In a few days I will visit my daughter’s kindergarten classroom and I expect to flinch at the presence of computers. Just as I did last year in her pre-K classroom, and as I do every time I hit the children’s section of the local libraries.
I’m in the camp that would rather have children avoid computer use in the early grades, and instead focus on the social and creative skills that come with traditional play. I know many think this opinion is outdated, including the leaders of our school’s PTA, who raised considerable amounts of money to buy more technology for the elementary school.
These two factions have squared off in the world of private schools, as the Post’s Cecilia Kang recently documented iin a story about two highly regarded schools, one high-tech, the other low tech.
What about in the public arena, and in the early grades?
I sought the perspective of Lisa Guernsey, the director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation and author of the new book, “Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child,” (Basic Books, 2012).
I asked her if and when technology becomes useful in the classroom.
Her short answer: It depends on how the teacher uses it. Relying on a computer to babysit is as bad as using a boring paper assignment to keep a class quiet.
But when technology is in the hands of a skilled educator, well then that’s a different story.
Guernsey explains below:
“In my research on electronic media and my interactions with thoughtful teachers, I have become convinced that digital technology has the potential to augment hands-on activities, enhance lessons and foster a thirst for exploration and knowledge-gathering among young children. The highly regarded Reggio Emilia approach to preschool education, for example, focuses on following kids’ curiosities and documenting their processes of discovery and their artwork. While natural materials and the objects children find outdoors are integral to this approach, tools such as video cameras, online slide shows and audio-recording journals can also play a helpful role.
“In other models, teachers employ video ‘field trips,’ two- or three-minute clips that show, say, a crayon factory or a farm in Zimbabwe, to help open children’s eyes to something they may not see. When my children were preschool-aged, I loved showing them YouTube videos of hummingbirds that could be paused or slowed down so that they could see the wings move.
“Digital enhancements to activities and lessons arise from teachers who have been encouraged to use and explore technology on their own. That can be a tall order given the state of today’s early education workforce, which is comprised in many cases of child care workers with little college education, let alone access to high-tech software and tools. In some school districts, even kindergarten teachers may be lacking the knowledge and tools they need because their districts do not compensate or train them at the same level as other teachers.
“That’s why, as digital technology becomes integrated into schooling for even the youngest of our children, it’s imperative to invest more in teacher training and provide teachers with more access to materials, both online and off. And yet many preschools and Head Start centers do not qualify for federal discounts for Internet access and, given already squeezed budgets, are less likely to enable their teachers to go online to explore for new books, lesson plans or interactive activities....
“(A national push is underway to bring more attention to these disparities.)
“None of this is to take away from the image of the finger-painting, playdough-punching, stone-collecting preschooler or kindergartner that so many of us love to see. Developmental science teaches us that those activities should remain front and center in young children’s lives, with lots of time for unstructured play and conversations with peers and parents.
“In “Screen Time,” I write about how parents can make good choices by evaluating the Three C’s of e-media: content, context and the needs of their child. And while learning scientists have made important discoveries in the past decade, there’s still much research to be done on how and when children of different ages and developmental stages benefit or not from different kinds of digital media. Several studies on the literacy power of e-books, for example, point out the importance of children’s interactions with the story line instead of extraneous bells and whistles.
“But let a preschooler show you a video recording of his class’s nature tour, talking excitedly about the cricket close-ups he’ll show his cousins across the country, and you might start to see how screens could have a place in young children’s classrooms.”
What do you think? What are your thoughts on technology in the classroom, especially in the younger grades?