Technology: Fool’s gold or the real stuff?
Alliance for Childhood’s Fool’s Gold report (a response), School Library Journal December 2000
As we rush headlong into our efforts to improve education and our children’s lives, it’s worthwhile to sit back, take a deep breath, and reflect on not just if we are moving fast enough, but also if we are actually moving in a desirable direction.
Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, a recently released report by the Alliance for Childhood <http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/> pleads for educators to do just that. It argues that using technology with young children has shown no empirical evidence of improved learning, has resulted in money being diverted from other proven education programs, and may actually be socially and physically harmful. You can hear echoes of cranks like Todd (“The Computer Delusion”) Oppenheimer and Clifford Stoll, but there are also more thoughtful viewpoints like those made by Jane Healy and David Elkind. While the report is obviously seeking headlines, it should still be read.
The core beliefs of the organization are hard to argue with: childhood should not be hurried, children should be respected as individuals, and children should be relieved from as much stress as possible. Technology used with younger children works against all these premises, the report argues, and concludes with a variety of recommendations including:
• Refocusing education for younger students on play, the arts, and hands-on activities such as crafts,
• Conducting studies to determine the possible health hazards to children resulting from the use of technology,
• Halting the commercial “hyping” of technology for children,
• Emphasizing ethics, responsibility and critical thinking in older students when using technology, and
• Implementing an immediate moratorium on the further introduction of computers into early childhood and elementary education.
Most of us can pick apart pieces of the Alliance for Childhood’s document. It tends to concentrate on the drill-and-kill, programmed instruction use of computers in school. It doesn’t acknowledge that programs can and do foster creativity and can be used with physical objects (like Lego-Logo). It ignores studies like Keith Curry Lance’s that find programs that use technology as a tool (such as a good library media programs) can, in fact, help raise test scores. It underplays the perhaps undocumented, but easily observed phenomena of technology reaching kids who cannot be taught in other ways. It doesn’t recognize that technology by itself does not create kids who are more social or less social. It does not recognize that parents,our customers, are asking schools to help their kids become “computer literate.”
Whether or not one agrees with Fools’ Gold, all educators, especially school media specialists and technology coordinators, should read the study and use it as springboard for reflection on how their schools are using technology, especially with younger students. Among the questions I am asking myself about our district’s uses are:
• Is technology being used as a babysitter or in place of more effective human-directed activities?
• Is the focus of instruction on learning content and critical thinking skills or on how to “use technology?”
• Is the amount of children’s time spent before a computer monitor relatively small compared to that spent working with materials in the physical world and with other human beings?
• Are purchasing decisions being made to meet learning needs identified by a whole school or curriculum improvement plan or because of glitzy advertisements and fast-talking sales agents?
• Do the computer-related activities my students are doing require collaboration and teamwork or are they isolating?
Any study that makes us ask these kinds of questions is good for us.
It’s always been my belief that good school library media programs use technology in a very wise way: as simply a necessary tool for solving problems by locating, accessing, and creatively communicating information in a variety of formats. We certainly ask children to use the computerized library catalog, but for the purpose of finding a developmentally appropriate book. We ask students to access the Internet, but to help them find answers to meaningful questions and give them practice in evaluating the quality of those answers. We help children use the computer to illustrate stories, write more proficiently, and design webpages and hypermedia presentations to communicate messages that have substance as well as style. Or if we aren’t, we should be and should be helping classroom teachers do the same.
Take some time to download, read, and discuss this report at your next technology committee meeting. Good media programs have the alchemical tools that can turn fool’s gold into real gold in your school.