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 artists—and 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 seniors—especially those who do not plan to go on to college—have 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 Start—the kind of preschool program proven to give poor children and their families a strong launch into the school years—that 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 (, an international partnership of teachers, doctors, parents, researchers, and others committed to the idea that every child deserves a healthy and fruitful childhood.

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Much of the Alliance’s humanistic critique of educational technology could be applied to the technologies—transportation, media, economics, communication—that are pervasive in the lives of every one of us.

Many of us, from the very young to the very old, actively take advantage of these technologies daily without seriously questioning how the systems work or the values implicit in their operation. The affordances provided by the technologies in our homes, workplaces, and schools are critical to the successful and happy lives of our friends, neighbors, and ourselves.

Educators in the United States who regularly apply technology tools to learning would probably agree with two of the premises the Alliance sets out in its preamble to its recommendations:

• “Technology” for learning purposes includes everything from crayons to computers.

• High-tech teaching should not focus primarily on how to operate particular machines and software, but on how to bring the power of technology to bear on important learning tasks.

Indeed, three of the Alliance’s specific recommendations—that students should study (1) technology ethics and responsibility, (2) the history of technology, and (3) the inner working of computers—are part of the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) developed by a consortium of organizations under the leadership of our organization, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

Experienced educators who employ electronic technologies to help children learn and the Alliance disagree, however, over the Alliance’s first recommendation: “In early childhood and elementary school, at least through the sixth grade, focus on developing the child’s own inner powers, not exploiting external machine power.”

This statement creates a false dichotomy. Educators need not choose between the “child’s inner powers” and “external machine power.” Furthermore, the Alliance’s portrait of how the inappropriate use of technology could disempower students and deprive them of vital skills, attitudes, and social skills has set up a straw man that implies that all uses of technology before the second year of middle school are inappropriate in that they will alienate students from teachers and from the physical world.

These assertions are simply not true. One of the more robust research findings regarding technology use is increased engagement of students in school. Technology has been shown to facilitate collaborative projects—student-to-student, school-to-school, and school-to-community. Technology tools of all kinds—crayons, manipulatives, graphics programs, graphing calculators—help learners to pose and solve more difficult problems at earlier ages.

The fundamental problem one has in understanding the Alliance’s recommendation lies in the way it talks about technology literacy. The Alliance refers to three aspects of technology literacy: Knowing how to use particular tools, understanding how the tools work, and critical thinking about “the whole realm” of using technology to serve appropriate goals.

Thinking about that “whole realm,” however, encompasses two distinct kinds of decisions: understanding the social context and implications of technology, and making strategic decisions about when and how to use tools for different purposes. These are also represented in the ISTE NETS standards. The latter type of decision is not explicitly mentioned in the Alliance analysis, but it is key to defining appropriate technology use.

In other words, student-teacher relationships and student empowerment are not inevitably compromised by K-6 computer use; rather, they are functions of the very critical thinking that the Alliance and ISTE both advocate.

We recall watching a young teacher coach her second graders through a group web quest in a one-computer classroom with TV display. The students were boisterous and enthusiastic as they tracked down information. Did they need to know keyboarding? No—they took turns pecking in the search terms. Did they need to know the architecture of packet-switching networks? No. Were they engaged? Yes. Did they have a positive relationship with their teacher? Yes. Was demonstrable learning going on? Yes—Boolean queries, spelling, and the content of the quests themselves.

The teacher had other resources at her disposal. She could have had the children look up material using classroom references or in the library. She could have used more technology, taking the students to the computer lab. But she had elected to develop this particular activity as a whole-class experience using a particular set of tools.

Perhaps the lesson could have been improved. The objects of the quests were not necessarily related (a case of the “isolated-facts” problem that the Alliance points out). The students’ learning might have been richer had the web searches been part of an ongoing research project. But this is an educational design issue, not a problem with the technology.

Technology in learning is not about the technology; it’s about the learning.

John A. Vaille, Ed.D., is chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (, which is dedicated to helping K–12 teachers and administrators use new technologies to enhance student learning. Talbot Bielefeldt is a research associate for ISTE.

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