By Johanna Riddle


May 9, 2009

Let’s face it. We love technology. We just do. It’s captivating, creative, and, yes, it’s hip. Most of us who bother to read posts like this one dedicate some time and effort to building our geek cred. If some technology is good, more must be better. We know what it adds to the learning arena. If it empowers high school students, engages middle schoolers, powers up cross curricular learning for elementary age students, it must do phenomenal things for babies and toddler, too. Right?
Many parents think so. Technology and digital media for babies is big business, infused into the earliest lives of our children. Consider the popularity of Baby Einstein videos or the wealth of software developed specifically for babies and toddlers. They have their own hardware, too! Check out the Comfy Easy PC Keyboard for babies, marketed through Baby Genius. Does this early exposure work? Are kids getting smarter, faster?
Not necessarily, say Dr. Dimitri Christakis and Frederick Zimmerman, both of the University of Washington. Their research doesn’t bear up the benefits of toddler targeted technology. In fact, their study indicates that too much early exposure to these tools actually delays language development and over stimulates the babies, making it difficult for them to concentrate later on in life. The researchers worry that parents might believe that these products serve as a valid replacement for human interaction.
“Babies require face-to-face interaction to learn,” says Dr. Vic Strasburger, professor of pediatrics at the University Of New Mexico School Of Medicine. “They don’t get that interaction from watching TV or videos. In fact, the watching probably interferes with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development.”
So, when do we begin to infuse technology into the world of learning? Susan Haughland, a researcher with the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, believes that preschool is the best time to introduce the computer.
“Computers in the preschool and kindergarten classroom have great value when they are used in a developmentally appropriate way,” said Susan Haughland from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Compared to children in a similar classroom without computer experience, three-and four-year olds who used computers with supporting activities had significantly greater gains in verbal and nonverbal skills, problem solving, abstraction, and conceptual skills.”
If you want to know the secret of life, or just about anything else, ask a kindergarten teacher. I found several with plenty to say about the meaningful integration of technology into the kindergarten schoolscape.
“Technology is integral to the kindergarten classroom,” explains Patricia Kershner, a career kindergarten teacher, “because that’s the way today’s world works, and the job of the teacher is to prepare them for that world.” Kindergartners learn by experiencing a concept in many formats, she explains, and often need to work with a concept over and over in order to really understand it. “ It’s (technology) not a substitute for doing, or for sensorial experiences, or for good teaching, but the right computer activities can supplement and enrich students in unique ways. The computer has the added advantage of providing visual and auditory information and improves their eye-hand coordination. In the right context, it is also a forum for social and creative expression.” It comes down to knowing your students, she adds.
Colin Lankshear and Llana Snyder, authors of Teachers and Technoliteracy (Allen and Unwin, 2000) agree. “The role of the teacher is to move students from information to knowledge,” they write. Technology and digital media can contribute to this. “But,” they advise, “We have to make sure that technology serves educational needs and not the other way around.”
So, maybe Piaget, with his classic developmental stages and his concrete-to-abstract philosophy, has something of value to contribute to technology education in the elementary school. But just how do we approach technology education from a developmental perspective?
I like to provide physical models for my young students. For example, I press a jewelry box, with many drawers, into service to illustrate the drives of a computer. Fixing an image of a computer to the back of the box, I label each one of the drawers on the front face accordingly: desktop, peripheral, A Drive, C Drive, D drive, H drive. I print out a series of miniature photos and documents, and place them into the various drawers of the jewelry box. Using the drawers as an analogy for computer drives, I am able to show my students how the files can be moved from one drive to another, how files are integrated, and so forth. It isn’t high tech, but it’s effective—and it helps my students make that leap to the abstract functions of computer use and management.
Concrete to abstract learning applies to software skills as well. My primary age students use a manual cropping tool—a cardboard square with the center removed—to manually isolate an area of their photo. I demonstrate the way that technology can be used to crop photos and help them make the connection between the two processes. These same students select and manipulate real objects to create collages that represent the details of a story, or that express a concept visually, and then create a scan or a digital photograph of their work. Later on, these same students learn how to create images by layering and manipulating a portfolio of imagery using Adobe Photoshop Elements. Another of my favorite metaphors is to demonstrate the notion of layering images with Photoshop Elements by showing my students a stack of clear report covers, each with an image or drawn on them, a phrase added, or a color added to the mix. As I begin to stack the images, adding more detail, students begin to make the connection to the layering process of Photoshop Elements software. The same is true for storyboarding tools and digital storytelling software. We begin with a low tech mix of index cards, scotch tape, using yellow sticky notes to edit, add, and explain. Inelegant, but effective (and inexpensive!). My youngest students manually manipulate the visual and textual elements of their story, so that they can better understand the digital manipulation of slides and video insertions in storytelling software.
Want more ideas for developmentally appropriate technology instruction? Check out these suggestions from Susan Brooks, co-founder of Internet4Classrooms. Susan Krill from Southwestern School District in Hanover, Pennsylvania, has compiled a comprehensive technology link that exposes young children to information literacy, traditional literacy and learning through technology, creating with technology and age appropriate computer skills.
I think Piaget would be proud, don’t you?