Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Poison Apple II: How Smartphones Degrade Learning

Knowledge of facts has become cheap, and it has cheapened education

Alone together, no face-to-face interaction.
Source: Dreamstime

Joe Clement and Matt Miles, two teachers with a combined 30 years in the classroom,* are alarmed that students today are dumber compared to those just 5 or 10 years ago. Digital Natives and so-called DigiLearners are frustratingly poor at critical thinking, problem solving that needs to draw on previous knowledge, and the ability to focus and sustain attention. They also have poor social skills and empathy.

Lagging U.S. test scores, when compared to international standards, support this picture. But it isn’t the students’ fault. Evidence points to their screens and smartphones as the root problem.

The downward spiral started with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Federal mandate for high-stakes, standardized testing. Although the 2001 act predated the rise of smartphones, it set the stage for a steady educational decline. It required testing every student regularly in core subjects in order to measure what they learned. Students who failed might repeat a course. Schools without sufficiently high pass rates could lose their accreditation.

Educators were understandably tepid about the new policy. Measuring what one has learned is complex. It is contextual. Accurate assessment demands intimate knowledge of each particular student. Impersonal, statewide tests can only graze the surface of someone’s ability.

The need to grade an enormous number of tests in a timely and cost effective manner has given us multiple-choice tests that focus on straightforward, fact–based questions. These are easy to write and quickly graded whereas essays, short written answers, and other formats that might illuminate higher cognition can be awkward and confusing. And too time consuming to grade. Experienced teachers have broad curriculums at their disposal, but having to teach to the test has supplanted more productive—and relevant—emphasis on critical and creative thinking.

Boon, or bane?
Source: Apple

This turn of events happened to coincide with advances in Internet search engines and the penetration of smartphones. Suddenly, anyone could reach into an infinite stream of facts. Factual knowledge became cheap, and education cheapened too.

This technology has profoundly shaped millennials’ attitudes: “Why should I memorize something when I can just look it up?” But students have confused their ability to look up a fact with actual knowledge. Ironically, technology has created a manner of “artificial intelligence” in which students outsource data to a kind of external hard drive but store little if any knowledge in the memory networks of their own brains.

More profound is the shift in how students now think. During their entire educational careers they have been bombarded with fact-based questions that can be answered quickly by a Google search. To them, being Google–like is the pinnacle of academic performance. Even top students think in terms of a Google search. Ask a “Why” question and all you get are the “What,” the “Who,” and perhaps the “When”—exactly the kind of details they’d come up with if they typed the query into a search engine.

“Why” questions, or demands for critical analysis and opinion, leave them flummoxed. Most teachers still believe that critical thinking and self-aware imagination rather than rote memorization should be at the heart of learning. Advocates of more technology offer shiny new toys, but they misunderstand how learning occurs. Or perhaps, cynically, they don’t care.

Students must first internalize a knowledge base. They must then draw on that fundamental knowledge and forge connections with new information. And so on, in a chain as circumstances present them with new facts to assimilate. If they can connect the dots—new information to what they already know—they will retain the new material, put it in context, and weigh its relevance in order ultimately to understand its meaning. If they believe they can “always look it up,” then the factual dots will pass by like leaves on a stream rather than making a home in their minds. Students thus handicap themselves. They rely on devices to call up factoids at the expense of knowledge.

The word education means “to draw out,” which great teachers have done with neophytes for ages. Now, teachers are demoted to disseminators of fact. Companies with enormous financial incentives have sold parents and policy makers on the promise that students can learn less expensively and more efficiently from their “educational” software and technology. They dress facts up as games or flashy multimedia presentations that promise, without evidence, to be superior to any lesson a live person could provide. And yet these smart devices aren’t teaching students how to think critically. They are making them dumber.

* Joe Clement and Matt Miles teach in the Fairfax County Public Schools.

Click to join Dr. Cytowic's low-frequency newsletter and to receive a copy Dr. Cytowic's American Interest article, "Digital Distgractions: Your Brain on Screens," or here to commment e-mail Follow him @Cytowic, on LinkedIn, or explore his Website,

More from Richard E. Cytowic M.D.
More from Psychology Today