Revisiting a "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood"
by Dr. Rob Reilly
I believe that educational technology will greatly enhance the ability of students to learn and will provide educators with terrific tools to facilitate learning. I believe that educational pedagogy and aims and visions of educational technology must first be redefined and then continually monitored lest we go astray. I believe that far too many people have accepted the promise of 'computers in schools' as an article of faith without evaluating the underling pedagogy and the research/anecdotal evidence offered to support that claim.
I also believe that it's important to cautiously assess and evaluate the words of those who are skeptical of the many promises offered by having 'computers in schools,' lest we go astray!
Twenty-one months ago at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. the Alliance for Childhood released a 99-page report entitled "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood." This Report was particularly critical of many of the positions that the educational community took in regard to having computers in elementary school classrooms.
The only mainstream newspaper that seemed to take positive note of this report was the San Francisco Chronicle---they praised the report as being "thoroughly grounded in the scientific understanding of human development." I read the Report and it seemed to be more opinion and forecasting than I was comfortable with---those who crafted the Report seemed to want a return to a quieter gentler world. That's fine but they seemed to have a predisposition against young children being exposed to computers and were in search of reasons to support their conclusion. It seemed to be a report that articulated the authors' positions very well; I did not question their 'agenda,' it was quite clear what it was. But again, it seemed to me that it was not based upon factual data that was gathered over a period of time. But I am concerned that more and more credible voices are being raised in support of the position brought forward in the "Fool's Gold" report. I am concerned that I find myself agreeing with many more of their observations than I did twenty-one months ago! I began to wonder if I was like the Roadrunner cartoon character, Wiley Coyote, who would run over the edge of a cliff but would not begin to fall until he actually looked down and noticed that he had, in fact, gone beyond the edge of the cliff.
The "Fool's Gold" report found 'evidence' of overuse of computers by children. But this 'evidence' seems to be more a case of 'look until you find something that will prove your point and ignore all other evidence' than actual research.
The Report is a document that was prepared and endorsed by a number of sociologists, developmental psychologists, and medical doctors. The report states that:
"Children need stronger personal bonds with caring adults. Yet powerful technologies are distracting children and adults from each other."
When first reading the Report my main concern was that the people who crafted the Report and the organization who underwrote it were simple anti-technology Luddites who would never see any 'good' in technology (at least for young children).
The report supports the notion that computer education is contrary to developmentally appropriate teaching/learning methods, stating that computers:
"pose serious health hazards to children. The risks include repetitive stress injuries, eyestrain, obesity, social isolation, and, for some, long-term physical, emotional, or intellectual developmental damage. Our children, the Surgeon General warns, are the most sedentary generation ever. Will they thrive spending even more time staring at screens?"
The Report offers a number of thought-provoking ideas as to the reason why children are negatively affected by computers. At times it seems as though the Report offers as many 'negatives' as possible in hopes that one will convince the reader. Perhaps they have a point, perhaps there are difficulties. But the points brought out in the Report seem to be more societal-based problems than computer-based or technology generated issues. For example, the Report quotes M.I.T. Professor Sherry Turkle, who asks: "Are we using computer technology not because it teaches best but because we have lost the political will to fund education adequately?"
But let's examine the claims about computers and children more closely. The Report's cornerstone philosophy generates this critical question: "Do computers really motivate children to learn faster and better?"
The Report acknowledges that technology emphasizes analytic skills and abstract thinking, but the Report states that this is not developmentally appropriate as young children are incapable of such development and are more in need of physical, emotional, and social experiences that computers ignore.
The Report critically questions the notion that "children must start learning on computers as early as possible…to [among other things] get a jump-start on success." In support of the findings the Report notes that Stanford University professor Larry Cuban states that: "30 years of research on educational technology has produced just one clear link between computers and children's learning. Drill-and-practice programs appear to improve scores modestly - though not as much or as cheaply as one-on-one tutoring - on some standardized tests in narrow skill areas."
One of the main issues that is raised by the Report is that things that are "good for adults and older students [are] often inappropriate for youngsters." The Report believes that the "sheer power of information technologies may actually hamper young children's intellectual growth." The Report continues to state that:
"Face-to-face conversation with more competent language users, for example, is the one constant factor in studies of how children become expert speakers, readers, and writers. Time for real talk with parents and teachers is critical. Similarly, academic success requires focused attention, listening, and persistence."
The Report indicates that creativity and acquiring model-based reasoning skills will be inhibited by current-day computers/educational technology. The Report believes that "a heavy diet of ready-made computer images and programmed toys appears to stunt imaginative thinking." This certainly seems true given that the first wave of computer programs were focused at drill-and-practice, and later were factual presentations of information. But it seems to me that the Report fails to recognize the work being done to build Intelligent Tutoring Systems that will, for example, recognize the affective state of a user and respond appropriately.
One of the main concerns of the Report deals with the question as to whether computers really do connect children to the world. It states that: "computers actually connect children to are trivial games, inappropriate adult material, and aggressive advertising." The Report goes on to note that computers "can also isolate children, emotionally and physically, from direct experience of the natural world. The "distance" education they promote is the opposite of what all children, and especially children at risk, need most - close relationships with caring adults"
The Report has other concerns, it states that in the:
"early grades, children need live lessons that engage their hands, hearts, bodies, and minds - not computer simulations. Even in high school, where the benefits of computers are clearer, too few technology classes emphasize the ethics or dangers of online research and communication. Too few help students develop the critical skills to make independent judgments about the potential for the Internet - or any other technology - to have negative as well as positive social consequences.
The Report concludes that those:
"who place their faith in technology to solve the problems of education should look more deeply into the needs of children. The renewal of education requires personal attention to students from good teachers and active parents, strongly supported by their communities. It requires commitment to developmentally appropriate education and attention to the full range of children's real low-tech needs - physical, emotional, and social, as well as cognitive."
In a review of the Report, Education World states that it "is interesting reading and raises some good points but doesn't really explore both sides of the issue completely." It seems disingenuous of the Report to summarily dismiss the potential of technology. It seems that those who crafted this Report have issues with society in general and are using technology as a venue. It seems to me that their focus needs to be shifted toward a different venue---granted that technology has a long way to go, but even technology may not be able to solve some of the ills of society.
However, regardless of the validity of the underlying research, or the bias of the Report---even if the issues the Report offers are merely 'opinion,' there are a number of excellent points in the Report. Let me suggest that you read the Alliance for Childhood's Report and wander through their Web site.
Alliance for Children's Web site is located at: http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/index.htm
"Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood" report is available at: http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/
Education World Web site located at: http://www.education-world.com
U.S. News and World Report's September 25, 2000 cover story entitled: "Why Computers Fail as Teachers: False Promise" located at: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/
Newsweek's technology article, "An Extreme Reaction" located at: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/
"Learning in the Real World" by William Rukeyser's is an online information resource about the effects of computers on children located at: http://www.realworld.org
New York Times article by Pamela Mendels entitled: "Technology Critic Takes On Computers in Schools" located at: http://www.nytimes.com/library/
The Boston Globe article by Barbara Meltz entitled: "Computers, Software Can Harm Emotional, Social Development" located at: http://www.boston.com/globe/