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Computers for children?


September 29, 2000: This message was distributed by Papyrus News, a free e-mail distribution list on the global impact of information technology on language, literacy, and education. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For information on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <>.


An issue being debated in the US is to what extent young children should use computers in school. Ferdi Serim, drawing on the work of Hank Becker and Margaret Riel, has written this response to an earlier call for a moratorium on use of computers by young children....mark

From: Ferdi Serim [mailto:ferdi@LEARNING.CENTRINITY.COM]
Sent: Thursday, September 28, 2000 12:38 PM
Subject: Spinning Gold into Straw: Alliance for Childhood Misses the Point

Hi folks,
Last week's report by the Alliance for Childhood caused quite a stir in the media and inside the Beltway...I drafted this response on behalf of the Consortium for School Networking, which I'd like to share with you. Please feel free to forward to anyone who may benefit from balance in considering the place of technology in the development of children....thanks!


Spinning Gold into Straw: Alliance for Childhood Misses the Point
By Ferdi Serim

The adage "the older I get, the better I was" now extends from personal recollection to collective judgement of earlier eras, if one accepts the Alliance for Childhood's recent report "Fools Gold: A Critical Look At Computers and Childhood."

Once again, the public is served up conclusions based on research and quotations from laudable, notable people, all of whom share two important characteristics: they are neither children, nor educators who actually use technology as a tool to improve learning. The underlying assumption seems to be that once an educator embraces technology, the love of children is replaced by the love for machines. All we have to do to improve education is change our attitude about the sanctity of childhood, banish elementary school computers and all will be well. I believe that rather than focusing on Good Old Days that never were, we can build bright new days that incorporate the Alliance's goals, without ignoring what the past decade has taught us about how technology can improve student learning.

Fool's Gold is the perfect snooze alarm for people who are yet to wake up to the idea that educational improvement requires change. And change is about more than velocity, it is also about direction. The debate today is about more than technology, choice or vouchers: it centers on whether your model for learning is based on transmission or construction of knowledge. Instead, the report implies that corporate strategies are leading educators like lemmings to the abyss, and that we're willing to sacrifice our children at the altar of the new economy. These concerns mask a more fundamental struggle about which model of learning will guide our classrooms and homes, and who will teach.

Common sense is replaced by attacks on strawmen built from misconceptions and distortions that no experienced technology using educator would endorse or repeat. For example:

"Either/Or" Strawman

"What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent." - Steve Jobs

Since both technology friends and foes agree that the most important person in education is the teacher, isn't the most critical goal to provide the most effective, best prepared teachers possible? Data from the 1998 Teaching, Learning and Computing (TLC) Survey (, involving more than 4,000 teachers in over 1,100 schools across the US, provides substantive insights about what is required to do so.

One of their dramatic findings is that that teachers who have been identified as teacher leaders in their schools, in their district and in their fields were 10 times more likely to be teachers who used computers themselves and have integrated the use of computers with their classroom instruction. These teacher leaders, teachers with a high degree of professional engagement and respect, contrasted with a group of teachers that Riel and Becker refer to as private practice teachers. This group of teachers had much lower investment in their own learning in pre-service education and in later years. When the private practice teachers did use computers, they did so in ways that supported drill and practice games. The evidence shows that teachers who invest highly in their own learning are discovering how to teach effectively with computers, using them for problem solving, analysis and presentation.

Becker finds that computers are more likely to be a valuable and effective instructional tool when certain conditions are met. Teachers need to be personally comfortable and at least moderately skilled in using computers themselves. There needs to be regular and easy student access to computers "to permit computer activities to flow seamlessly alongside other learning tasks." And, perhaps most importantly, a teachers' personal philosophy needs to be consistent with student-centered, constructivist pedagogy that incorporates collaborative projects defined partly by student interest.

"Technology is Dehumanizing" Strawman

The power of the Internet is people, not machines. I've personally witnessed a group of 5th graders in NJ take on the US Immigration Service, to prevent a classmate (who was 2 years old in the Ukraine when Chernobyl exploded) from being deported. (see They used the Internet to conduct a public information campaign that resulted in the state legislature passing a unanimous resolution to allow him to say (sic - gvs, ed). Being sent back would have represented a death sentence for this child, who is in remission from leukemia and who would be unable to find proper medical care should his illness return.

Dizzy Gillespie once told me "it will take you ten years to learn to play your instrument, and it will take you twenty to learn what *not* to play!" The arguments being made about technology's role in learning might have held water a decade ago, but we who've been working in this field have moved beyond infatuation. We know how and when to use technology, but more importantly, we know when not to use it. We have experienced in our own lives that technology and rich human relationships need not be mutually exclusive. Used in a healthy way, technologies can enrich what happens in real life. That's why we use them in the first place.

"They're Too Young to Play" Strawman

While concerns about physical injury to young children are legitimate, the risk is a defined domain, similar to sports injuries or the realizations that led very young children to use quarter-size violins in the Suzuki method. The research shows that students are lucky if they get to a school computer once a week, and that the average number of computers in classrooms lucky enough to have them is 2. If children are using computers 4-5 hours a day, they're doing so at home, which argues for better school/home communication on how to partner in shaping appropriate computer use.

Perhaps we're not arguing about technology, but common sense. Young children can benefit when caring, competent teachers use these machines to enhance their learning landscape. For example, by using the computer to track information over time, 1st grade students who were studying a small pond discovered that there were fewer ducks each year. This graphing of observational data inspired them to action and 6 classes of first graders, the population of one small school, got the attention of city planners and now the pond has been restored and preserved by the actions of computer-using first graders.

Every Child Deserves a Qualified Teacher

In The Beliefs, Practices, and Computer Use of Teacher Leaders, Margaret Riel and Hank Becker (University of California, Irvine) describe Teacher Leaders "who place a high value on sharing their knowledge with their teaching colleagues. At the opposite end of the continuum are Private Practice Teachers who report little or no engagement in professional dialog or activities beyond those mandated...(who) engage in a form of "private practice" behind closed doors. Closed classroom doors open concerns about maintaining high standards for both teaching and learning."

They continue, "The findings are consistent and strong--Teacher Leaders are better educated teachers, continuous learners, computer users, and promote constructive problem-based learning over direct instruction. They use computers to help their students achieve the same level of respect and voice that these teachers have achieved within their professional educational community."

That's the good news. Although the students of the best educated, most professionally involved, most skilled educators are ten times more likely to use computers in powerful ways, the bad news is the distribution: Teacher Leaders are 2%, Teacher Professionals are 10%, Interactive Teachers are 29%, and Private Practice Teachers are 58% of the teaching population. Literacy has expanded beyond Ozzie and Harriet days, yet we have allowed acquisition of these new skills remain optional for our teaching force.

Rather than perpetuate drama, we could choose to dialogue. Those of us using technology to improve learning have more in common with the Alliance for Childhood than either group suspects. How will the next version of this report look once we engage each other in purposeful, action oriented discourse?

(This essay will be published as a column in the November issue of eSchoolNews. see )

Ferdi Serim
phone/fax: 505 466-1901; cell: 505 577-1580

Online Internet Institute, Director
Santa Fe, NM 87505

ECP Ring Leader <>

co-author: NetLearning: Why Teachers Use the Internet

"We are more than the sum of our knowledge,
we are the products of our imagination." - Ferdi

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