In today’s tech-savvy classroom, there is no such thing as too much technology, too early. Or is there?

A group of educators, doctors, physiologists, and other professionals formed an alliance in February 1999 to challenge the idea that kids benefit from early, intensive exposure to computers.

In a recent mission statement written by three founding members of the group, the Alliance for Childhood outlined a list of changes it would like to see made in the conventional model of technology integration in K-12 schools.

The group’s “Draft of Guiding Principles, and Request for Comments” was written by Colleen Cordes, a journalist who writes about technology, education, and social policy; Lowell Monke, an education professor at Grinnell College in Iowa; and Stephen Talbott, editor of NetFuture, an online newsletter examining the social implications of technology.

Other prominent members of the Alliance for Childhood include Joan Almon, a longtime teacher and consultant; Jane M. Healey, an educational psychologist; and Bettye Caldwell, professor of pediatrics and former president of the National Association for the Education of Young People.

In recent years, the group argues, educators have felt pressured to start teaching kids how to use computers and the internet as early as possible. But the group believes this current model of technology education is flawed and “does not meet the ultimate goal of educational technology integration: to enable young people to develop their own creative and critical capacities in relating to technology.”

The group outlines three ways that students understand technology. First, students must know how to use a particular tool, whether it’s a chalkboard, a pencil, or a computer.

Second, students must have at least a rudimentary understanding of how the tool works.

Finally, students must develop the capacity to think critically for themselves about “the entire realm of designing, using, and adapting technologies to serve personal, social, and ecological goals in a way that will sustain life on earth.”

In its “Draft of Guiding Principles,” which is published on the NetFuture web site, the Alliance for Childhood argues that the current model only addresses the first of these three issues, because it is the easiest to learn. However, simply knowing how to use technology is the least important of the three objectives, since even the most modern innovations often become outdated in a few months.

The draft’s authors maintain that schools “frequently overlook the second [objective], leaving even older students mystified and overawed by the inner workings of sophisticated hardware and software.”

Finally, the writers accuse schools of “almost uniformly” ignoring the third criteria, which they claim to be the most important of all. The authors argue that “in a democracy, the point of technology literacy should be to prepare students to be morally responsible citizens, actively participating in creating the nation’s technological future, rather than merely reacting to it as a passive consumer.”

Four suggestions

The Alliance offers four suggestions for improving technology education.

First, the group advocates that “in early childhood and elementary school, at least through the sixth grade, [educators should] focus on developing the child’s own inner powers, not exploiting machine power.”

This is perhaps the most controversial issue addressed by the Alliance for Childhood because it directly flies in the face of common edict, which supports computer training for elementary school students. The authors advocate the use of low-tech tools—like crayons, blocks, and balls—at this grade level, claiming these tools “stimulate connections between the rich world of the child’s imagination and the equally rich physical world in ways no complex symbolic machine can.”

“Before children are exposed to complex technology, they ought to be well acquainted with simpler technology,” Monke said. Almon agreed, saying, “Young children need a very hands-on approach to learning, and I don’t mean hands on a machine.”

But technology advocates, such as Karen Smith of the non-profit group TECH CORPS, disagree. “The purpose of educational technology is not to eliminate crayons, or books, or recess, but rather it is to add technology as a tool to enhance the educational experience,” Smith explained.

Members of the Alliance argue that the use of computers at an early age sends children the message that they are incapable of learning basic skills like math, reading, and writing without the help of a machine. In fact, the draft’s authors claim, students who use computers regularly at a very early age are at a disadvantage when they reach the job market, since they have to unlearn obsolete computer skills.

The second principle that Alliance members hope to convey to educators and parents is the importance of incorporating ethics and responsibility into regular technology training. Given the influence of computer technology over modern life, the group believes that educators have a responsibility to ensure that kids are able to discern the social issues related to it.

The group’s third suggestion advocates the study of how computers work as part of the high school core curriculum. A required course in information technology would “encourage critical thinking about what the technology is good for, and what it is not so good for,” according to the document.

“Rather than try and make technology ubiquitous and invisible in schools, we want to make it consciously studied in curriculum. Technology is an important element of what drives our culture. If students don’t understand technology, they can’t control it,” Monke explained.

Finally, the group advocates making the history of technology as a social force a part of every high schooler’s core curriculum. In the draft, the authors state, “The goal of such instruction would be to help students understand that technologies, from fire to the most advanced information devices, have had profound social, political, and environmental consequences, both positive and negative, intended and unintended, throughout human history.”

In a New York Times interview, Talbott summarized his concerns for the current state of educational technology training in schools: “There’s been this powerful general sense that the next new technology—radio, television, now the web—was absolutely essential for education. But then each one gets abandoned and the next one embraced without anyone asking, ‘Are we any more clear on it this time?'”

Many technology advocates, like TECH CORPS’ Smith, disagree with the precepts outlined in the draft, but they encourage an open discussion of these issues.

“I think anyone in the business of education technology welcomes the examination of the proper use of technology in schools,” Smith said. But she added that computers should be treated differently than previous technologies because “radio, TV, and other technologies were not an integral part of the work environment. Computer technology is different in that all future adults will need it to survive in the workplace.”

The Alliance for Childhood plans to file for non-profit status, expand its “Draft of Guiding Principles,” and publish a report examining children and computers next year. The draft’s authors are asking for responses at the group’s web site to help in creating a final statement of the group’s mission.

The Alliance for Childhood

Technology Literacy Draft Statement on the NetFuture site