Learning & Development: ICT - Byte back


We should take the precautionary principle in exposing young children to ICT before we know the long-term effects, argues Dr Richard House.

In 'Computers benefit children' (Nursery World, 7 October), Professor John Siraj-Blatchford made the case for promoting ICT in early childhood and criticised the anti-ICT arguments of author Aric Sigman, arguing that he failed to differentiate between computer hardware and software and was prone to unscientific 'selective citation'.

Professor Siraj-Blatchford's views, however, don't appear to be shared by the peer-reviewed scientific journals that regularly publish Dr Sigman's papers. He ignores the concerns of many distinguished technology critics, including many of humankind's greatest philosophers - Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Jorgen Habermas, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and so on.

Writing recently on ICT, neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield highlighted 'the potential loss of imagination, the inability to maintain a long attention span, the tendency to confuse fact with knowledge, and a homogenisation of an entire generation of minds ... These risks could even actually change the physical workings of the brain.' Grave concerns indeed.

Professor Siraj-Blatchford is as guilty of being 'selective' with the research evidence as he claims Dr Sigman to be. But rather than enter a knock-about tit-for-tat over 'research evidence', which can be manipulated to show whatever its users want it to 'prove', I want to take a more enlightening philosophical and developmental stance.

CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES

Primary experience through the senses is our most basic way of understanding reality. For philosopher Edward Reed, it is direct contact with the world that most significantly influences our development, helping us refine our interpersonal and physical skills.

The crucial foundation for these highly complex sensory capabilities is developed in early childhood, yet our hyper-modern technological culture favours indirect knowledge gained from secondary experience, where information is selected, packaged and then presented to us by others. Tele-visual ICT culture is the 'paradigm case' of such secondary experience.

Cultural critics maintain that unprecedented technological progress has led to a considerable regression in meaningful communication between people. Second-hand experience so dominates our technology-mediated lives that primary experience is under grave threat. They propose instead a vision of meaningful early learning that emphasises unmediated experience, including the necessary messiness of real-life experiential learning.

DEVELOPMENT OF SENSES

Babies' sensory organs are not fully developed at birth, but have to be fine-tuned and mastered. Damage can be caused if young children are over-loaded with sense impressions (especially machine-derived ones) before their senses are sufficiently developed. Young children should not be exposed to random, rapidly appearing and disappearing sensory impressions which are machine-generated, and which offer no authentically human meaning. Such impressions may also generate addiction, alienation and anxiety.

Young children are not 'mini-adults'. They need to experience the world in developmentally appropriate and real human-relational terms, rather than in incomprehensible 'virtual' and inhuman ones.

Educationalists like Rudolf Steiner and neurophysiologist Sally Goddard-Blythe emphasise the centrality of movement and the body in early childhood, with sense impressions being a crucial influence on healthy physical development - a theme extended by psychologists Robert Sardello and Cheryl Sanders. For them, we live in a world of sensory chaos, with increasingly sensorily disordered lives. 'Without a capacity to recognise the sensory world in which we are cast, we have no proper medium to develop thinking in healthy directions, because the body is always disturbed', say Sardello and Sanders.

Currently, they say, 'our senses are very disordered because the surrounding world has been largely replaced by a simulated world, a world of humanly constructed objects of every type imaginable, which changes our experience from that of sensing the fullness of the world to being overwhelmed by sensory objects which capture our awareness.'

Today, 'children are learning to move in relation to the instantaneousness of the computer, and will be at even more of a disadvantage in relation to the movement of the written word, for this new technology will most likely bring about deeper disruption to the sense of movement. Watch for an increase in individuals with dyslexia of all kinds ...' (this being written in the late 1990s). The clear message from this is that we should surely take great care to protect young children from an increasingly hyperactive technological world.

There is growing evidence that early experience of screen-based technology can interfere with children's attention skills and their ability to acquire literacy skills - and with their capacity to read for pleasure. For the philosopher Heidegger and for Steiner, the antidote to such overdosing on technology is artistic experience; consistent, uncontradicted experiences of artistic activity and nature are absolutely essential in early life.

In The Hurried Child, child development professor David Elkind challenges the claim that most parents want early ICT learning, for ICT promoters 'play on our parental guilt and anxiety about our children's ability to compete in an increasingly technological and global economy' - so fear and insecurity are driving these preferences, not informed understanding.

He writes, 'We don't know what the effect of watching a computer screen may be on the visual system that is not adapted to that type of stimulation or overstimulation ... A too-early concentration on the visual could impede the development of the other senses and the all-important process of sensory integration.'

Professor Siraj-Blatchford wishes to distract attention from the medium or process of computer use, confining debate to matters of software content. Yet it is the ICT process and medium that are pivotal.

BALANCE OF RISK

We misguidedly treat children like 'mini-adults', fed by all kinds of commercial vested interests that have a material stake in children growing up into savvy little 'technophiles'. We urgently need more information on what is actually happening to children physiologically and psychologically through early exposure to ICT, for in imposing ICT on young children, we are playing grossly irresponsible Russian Roulette with their long-term well-being.

If Dr Sigman is right about early ICT, the implications for our children's development could well be catastrophic, especially when a statutory early years framework enforces these technologies. But if Professor Siraj-Blatchford is right, then perhaps the worst harm that can be done is that children will delay slightly the age at which they become ICT-competent.

The balance of risk, therefore, comes out decisively in favour of a strict precautionary principle, for the scale of harm done by imposing developmentally inappropriate ICT on young children by far outweighs any harm that might be done by not introducing it when children are developmentally ready for it.

As David Elkind writes, 'many computer skills are learned more quickly, and more effectively, at a later age than at an early one' - and with less likelihood of developing bad habits.

Early childhood is a crucial developmental time when children need to learn about being fully human, unintruded-upon by the inhuman 'virtual realities' and addictive instantaneity of computer and information technologies. They benefit far more from empowering experiences of the world that are real and relationally human than from those that are machine-derived and ultimately barren.

Dr Richard House is senior lecturer in therapeutic education at Roehampton University. A trained Steiner Kindergarten teacher, psychotherapist and co-founder of the Open EYE Campaign, he contributed to the recent anthology Childhood, Well-being and a Therapeutic Ethos (Karnac, 2009). With the two press Open Letters on 'toxic childhood' and 'play' in 2006 and 2007, he and author Sue Palmer prompted media discussion about the state of childhood in modern culture.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

  • Alliance for Childhood, Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood (2000) and Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology (2004), downloadable at: www.allianceforchildhood.org/publications
  • Carr, Nicholas (2010) The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, WW Norton
  • Clark, Laura (2010) 'Curse of the screen: PCs "dull children's brains and should be banned until nine"', Daily Mail, 12 June 2010
  • Elkind, David (2007) The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, 3rd edition, Da Capo Press
  • Goddard Blythe, Sally (2005) The Well Balanced Child: Movement and Early Learning, Hawthorn Press
  • Greenfield, Susan (2008) ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton
  • Healy, Jane M (1998) Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds - for Better and Worse, Simon & Schuster
  • House, Richard (2009) 'The "mind object" and "dream consciousness": a Winnicottian and a Steinerean rationale for avoiding the premature "adultifying" of children', in R House and D Loewenthal (eds), Childhood, Well-Being and a Therapeutic Ethos, Karnac, pp155-69
  • Jackson, Grace (2005) 'Cybernetic children: how technologies change and constrain the developing mind', in C Newnes and N Radcliffe (eds), Making and Breaking Children's Lives, PCCS Books, Ross-on-Wye, pp90-104
  • McVeigh, Tracey and Paton, Nick (2000) 'Computers kill pupils' creativity', The Observer, 24 September
  • Postman, Neil (1993) The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Vintage/Random House
  • Reed, Edwards S (1996) The Necessity of Experience, Yale University Press
  • Sardello, Robert and Sanders, Cheryl (1999) 'Care of the Senses: A Neglected Dimension of Education', Chapter 12 in J Kane (ed), Education, Information, and Imagination: Essays on Learning and Thinking, Prentice-Hall/Merril
  • Sim, Stuart (2001) Lyotard and the Inhuman, Icon Books.

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