Analysis: 'Computers benefit children'

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Debates about the effects of computers on young children should address what they are used for and how, says, John Siraj-Blatchford.

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In a guest lecture at the Open EYE conference (12 June 2010), Aric Sigman argued that computers should be banned until children reach the age of nine. He wasn't the first to criticise our use of computers in the early years - Jane Healy's Failure to Connect was first published more than a decade ago.

On the face of it, the arguments made against children using computers in the early years may seem obvious. Young children need exercise, access to the natural environment and fresh air; computers encourage sedentary behaviour and are most often located indoors.

One problem with this level of argument is that it would lead us to ban a good many other activities that we value in pre-school practice. Most policymakers and practitioners take it for granted that the early years curriculum should be broad and balanced, and that children should be playfully learning from their interactions with the widest possible range of resources, drawn from both the natural and man-made environment.

The key point here is, of course, 'balance'. Sitting the children in front of the computer, the television or even an adult during 'sharing' or 'story time' has to be balanced with opportunities for the children to move around in their play within and outside the setting.

Another key issue is that of 'quality'. A child's computer time could be solitary, sedentary, and of little educational value (for example, playing an arcade game). Or it could be educationally rich, involving a group of children, for example, interacting together at the computer and encouraging off-screen activities.

All of the best early years educational software encourages interaction, and it also encourages off-screen 'head and hands-on' activity by the child, so that the dichotomy that Sigman (and some others) have drawn between the virtual and the 3D 'real' world is quite false.

Healy's 1998 critique cited the American Academy of Paediatrics, who recommended at that time a limit of one to two hours of total screen time (TV, video and computer) per day. Arguably, these were sensible guidelines, as the quality of early childhood software available at that time was generally very limited.

PASSIVE TELEVISION

Evidence was also available that showed passive television was often harmful for young children, and it seemed reasonable to assume that passive computer use would have similar effects. Much of this evidence is reported in Using ICT in the Early Years: Parents and Practitioners in Partnership (Siraj-Blatchford and Morgan, 2010).

For example, a major study suggested that 10 per cent of children who were watching an average of 2.2 hours of television per day at age one, and 3.6 hours at age three, suffered from attention problems at age seven. Another study carried out by Glasgow University suggested that three-year-olds who watch television for more than eight hours a week were at a significantly greater risk of being obese.

Research reported in the highly influential Developmentally Appropriate Technology in Early Childhood (DATEC) guidance, therefore, suggested that three-year-olds should not be encouraged to sit at a computer for more than ten to 20 minutes at a time, with a maximum of 40 minutes by the age of eight. But even in the 1990s, research was showing that some television programmes specifically developed for young children had positive effects. It also showed that where parents and children watched programmes together, children tended to watch less television and also gained more from the experience.

The key lesson to be learned from the case of television has been that any problems have stemmed not from the media or technology itself, but rather from the choice of programme, and the way in which it has sometimes been misapplied for childminding rather than for educational purposes.

We shouldn't ban computers just because parents or practitioners might at times choose poor-quality software. That would be as foolish as banning 'story time' because it could involve inappropriate texts and/or be unduly extended. Or banning 'sharing time' - even though at least one four-year-old has reportedly commented that it was '... wasting his life'. As is often the case in early years, the significant quality issue with ICT is not so much the resources or curriculum, but the way they are applied. It is the pedagogy that is crucially important.

The Land of Me software, for example, aims to promote interaction and sustained shared thinking between children, and between children and adults by prompting open-ended questioning.

The case against ICT in early childhood has been made in terms of the perceived risks to children's physical, cognitive and emotional and social development. Critics have referred to possible repetitive strain injuries, to potential lack of exercise and risks of obesity. They have also suggested the possibility of decreased creativity, impaired language and literacy, poor concentration, social isolation, decreased motivation, and even depression. But research studies have actually shown many benefits in the areas of fine motor skills, language and communication, emergent literacy and reading readiness, mathematical thinking, creativity, problem solving, self-esteem and self-confidence, co-operation, motivation, and positive attitudes towards learning.

LACK OF AWARENESS

Sigman's arguments at the Open EYE conference were fundamentally flawed, as he failed to differentiate between computer hardware and computer software. He also failed to refer to the research showing the positive effects of ICT in early childhood, and his comments suggest a lack of awareness of much of the high-quality early childhood software available and in use in effective early childhood settings.

In the Guardian's 'Bad Science' critique of Aric Sigman, Ben Goldacre refers to Sigman's tendency to 'cherry pick' his evidence. As Goldacre argues, this is a common crime in the world of pseudoscience. In universities we are all too familiar with this sort of writing. In undergraduate essays we often refer to it as 'selective citation', where students only refer to the evidence that they have found to support their argument, ignoring the evidence that goes against it.

In the case of an essay, the approach demonstrates the student's failure to reflect upon the relative weight of the evidence to make an informed decision. The essay will be marked down, and in most cases the student will fail and may be required to re-sit their examination. Unfortunately, when shoddy writing of this sort is published and/or promoted as 'science', it gives it entirely false authority.

In fact, the problems here have serious implications that reach well beyond the subject of computers and ICT. All too often members of the public are being encouraged to question the very legitimacy of science itself because scientists are shown to disagree with each other. This is especially ironic when we consider that it is precisely these critical peer-review and testing processes of science that give science its strength and authority.

The tendency of the public to be duped, and for opinions to be manipulated in this way by propagandists, suggests a crisis in the public understanding of science.

DUAL PURPOSE

The truth is that the vast majority of researchers and other leading authorities in early childhood education support the use of computers. This support was evident in Bowman et al (2001) US National Research Council's report Eager to Learn: Educating our pre-schoolers.

ICT has also been featured strongly in both England's and Scotland's national early childhood educational guidance materials. ICT has been promoted in the early years because most of the recent research evidence is extremely encouraging.

More research is certainly needed in the UK, but it is encouraging that in June of this year the Esmee Fairbairn Trust funded a major UK study to evaluate the potential of using computers to support children's early learning at home and in the pre-school. The project is being supported by the local authority, early years practitioners and schools in Swansea, and its findings will be available in 2012 (more information is at: www.playthinklearn.org).

In the US, studies by McCarrick et al (2007) and Bhavnagri et al (2009) have found that young children involved in the Head Start programme perform better on measures of cognitive competence (verbal, quantitative, general cognitive, and memory) and school readiness when their parents are actively involved in their home computer use.

At its best, then, ICT plays a dual purpose in early childhood education: it provides powerful teaching and learning tools and it also provides children with an early introduction to these ubiquitous technologies that should be recognised as just as much a crucial a part of their cultural and educational context as any other aspect of the natural or made environment.

  • Dr John Siraj-Blatchford is an honorary professor at the University of Swansea Centre for Child Research. He has also spent the past 18 months working on The Land of Me, a new suite of early learning software from publishers Made in Me. An account of the research foundations for Made in Me software may be found in the first of a series of illustrated papers at: www.madeinme.com/blog/category/theprofessor.

 

REFERENCES

  • Bhavnagri et al (2009) 'Parent Involvement in Young Children's Computer Use and Cognitive Development', NHSA Dialog, 10:2,67 - 82
  • Bowman, B et al (Eds) (2001) Eager to Learn: Educating our pre-schoolers. Commission of Behavioral Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
  • Healy, J (1998) Failure to connect. New York: Simon and Shuster
  • McCarrick et al (2007) 'Parental Involvement in Young Children's Computer Use and Cognitive Development', NHSA Dialog, 10 (2): 67 -82
  • Siraj-Blatchford J and Morgan, A (2010) Using ICT in the Early Years: Parents and practitioners in partnership. Practical PreSchool Books