Technology and learning in the early years
VCAA Curriculum Branch Conference, 11 November, 2008
You may well ask: Why should children in the early years have any exposure to technologies?
One answer is to ask: How many of you remember the character called The Fonz in the family TV show Happy Days? He seemed to be a bit of a lair, slicked back hair and 'cool' attitude towards adults, school and sex. But you may not recall that when The Fonz went to a library and took out books on his library card, the American Library Association recorded a 400% increase in the issue and use of library cards by children and teenagers. Such is the untapped power of modeling behavior through effective media.
We need to consider the media in early childhood development
There are those who argue young children should watch no television at all, should be kept away from computer games, the internet, mobile phones, even radio. In my view, they are spitting into the wind.
A recent US National Institutes of Health review (2008) of 28 years of studies linking adolescent health and media use found the average time spent watching media - 45 hours per week (compared with 17 hours with parents & 30 hrs at school)
The key problem is that of correlation versus causation & lack of controls in such research for other likely factors (low SES, family problems, parental education, low self-esteem, peers and neighborhood context)affecting both screen time and later 'outcomes'.
Most of us would probably agree with the idea that time spent glued to the computer or television screen should be limited, except that the evidence of 'harm' is very thin. Even the data on such young children's exposure to television shows they spend most of their time sleeping, or in interaction with their Mum, or in random play in their cots, not watching TV. And even for 2-6 year-olds, the data on which the American pediatricians base their alarmist claims indicates that American children spend more time on average playing games, both inside and outside, than they do watching TV. The extremes are always used to justify moral panic.
So, why expose children to any technology at all? The first answer is -
1. Because it's there and is an unavoidable part of their family and social context
As well, we need to know where young children spend most of their time. It's no use having a National Early Years Curriculum Framework which ignores the main setting of early childhood development - the family home. Just look at the following figures, extrapolated from COAG's estimates of children in non-family child care settings.
Slide on 'Where are they?'
- most young children spend most of their time at home, not in formal child care settings.
Nor are children totally passive 'victims' of the media:
But many families apply no controls on their children's viewing at all. Indeed, in 61% of families 'background TV' is on all day, exposing children to adult content. And Australia's regulatory body ACMA found children aged 0-4 spend 5 hours 48 mins per day on media use (watching free TV, 154 mins; subscription TV, 194 mins)
My second answer to Why expose young children to media technology at all? Is -
2. Learning potential :
Earlier this week, the federal Minister for Small Business, Craig Emerson, wrote in The Australian that (as Albert Einstein said) 'imagination is more important than knowledge'. Just as the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment of the 1700s spread new ideas that lifted living standards, the New Growth theorists in economics are once again discovering the critical power of imagination and creativity in human development. There is little point in teaching and testing for an understanding of already established knowledge if there is not, at the same time, encouragement of creativity in our young people, the development of pools of creative talent that will take humanity forward.
If you look carefully, you will find it is technology and the new media, not just books and intellectual discussions in academe that are driving this surge in creativity and imagination for today's young people. Radio is still a potent educational force in Third World countries, but the mobile phone is fast becoming a major tool of enlightenment. As access to the internet grows, the spread of ideas - the true engine of growth and change - becomes even more rapid.
And it is in early childhood that the foundations of curiosity, imagination and an exploring mind are laid.
I want to remind you of the fact that most of an individual's brain power is generated in the first years of life, especially between birth and age 3, but certainly up to the age of 8. The wealth of stimulating experience, reinforcement and strengthening of brain synapses, the extension of synthesizing links and new pathways are the determinants of later learning capacity, complex thought and expression.
Slide: Children and 'the smarts'
It was Howard Gardner and others who pointed out the dangerous narrowness of current definitions of intelligence as measured by IQ tests. Instead, they argued, the brain is capable of developing multiple intelligences in the early years and every child needs to be given a chance to operate across all forms of intelligence, not just cognitive forms as in language and mathematics. Such intelligences develop in different pathways of the brain, at different speeds and stages, yet they are inter-connected: for example, musical and bodily/kinaesthetic intelligences affect mathematical ability; interpersonal and self-understanding influence competence in many human spheres of activity.
But the key to all early childhood learning is curiosity and exploration. It is only where such qualities are encouraged that new experiences are gained, learnings reinforced, new ideas stimulated, questions raised and new pathways of learning explored.
In the jargon, this is often called 'play-based learning', but that's too vague and often leads to unguided, unstructured play rather than to a carefully planned series of curriculum experiences in early childhood settings. The skilled kindergarten teacher of course plans a rich classroom environment and uses every experience to encourage a love of learning, a curiosity about the world and a respect for the vast array of human ideas and practices. But too often, they ignore the power of the media, distrusting what is, indeed, bad content, the distortions of commercial advertising, the shallow treatment of ideas and forgetting that the media (poor as it often is) is the source of much of a child's imaginative experience and the source of much of their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. How could it be otherwise when a third of 4 year-olds are watching television for more than nine hours a week, and another third are watching four and a half hours? Worse, when Mum is at home they are watching more television, not less. Media are an unavoidable part of family life.
Television can be a wonderful story-teller. The benefits that flow to children from good storytelling are many and television's learning outcomes need to be considered as part of the 0-8 curriculum. Children have always been drawn to drama over factual kids' programming. (SPAA, 2008)
All these life lessons can be conveyed through stories on film, video, DVDs and television. The important thing for parents to understand, during the early years of their children's development, is that stories do matter and should be selected with care. This takes time and effort. We have come to regard television as a babysitter and we rely on others - the ABC, the commercial networks, the regulator (ACMA) and the censor - to classify and decide for us what children should be allowed to see. The classification system is a guide but if we simply leave children in front of television while we do other things we need to remember we don't know what the programs are teaching them.
Parents and teachers need to consider:
Just as parents should choose good books or effective toys, they should choose good television programs. We recommend parents take a very active role in their children's programming choices, viewing with them whenever possible, discussing storylines, characters, their actions and behaviour and lessons to be learned. We know from research, the learning will be more effective when a parent or teacher scaffolds, or builds, on the learning within a program.
There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates games are effective and valuable tools for learning. Games have an enthusiastic following with children from a very early age and across all ages. (For a parent's guide to video games see Jeannie Novak and Luis Levy, Play the Game, Thompson Course Technology 2008, (http://www.courseptr.com)
Because most teachers and policy-makers don't play games, they are not aware of just how sophisticated young learners' iterative strategies can become. There is a science to game playing. No one tells the kids the rules; they figure them out by playing. They seek information and piece together data from many places. They make decisions quickly which have clear consequences. They become experts at multi-tasking and parallel processing and learn to collaborate with others over a range of networks. Game players can acquire these skills at a very early age. Four and 5 year olds are known to play such games as The Sims (the most popular computer game ever made, which is essentially a 'living dollhouse') and Roller Coaster Tycoon where the basic goal is to create a successful theme park.
In the early years children naturally love to learn as they love to play and appropriate video and computer games can combine these experiences very effectively.
0-8 year olds are learning many cognitive skills which could be assisted by games :
- to attend and concentrate
- to associate words and symbols with objects
- to perceive and discriminate
- to identify similarity and difference
- to classify objects
- to see order or relationships
- to develop concepts, e.g. space, size, shape
- to explore and be curious
- to manipulate
- to use creative imagination
Mark Prensky (2006) shows in his book 'Don't bother me Mum, I'm learning!' how games help cognitive development in progressively complex ways.
Games teach children about:
So far there has been little attempt to integrate game-playing into the classroom. This will need to change. Games can be used with positive results to assist learning from 3-8.
Pre-schoolers are inducted into many forms of technology before they can read, write or even talk clearly, particularly if they have older siblings. Three year-olds can learn to manipulate a mouse and should be encouraged to do so. For this generation a computer is nothing special; it is simply another tool in their environment which they will need to master. There is no research with pre-schoolers which documents their capabilities with technology and the potential for learning games can engender.
Moreover, we learn only a little from current academic research because it has been too narrowly focused. It ignores the most powerful demonstration of the influence of media - the way in which advertising has produced a huge market in children's toys, games, characters and spin-off products which even very young children demand their parents buy for them. For example, in the five domains of child development examined by Children Now (2006) findings are at times surprising and useful, other studies trivial and contradictory.
The evidence is that quality TV programs and games can be designed for 3-8 year-olds and understood by them at different levels, the younger ones taking in messages that match their level of cognitive development, older children interpreting them at a more sophisticated level. Moreover, children will watch good programs repeatedly, and keep watching them as they grow older, learning different things each time, precisely because they can engage with quality content in increasingly sophisticated ways. The young brain's plasticity, its capacity to learn through repetition and reinforcement, the forging of new connections, make good media experiences a potent learning and developmental tool.
The main point about learning via the media is much the same as for any other mode of learning: assistance (from a parent, carer or teacher) needs to be 'scaffolded' (in Vygotsky's terms, targeted at the learner's 'Zone of Proximal Development' - the difference between the child's actual level of development and the level they could achieve with the assistance of a more competent adult or peer.) Technology makes it possible to design programs that are not only appropriate to a particular age group, but also to different developmental levels within that age group. Pre-schoolers' learning needs to be rooted in their real-life, personal experiences, should not be too abstract given their underdeveloped reasoning skills, should feature real children in program action and open up opportunities for collaborative play with other children, and be responsive to their developmental needs.
A third reason to include media in early childhood development and learning is media literacy as a critical skill.
3. Media literacy is crucial:
But it's the content that really matters!
In our longer paper for the VCAA, we argue for a broader definition of media literacy than the ususal model used in media literacy courses: as accessing, understanding, using and creating media for learning. It's not just about having technical skills, being protected from nasty advertisers or making any old video for YouTube.
Finally, my fourth answer to the question Why expose young children at all? Is
The Digital Divide:
The Steiner-Waldorf approach to children's education, which has the worthy goals of using the arts and physical activities such as music to humanise and educate the whole child - head, heart and hands - so they can (by themselves) impart meaning to their lives, confuses such aims with an anti-materialist stance. Steiner's 'anthroposophy' holds that man is born into a sub-human state and 'excessive modernism' lets loose 'Luciferous forces' that cause illness in later life. The job of education is to awaken their inner nature to 'the starry worlds in the soul and spirit' and Steiner schools strongly discourage use of electronic media, especially television and computers, because of the physical effects on the developing child, questionable media content, and because using such technology hampers development of the child's imagination. Claims without evidence.
Some writers lump such theories together with the Kodaly concept of music teaching and the Laban techniques of movement and dance. There is a similar opposition to mechanisation, an insistence on real experience, on physicality as the pathway to wider understanding and on helping children find their own meaning and emotional truth. Yet Kodaly used the tape recorder to help students identify patterns in sound, and Laban talks about acting technology and the technical analysis of dance and choreography. So we have to be cautious about what we mean by using technology in early childhood education.
The views of technology opponents could be dismissed as troglodyte or Luddite, a head-in-the-sand approach that used to apply equally to letting kids read comic books or go to the movies. But they are dressed up in educational theories which have superficial appeal - the whole child needs a fully rounded education, let the physical body develop first before the intellect, encourage activity not passivity, protect the child from unwholesome messages from a crassly commercial media machine. We could all agree, but where is the evidence for such propositions?
In stark contrast, the Montessori approach to early childhood education holds that the classroom should be a reflection of the home, the community and the wider world. Realistically, its advocates have acknowledged that media technology is an increasingly significant feature of every child's home, community and the wider society. So they adopt a proactive stance, not a head in the sand one. (See Boyd, Barbara F., 'Assistive technology for every child', Proquest, Montessori Life, Articles at BNET, 2008) Just as literacy is the foundation for academic learning, computer literacy is considered a critical skill for all young children. Montessori teachers are urged to use technology as both a resource for learning and as a tool for effective teaching.
In a high technology society, they must integrate technology in all its forms into the Montessori classroom and curriculum areas. Assistive technology is especially useful for children with disabilities, enabling them to express ideas, draw pictures, link the spoken word to the written word (through Dragon Speaking Naturally), manipulate on the screen basic mathematical concepts and visit websites on places physically out of reach.
Montessori teachers are being actively trained in how to use computers, digital cameras, tape recorders, good quality television programs and search engines to enhance their teaching of language, mathematics, history, geography, science and other areas, through interactive tools such as BigKeys, drawing software, IntelliTools, Kidspiration, Boardwalk, Go Talk, the Discovery Channel, This-Professional and Eyewitness Children's Encyclopedia. There is a wealth of material available and it is getting more sophisticated every day.
Two problems - most teachers are unaware, unskilled or afraid of technology; and today's children are way ahead of them in media literacy and computer skills. We have to, therefore: