Cork pupils demonstrate that TV in the classroom equals major distraction

Conor Murphy, a teacher at Ovens NS, and his fourth class pupils, David O’Connell, Aimee O’Connell, Cian Hourihan, and Ryan Vincent, observing sixth class pupils Kellie-Ann Holmes, Matthew Scannell, and Lilly Waugh doing homework while watching TV in their classroom. Picture: Dan Linehan

Their schoolmates may not welcome the outcome but the science is behind their finding: Pupils of a Cork primary school have shown that watching TV while doing written homework is a no-no.

Following intense scientific research, 28 fourth class students at Ovens National School were able to demonstrate that having a TV in the classroom equals major distraction.

If it sounds like the obvious outcome, less expected was the finding that some children asked to leave the classroom as they couldn’t get their work done on account of the TV being on.

Far more work went into this research than you might realise. It took the form of a randomised trial, modelled on the kind of randomised clinical trials that are part and parcel of the modern health landscape.

As the organisers of START (Schools Teaching Awareness of Randomised Trials) point out, the challenge for the students is to put together a research question and then answer it, using the rigorous steps of a trial, from selecting outcomes (Does watching TV while doing written homework cause you to lose concentration?’) to identifying participants (28 sixth class pupils), obtaining informed consent (all students signed forms), and randomisation (assigning participants to each group randomly).

Conor Murphy, the fourth class teacher who oversaw the project, said the children came up with the research idea during a class debate.

They initially considered measuring speed of completion, correct answers, quality of handwriting, and the amount of time their subjects become distracted. However, one child wisely said: “We then decided it wouldn’t be fair to judge a child’s homework based on their handwriting because some children just have neater handwriting than others naturally.”

They began with a survey of seven classes from third to sixth class “and the results weren’t as we expected”, they said.

Of 176 children surveyed, only seven think that watching TV while doing homework is a good idea.

Asked if they think that watching TV while doing their homework would affect concentration, 170 said yes.

The children warn to treat the results with caution: “We felt that some children might not have been saying what they truly believed and only answered that way to keep their teachers happy.”

They pushed on with the study, selecting sixth class as their “test subjects”,dividing them into two groups and keeping them under observation in two separate classrooms, the only difference between the two being a TV in one, via an interactive whiteboard.

They were closely observed by the fourth class researchers for four days, over a period of two weeks.

“We decided that distractions would count as the following — talking, fidgeting, staring at the TV, and staring out into space,” said the researchers.

We made sure that the sixth class students sat spread out in both classrooms to limit their chance to chat.

Among the findings were that there were far more distractions in the TV room and children were a lot more focused and determined to get their work done in the TV-free classroom.

The young researchers are among three primary schools shortlisted to showcase their randomised clinical trials at NUI Galway today when the overall winner will be presented with the START Trophy, in a competition run by the Health Research Board.

Final word goes to Ovens NS: “TV is great but it uses you as bait to get your homework done late.”

Listen to the Ovens National School START 2019 entry podcast here.

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