Instead of schoolbooks, laptops or tablets have increasingly found their way into classrooms in many countries in recent years. But research found that printed books are superior to many programs for understanding – especially complex – texts. Now, a first country is taking a step back again.
It was a decision that made headlines not only far beyond Sweden's borders, but also outside the graphic arts industry. Last August, Swedish Education Minister Lotta Edholm decided to spend more government money on printed schoolbooks again for the new school year instead of online tools.
"Cell phones off, books on!"
"Switching off: Sweden says back-to-basics schooling works on paper" headlined the U.K.'s “Guardian”, for example, "Too fast, too soon? Sweden backs away from screens in schools," the French "Le Monde" doubled down. "Cell phones off, books on!" was the pithy headline in the German news magazine “Der Spiegel”.
It is true that Swedish students' reading skills are above the European average. But an international assessment of the reading level of fourth graders (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study/PIRLS) showed a decline among Swedish children for the period from 2016 to 2021. "We need more schoolbooks again," Lotta Edholm therefore concluded, "because physical books are important for student learning." And so, since the new school year, many Swedish teachers are putting their emphasis back on printed books, quiet reading time and handwriting practice, and devoting less time to tablets, online research and keyboarding skills.
What the science says
The background to the return to more traditional learning methods is the debates (not only) in Sweden about whether a hyper-digitized approach to education, including the introduction of tablets in kindergartens, has led to a decline in basic skills among young people. The discussions are triggered not least by scientific findings on this topic.
For example, the Stavanger Declaration on the Future of Reading, published in 2019 and signed by 130 scientists. It addresses the influence of digitization on reading practices and summarizes the results of research projects conducted by members of the European research initiative "Evolution of Reading in the Age of Digitisation (E-READ)" and discussed at a conference in the Norwegian city of Stavanger.
The experts concluded, among other things, that readers overestimate their comprehension skills when reading from a screen – which leads to a loss of concentration and skimming, especially under pressure – and that comprehension of long information texts is better when reading printed texts than when reading from a screen. Among the key points of their recommendations was that printed books should continue to be promoted and made available in schools.
Printed books are superior
A 2020/2021 research report by the Institute for School Development Research at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany came to similar conclusions. The researchers found that printed books are superior to many programs for language acquisition, that readers of books are better able to express themselves, and that fourth graders who read books at home have significantly larger vocabularies than schoolmates who rarely if ever glance at a book.
And a 2018 study published by Delgado-Universidad de Sevilla in Spain titled "Don't Throw Away Your Printed Books," which analyzed data from no less than 169,524 students, also underscored the findings of earlier research. According to the study, screens perform significantly worse than printed texts in reading comprehension. For example, scrolling on an electronic device may act as an additional cognitive load because spatial orientation in the text is more difficult than learning from the printed text. Study conclusion: providing printed text is an effective way to improve comprehension despite the appeal of computer-based learning environments.
"Print products are better for in-depth information"
The fact that electronic devices have their pitfalls for text comprehension (for example, images and sounds can distract from learning), in addition to undeniable advantages, was also emphasized by the German psychologist and mastermind of neuromarketing Dr. Hans-Georg Häusel in a 2018 interview with the Muller Martini customer magazine "Panorama": "Just seeing a smartphone or an iPad switches your brain to reward mode – which means: the brain becomes restless. It quickly looks for a reward – and attention goes down.”
According to Hans-Georg Häusel, studies show "that people, especially young people, who use digital media very intensively, develop symptoms that are very close to attention deficit disorders. This means that attention drops dramatically when using these devices, because people are always looking for the next reward. But to learn, you need attention, because you need to concentrate."
For him, therefore, there is no doubt: "Building deep structures in your head and developing your brain is better done with print than with digital media. The brain's state of tension speaks against long digital texts. I only read a longer text online if I'm very interested in something. Print products are better for in-depth information. That's why you can learn better from books. Because print is quite simply the more brain-friendly medium for many things."