Let’s stop kidding ourselves about the drive to computerize elementary education. Sure, this one-size-fits-all fix for schools does seem to meet a lot of adult needs. It makes well-intentioned politicians and school administrators feel decisive and progressive. It tempts overworked parents and teachers with a convenient, mesmerizing, electronic babysitter. And it has proven commercially irresistible to powerful, high-tech companies that hope to boost their own sales by exploiting the educational market.
But this machine-dominated approach does not meet the developmental needs of grade-school children. Nor will it prepare them to muscle up the human imagination, courage, and willpower they’ll need to tackle the huge social and environmental problems looming before us.
Young children are not emotionally, socially, morally, or intellectually prepared to be pinned down to the constraining, logical abstractions that computers require. This sedentary approach to learning is also unhealthy for their developing senses and growing bodies, as reports of repetitive stress injuries demonstrate.
Neither research nor common sense supports the pro-tech agenda for grade schools. For decades, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation have blatantly promoted the use of computers at all levels of education, even as they funded supposedly objective studies to try to document the positive academic impacts. They have conspicuously neglected to fund studies to test whether the intense use of computers might actually pose any hazards for young children. Despite this scientifically indefensible bias, the research results have never indicated that computers are a cost-effective way to achieve academic gains. (See page 8-18 of Science and Engineering Indicators 1998, a federal report published by the National Science Board, which admits this.)
Meanwhile, a wide range of research on healthy child development points in the opposite direction. It shows that children thrive in home and school environments where they feel securely loved and welcomed, and where responsible, attentive adults spend lots of time with them, in ways that respect their individual gifts and the different developmental phases of childhood. Experts on healthy emotional development, such as child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, have clearly documented that strong relationships with adults provide the emotional experiences that prime children to pay attention in the classroom. Then, with beloved teachers to enthusiastically introduce them to rocks and bugs, stories and numbers, children are naturally motivated to embrace the world of learning so dear to the teachers they love.
But the razzle-dazzle of computers often distracts teachers and students from each other. And it literally inserts a flat screen between the child and the real world. Our most troubled children are hardly in need of more face-to-screen interactions with impersonal machines. What they lack is just the opposite: consistent, personal, loving attention from real, live people. For children, this is our most pressing social issue.
Children, after all, don’t just collect, store, and manipulate data in their brains. They experience the natural and social worlds around them with their whole bodies and souls. In doing so, they learn to care about their world, to understand their culture, and to create meaning for themselves from all they encounter.
That’s why grade-school children deserve an education that is truly “hands on,” not just “hands on a keyboard.” Young children learn their first lessons in physics, geometry, biology, and other domains through moving their own bodies in space, bouncing balls, flying kites, swinging, throwing, digging in dirt, and all sorts of other “experiments” with the physical world.
Research also indicates that children who excel in imaginative play later excel in creatively solving complex, ambiguous problems. In other words, they are likely to be tomorrow’s great scientists, great managers, great artistsand great parents! This kind of hands-on learning doesn’t happen often enough in most kindergartens. And in high-tech classrooms, sophisticated computer videos simply overwhelm children’s ability to conjure up their own images, stifling imagination and creativity.
Research on healthy development also suggests that it’s counterproductive for elementary schools to cut back on library books, recess, music and art, sports, and hands-on science labs to free up time and money for computers. With young children, simple is best. The best preparation for a lifetime of successful reading, for example, is being read books and told stories by favorite adults. In all their classes, they benefit from a wide range of artistic approaches, such as storytelling, great cultural myths, painting, music, drama, rhythm, and other creative sources that can touch their hearts as well as challenge their minds.
Ironically, the blind push to computerize all of childhood actually cheats the oldest students, who most need computer skills for the job market. Having wasted so much money on computers for younger children, school districts rarely can afford to outfit high schools with up-to-date equipment and technical training that juniors and seniorsespecially those who do not plan to go on to collegehave a right to demand.
Finally, the current computer craze ignores not only what research and common sense tell us about healthy child development, but also the statistical evidence of children’s real unmet needs.
We know, for example, that nearly one in five children is growing up in poverty, with all the pressures on parents that implies. Millions of children live in families that still lack health insurance. The Children’s Defense Fund estimates that another 1.7 million mothers, infants, and young children could be served if we were willing to spend more on the federal food program designed to make sure that young children and pregnant women at least have enough to eat. As a nation, we spend so little on Head Startthe kind of preschool program proven to give poor children and their families a strong launch into the school yearsthat only about half of the children who are eligible for it are enrolled. Meanwhile, teachers continue to call for smaller class sizes so they can give their most challenging and disadvantaged students the personal attention they deserve. Too often, the response they hear is “it’s too expensive.”
These are examples of the social priorities that really deserve attention if we’re serious about boosting the school performance of our most disadvantaged children. So why do we continue to divert scarce tax dollars to boost, instead, the sales of hardware, software, and telecommunications giants?
Colleen Cordes is a journalist who writes about technology, education, and social policy. She is a founding member of the Alliance for Childhood (http://www.allianceforchildhood.net), an international partnership of teachers, doctors, parents, researchers, and others committed to the idea that every child deserves a healthy and fruitful childhood.