained that in this way we take away any personal relationship and remove an individualisation that is “so important for individuals with disabilities”.

The positive side

It’s not all bad, continued Professor Wolf. “The good side of it is that it can be used in, especially some of the more game-like activities on screens, it can be used to give extra practice to foundational skills and literacy, it can be engaging for children, it can give them new activities”.

So the real question is: how do we use it best for all children, but especially our children with disabilities? "I’m very hopeful about this mixed story", continued Professor Wolf: “I’m hopeful that we can learn from this experience in the last year and do a better job with in-person teaching and knowing how to use what is helpful in digital technology for our children with disabilities”.

The teachers

Throughout this period, Professor Wolf explained that “our teachers have never had to work so hard”. Many of them in fact, she continued, “have left the field because of the level of difficulty and the inability to be with children in the way they know is best for them”.

For this reason, some form of formation should be done for teachers on how to use digital technology best, as well as determing when digital technology is not optimal for a particular individual; and when, on the other hand, it can be useful.

Although we are in need of further technological development, continued Professor Wolf, “it is by no means the case that digital instructional technology is the answer that we all thought it was, or that many, many people thought it was before Covid”.

Pope Francis' influence

Pope Francis has said that “education is one of the most effective ways of making our world and history more human.”  Professor Wolf, a member of the Academy of Sciences, says that she is very influenced by Pope Francis.

Another important quote close to Professor Wolf’s heart is, “Education is, above all, a matter of love and responsibility handed down from one generation to another”.

“These are quotes that I think teachers can live by”, said Professor Wolf. She explained that teaching is not just the content of knowledge, “it is a loving relationship to the next generation”. Education is “knowing and feeling what our children need”. Professor Wolf, added that “very few individuals have said more important things about education than this Pope”. She noted that the Pope has also said that we are in a moment of crisis, and in order to tackle this crisis, “we need better tools”.

Neuroscience for understanding

Finally, Professor Wolf noted that our evolving knowledge in neuroscience has given us new tools and understanding of what is best about technology and what is missing in it, especially with regard to communication, critical analysis, and empathy. “All of these skills”, concluded Professor Wolf, are so important for our future…if we are to evoke these important skills of critical analysis, empathy, and insight”.

22 October 2021, 15:05