Earlier this fall, an organization called the Alliance for Childhood issued a report, titled “Fool’s Gold,” that was highly critical of the use of computers for students in their first few years in school.
Numerous education organizations, researchers, and other professionals have denounced the report. In particular, they have pointed out that the organization, which promotes the Waldorf Education method, started with the premise that computers are harmful and then selectively used information to support its thesis.
One of the most prominent critics of the Alliance’s report is David Thornburg, Ph.D., a 30-year veteran of the computer industry, director of the Thornburg Center, and senior fellow of the Congressional Institute for the Future. Thornburg refers to the Alliance as making “assertions that at times are completely false, demonstrate a lack of understanding about the media they are criticizing, and fail to cite a supporting research base.”
Thornburg notes that the Alliance starts with a premise supported by all educators and child-development experts: Computers are not a substitute for children interacting with adults and with their peers. But he strongly disputes the assumptions that the Alliance makes that schools therefore are using computers to substitute for human contact. Computers support learning activities but are not the learning activities in and of themselves, Thornburg says.
“It is disingenuous to suggest that schools have turned children into little drones who spend countless hours glued to a screen,” he writes. “If that happened, it happened at home, and it happened with television.”
Thornburg offers a recipe for researchers who want to test the Alliance’s thesis. To explore the impact of classroom computers on the youngest learners:
1. Understand the difference between computers and television. Computers are interactive, and students can control the information they receive from them. Children do not watch computers passively, as they do television.
2. Read existing research literature. Professional journals regularly publish new studies on this issue, and researchers must be informed about what has been learned so far.
3. Don’t ask loaded, emotional questions. The Alliance report implies that students as young as five years old are being trained as computer programmers and technicians. Obviously, this is not what computers are being used for in kindergarten classrooms.
4. Compare using computers to other activities. For example, the Alliance criticizes computer keyboards for causing repetitive-motion injuries and suggests, therefore, that a moratorium on computer use for youngsters is needed. By that measure, piano lessons should be banned, too.