Kid’s Play

A new study revisits worries about kids and computers.

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Following up on its controversial 2000 report Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, the Alliance for Childhood has issued a second study that continues to caution against the use of technology with younger children. Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology argues that through elementary school, kids spend too much time in front of computer screens rather than with caring adults or their peers. There is also little evidence of the benefits—but growing evidence of harm—associated with computer use, according to the report, which notes that current technology literacy models have not been vetted by child-development specialists.

Concerns about mixing kids and technology are neither new nor 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 in an opinion piece in the New York Times, 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 flashcards, 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.’”

Of course, the tech-heavy approach has its defenders, too. Don Tapscott’s book Growing Up Digital glowingly describes young learners for whom technology is as common as the air we breathe. He asserts that our concerns come not from anything inherently bad about technology itself but rather from the suspicion that we know less about it than our children do. Tapscott predicts a bright future for what he calls the N-gen (for “Net generation”) and worries about kids who do not develop an early comfort with keyboards, chat rooms, and network protocols.

Meanwhile, more teachers are adding technology to their arsenal of learning activities for even very young children. Programs stress reading readiness and early math concepts. Keyboards designed for small fingers, stand-alone learning games, and plush toys packed with microprocessing power fill toy and computer stores. Even NCLB requires that students be “computer literate” by the end of 8th grade.

There’s no question that kids need good learning experiences early in life if they are to continue to be successful in school. The real question is whether computer games, videotapes, and digital toys constitute good learning experiences for the N-gen.

For any age group, it’s too simple to lump together all educational technology and either condemn or condone it. Questions need to be asked before adopting any technology for any student. Does it encourage active involvement with the subject matter or only passivity? 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 used to supplement, not supplant, good human teaching?

Another observation has more to do with technology’s role in early childhood education. As Stoll suggests, it’s easy to allow software to perform roles done far better by “humanware.” So it’s tremendously important that we remember technology is only one tool—along with books, games, toys, storytelling, naps, graham crackers, conversation, and hugs—that can develop and stimulate young learners. As such, we should 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 also because of the associative memory of sitting close to another person while being read to. If I had to choose between my grandson hearing a first-rate librarian read a story or having him click through even the most involving multimedia “book,” I’d opt for the human every time.

I urge all caring adults who see themselves as child advocates, as educators, and as technologists to read and carefully consider the proposals made in the Alliance for Childhood report. The question really isn’t whether we should use technology in classrooms but rather how to do so wisely. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that our children could have both laps and laptops, each when appropriate and needed?

Vol. 16, Issue 11, Page 51

Published in Print: November 1, 2004, as Kid’s Play
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