Teacher Magazine, November 2004
The Alliance for Childhood recently issued a report that strongly urges caution in the use of technology with younger children. The report’s main arguments include that children spend too much time with computer screens rather than with caring adults and in building peer relationships through play; that there is little evidence of the benefits and growing evidence of harm from the use of tech by young children; and that current technology literacy models have not been vetted by child development specialists. (“Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology” (2004) <www.allianceforchildhood.net>)
Technology use with children is neither a new concern nor one expressed only by Luddites. Internet pioneer and sometime social commentator Clifford Stoll asked years ago what sort of message adults send to children when machine rather than human contact is the pedagogical strategy. After describing flashy drill and practice math software he concludes: “Plop a kid down before such a program and the message is, ‘You have to learn math tables, so play with this computer.’ Teach the same lesson with flash cards, and a different message comes through: ‘You’re important to me, and this subject is so useful that I’ll spend an hour teaching you arithmetic.’” (“Invest in Humanware.” New York Times, May 19, 1996.)
Technology use with children has both its opponents and defenders as well. Don Tapscott’ s book Growing Up Digital (McGraw-Hill, 1997) glowingly describes young learners for whom technology is as common and no more remarkable than air. He asserts that our adult concerns about information technology come not from anything inherently bad about the technology itself, but from the rightful suspicion that we know less about it than our children. Tapscott predicts a bright future for what he calls the N-generation, and worries about the children who do not develop an early comfort level with keyboards, chat rooms, and network protocols.
An increasing number of teachers are adding technology to their arsenal of stimulating learning activities for even very young children. Educational videotapes have long both entertained and taught preschoolers. Computer programs stress reading readiness and early math concepts. The Internet has sites designed for preschoolers. Specially designed keyboards for small fingers, stand-alone electronic learning games, and even plush-toys packed with microprocessing power fill toy and computer stores. Even NCLB requires all students be “computer literate” by the end of eighth grade.
There is no question that all children need good learning experiences very early in life if they are to continue to be successful in school. The real question is: Do computer games, videotapes and digital toys constitute good learning experiences for the Teletubby generation?
Two observations then about technology and its use with our younger students:
It is too simple to lump all educational technologies in one large group and either condemn or condone them. Questions need to be asked of any technology adoption, for any age student – Does it encourage active involvement with the subject matter or only passivity? Does it allow choice, construction of knowledge, and creativity? Are the concepts it teaches valid and relevant to the curriculum? Are we teaching safe and ethical technology use along with “computer” skills? Is the technology being put in place to supplement, not supplant, good human teaching?
The second observation has more to do with technology’s role in early childhood education. As Stoll suggests, it’s easy to allow software to perform a role far better done by “humanware.” So it is tremendously important that we remember technology is only one tool - along with books, games, play, toys, storytelling, naps, graham crackers, conversation, and hugs - that develops and stimulates young learners and we restrict its use to when it can do a better job than traditional methods. I am convinced that children come to love reading not just because of the intellectual content of the material, but because of the associative memory of sitting close to another human being while being read to. If I had to chose between a my grandson hearing a first-rate librarian read a story or having him click through even the most involving multi-media “book,” I’d choose the human being every time.
The question really is not whether we should use technology with small children, but how do we do it wisely. Wise use will only come when there are a sufficient number of genuinely technologically literate teachers who are not replaced, but supplemented, by effective technologies. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that our children can have both laps and monitors when appropriate and when needed?
I urge all caring adults who see themselves first as child advocates, second as educators, and finally as technologists to read and carefully consider the proposals made in the Alliance for Childhood’s report.