Children And Computers

In a previous life I was an elementary-school teacher andhad more opportunity than most to think about the place of technology in education, computers in particular. Through an accident of history I was a freshman at Reed College the year it’s most famous drop-out introduced his pet project, the Macintosh, watching as the calligraphy culture of Lloyd Reynolds was replaced by desktop publishing. As a charter member of the Teach for America national teacher corps I got to work in a school whose officially-supported technology was frozen at approximately 1920. In the mid-nineties I argued for the inclusion of Internet resources for our school and used to download web sites to floppy disks so that Internet resources such as the CIA World Factbook would be available to my students. Now, having abandoned teaching to work as a computer consultant people are often surprised that I do NOT consider computers an appropriate tool for most children, and certainly not a primary learning tool. Today I would like to briefly explain why.

Why Educate Children?

The primary purpose of education is to pass down human culture and wisdom, to help people feel more confident and at home in the world, to understand things and be better humans. As humans we live in a very particular world, bounded by certain physical, social and emotional or spiritual realities that we make sense of, understand and interact with, primarily through thought. When asking what is the best, most appropriate education, one must first ask what is a good person. What do we want to be? And what do we want our neighbors and children to be? When phrased this way, almost no one will immediately suggest computers.

Tools are Not People

Whether you believe that children are primarily spiritual beings or immature, late-paleolithic mammals, your answer shall probably touch on ideas of understanding one’s place in the world and being able to negotiate that place in a thoughtful, caring way. Part of this involves physical manipulation, part involves socialization; a large part of it involves adaptation and comprehension, and perhaps terms such as “compassion” or “independence” or “flexibility” come into the mix. These are not the sort of skills that children learn from computers.

Every sort of culture and mammal raises their children in a series of fairly predictable steps: feeding and protecting the young ones through constant communication and touch, allowing them to be present to observe activities by others, communicating with by word and gesture, encouraging imitative play and gradually correcting maladaptive mistakes or “errors.” The young are weaned both physically and mentally to become functional adults in the larger environment, carrying on the species or culture beyond the parent’s biological death. None of the fundamental skills are best taught at a computer, but in a physical or social world with guidance and feedback from others.

Children don’t need computers. What they do need are others: mentors, elders, peers, siblings and other creatures such as plants, animals or other children to interact with and learn from in time and space. As a teacher I worked strongly for the integration of computers in the classroom, but only as TOOLS for the completion of other, relevant tasks. Computers should not be any more exalted or fetishized than paper, pencils or books; whiteboards, televisions or other objects such as science apparatus or math “manipulatives.”

What Matters Most?

I introduced the Internet in the general unit on research materials such as library books, periodicals, atlases, newspapers and encyclopedias. I introduced word processing as a part of the organic drafting, revising and publishing “writing process.” Spreadsheets were just a way to do repetitive calculations quickly, while databases were just a way to help a diverse group of people organize a huge collection of tiny facts. Computer graphics were a cross between a photocopy machine and a draftsman’s table, but never took the place of drawing, doodling or sketching in the field. Although useful for “drill and kill” repetition tasks such as practicing test-taking or running through math-fact “flash cards,” I like to think that I never deluded myself that the computer was much more than a technical chimera that nailed together a television screen, mimeograph and a solid collection of worksheets. The computer is not some magic bullet that will solve all our woes.

Lure of the Magic Bullet Techno-Fix

“History is littered with Maginot lines,” foolproof devices and unsinkable ships that shall solve all of humanity’s problems. So is education. From the New England primers to McGuffey’s readers to Zerna Sharp’s “Dick and Jane” series to modern basal readers and Josten’s, the concept of what makes a perfect literacy program is hotly and lucratively debated. Parents fret that students don’t know “the basics” or certain facts, but forget the central point of everything that we do not teach math (or science, or reading or history), we teach children. And we should not teach children merely so that they can be minor industrial operatives.

Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children” speaks of how we may think of the young as personal property, but they are no more ours than we are our parents’, and they shall “dwell in the house of tomorrow” which we can imagine, but never see. Whether you know how Wilhelm Fröbel invented kindergarten in the 1800’s, admire Rudolf Steiner or have never heard of Maria Montessori; whether you are a fan of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois or have no idea who they are; whatever your understanding of pedagogy or philosophy, I would guess that when you think of your child’s future, their ability to program in FORTRAN is not at the top of the things you hope for.

The things of ultimate concern for a child are very similar to those of ultimate concern for an adult, and the main task of adults and parents in our culture is to focus on ultimate concerns, not tools or gizmos. The wealthiest humans have almost always educated their children through an increasingly complex and sophisticated series of manipulative experiences in the real world, alternating with tutorials and competition. Music, chess, riding, travel. Ballet, dancing, football, lacrosse. Wrestling, boxing, football, lacrosse. Childcare, cooking, sewing, conversation. Physical and social skills in the broader world are exactly the sort of things that computers do not teach, and to which even adults are tempted to retreat from in favor of computers.

Fool’s Gold and Silicon Snake Oil

Just before I left education there was a great push by Microsoft to control that “molding market” and revenue stream, which I saw as fundamentally bad for education. I inventoried the technical skills I had learned and left in my short life, from card catalogs to slide-rules to carbon paper and light-tables. Whatever fourth-graders would use “on the job” fifteen years from now, I could guarantee that it would not be Windows 95. Our task was to help students learn better how to learn, through observation, from others, alone or in groups, to be as adaptive and flexible as their unpredictable futures would demand. Computers, for the most part, take children out of a difficult world into an alternative or fantasy space that is not the quickest way to make them strong. Like reading a gossip column or watching a mediocre sit-com, it is time spent, but not well or productively.

When parents ask me what I think about getting their child a computer I usually respond by asking them a little bit about the child’s general social and athletic life, as well as the parent’s aspiration for the computer. I did not seriously use a computer until college and yet I was more expert in most things now than those who did, and for every story about a tech millionaire, I can tell a dozen more about someone who is single and unhappy, working a dead-end job and eating, but not thriving. Computers are for the white middle-class what sports too often are for the African-American working class or rap music seems to many in the lower class: a lottery ticket chance at a better life. For every Tiger Woods or Bill Gates, though, there are thousands of overweight men with high cholestrol. For every Madonna or Martha Stewart, there are thousands of former dancers with skin cancer. True education is not merely vocational, but prepares the student for whatever might happen in any country, at any place, in any time.

Computers Size Everything Extra Medium

I am told that the Waldorf schools do not encourage or welcome the use of computers until the high school level, and this seems to be a fairly good guide. While computers may have limited uses in particular projects such as math drills, physical publication of writing or focussed research, mostly I see computers used in the home as televisions: escapist video games that take the place of more wholesome activities such as physical tasks (exercise, self-expression, hobbies or building), social tasks (scouting, exploring with friends, adventures) or reading (as escape or to explore alternative realitiies, as is sometimes done healthily through historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy).

One of the fundamental problems with a computer is that it makes everything the same experience: whether you are playing chess, reading, drawing or visiting, the fundamental physical action is almost exactly the same as watching television. This cannot be developmentally appropriate, especially when basic physiological processes such as muscular coordination, spatial orientation and skills in both reading and projecting non-verbal social cues are still being developed. When I was in high school it was mainly people who could not do sports, make friends or play a musical instrument who were drawn to computers. Today computers are drawing people away from playing musical instruments, making friends or using their bodies in wholesome ways. It is not “surfing the internet” or “exploring cyberspace.” It is sitting on your butt in front of a computer.

Every hour in front of a computer is an hour away from your life. If you are considering the appropriate use of life and of computers, please consider phoning for an appointment with Mac Rory at (360) 695-6929.


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