10.09.2006

Is technology elementary?

Here’s the question I started with: At what age is it developmentally appropriate, physically and mentally, for children to learn keyboarding?

Here’s where I am now: Worried about the creeping influence and the great crashing wave of dependence on technology in our classrooms, our homes and workplaces.

I know it is commonly accepted today that knowledge is forever changing and growing. Do children need rapidly changing and up to the minute data for their elementary school science curriculum? Just how much has the life cycle of the monarch butterfly or the agricultural practices of early California Indians changed in the last year, or even the last ten?

It used to be considered acceptable [back in the day, sonny] for a fifth grade report to look up a topic in the encylopedia, find one or two additional sources in the school library, and write a paper based on what you read there. Today a fifth grader could easily find five hundred sources in a one second Google search. How do we teach our children how much research is enough? I know I can waste an extraordinary amount of time following links online to websites only tangentially related to the topic I was originally researching. How will children manage the information overload? Will they recognize it as overload?

It’s a lot of work to sort out the reliable sources from the misleading. I think that is probably a great project for high school students to learn that process. But how much information do fifth graders need for research papers? How much information can they absorb or manage? On the internet, you can find more research into the nutritive properties of green beans or the human bone structure or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln than most of us will ever need or want to know. Beyond the concerns about wildly inappropriate subject matter appearing on the internet, just how much does a fifth grader need to know about any one subject? How much can they learn to organize and present in a coherent manner?

This all started because I was distressed that in some places, children are being taught keyboarding before they've even mastered cursive writing. One of the reasons that has been given to me by several people is that for some children, it is much easier to type than to write longhand and a typewritten page looks neater and is faster to produce. How perfect does third grade work need to look?

It used to be acceptable in most correspondence to have a correction visible on a written or even a typed page. Now at home and at work we just print a whole new page rather than have a word crossed out or erased or even whited out and typed over.

What standards of perfection are we setting for ourselves and our children? Do we have to hide all our mistakes? Is it still acceptable for ordinary people [nevermind politicians] to admit a mistake, correct it and move on? Or do we feel we have to cover over any slight imperfections? How do we practice forgiving other people’s obvious imperfections?

How many revisions are necessary to a third grade book or science report? There will always be more information we could add and ideas that come to us after a paper is written. How long should eight year olds spend on a single project? How can teachers decide where to draw the line?

Another parent tried to explain to me that if they start using computers at a younger age, our children will be more intuitive about computers and programs. I don’t care if my children become intuitive about computers – they’re just another machine. It is much more important to me that my children practice being intuitive about other people. It is much more important to me that my children learn from experience – from touching dirt and seeds, from stacking and counting coins, from blowing horns – than from videos on agriculture or computer math games or recordings of music.

There is a place for technology in education. There are adaptive technologies that make it possible for students to aquire knowledge or express themselves that would otherwise be impossible or just impossibly frustrating. There are ways of bringing broader horizons into the classroom. We need to remember that these are just tools, not a replacement for engaged and energetic teachers.

I think the world needs artists and bakers and writers and counselors and pastors and doctors and teachers who may not be great keyboarders but who are much more interested and knowledgeable about the physical and emotional properties of the people or materials that are in front of them.

How does being a Quaker affect my opinions about this? I don’t think that Quaker equals anti-technology. Heck, I’m writing a Quaker weblog. (Although some Friends do see this as antithetical to their spiritual life.)

My Quaker faith helps me to ask what is at the center of the curriculum? How do we nurture that of God, all that we are, mind, body and spirit, in each child? What are the tools that help and what are distractions from the development of the whole child? Being a Quaker helps me to take the time to reflect on the technology I use. It helps me to remember that more expensive is not necessarily better. It has taught me the technique of developing queries regarding our use of technology. For example:

Is my life so filled with the Spirit that I am free from the misuse of computers, television, phones, automobiles and other forms of media and technology?

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7 Comments:

Blogger Tom and Sandy said...

From Tom re computer access and assistance:

I have dysgraphia. I do not handwrite, I handdraw, letter by letter. Handdrawing cursive is slower and more stressful than handdrawing manuscript letters. By the time I started college, I gave up cursive except for my signature. Typing is also hard for me. I think I flunked it once in High school and then got a D the next time. I now use a two-finger-per-hand approach which lets me see the keyboard. If I look away, I am lost.

Computers make it possible for me to write more than a few words at a time, to communicate, to respond to your post here, to write stories ad edit and correct as I go along.

I did not know my condition was shared with others or had a name until one of my two children was diagnosed as both dysgraphic and dyslexic in 9th grade. She, being at least as bright and verbally talented as I, forced herself to learn to read at age six but was unable to keep up with the written work required at John Woolman School. She at least had the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] on her side along with some enlightened private school teachers and a small Quaker College where it took her six years to get her BA and marry a writer.

There are among us artists, composers, actors, storytellers, bakers, teachers, etc. for whom the assistance of computers makes it possible, or at least much easier, to share their gifts with the world.

10/09/2006 2:58 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Certainly as Tom points out there are times when technology can help us overcome a disability. Other than those rare occasions, I'm with you, Robin, about the concerns for the overuse and misuse of technology in our society.

In 2005, my 5-year-old niece was part of a classroom project in south Florida, where each student in the class was to submit a page for a homemade book about how everyone's life was affected by one of the big hurricanes that hit Florida last year. Her classmates wrote about going without food or electricity for several days; or having their homes flooded; or needing to take shelter in a closet for part of a day.

My niece...? She wrote about being without the computer for five hours.

She has nearly lost the ability to IMAGINE because so much of her time is spent in front of a television or computer. When my partner and I visit each year, it takes about a day and a half for our niece to remember how much she enjoys "free play" with her weird aunties.

Still, it may be that years from now, households will report having no computers, in the way that some of us talk about having no television.

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

10/09/2006 10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Robin. This has very much been on my mind in a broad way. For instance, folks have been asking if my 1 1/2 year old is dressing up for Halloween. I will admit there are times I dress him for my own amusement and not based on what is truly his needs (for instance, we have these really cool hand-me-down outfits that look like scrubs). But going to all the expense and trouble of dressing him up when he's not going to make any connections... If he thought it would be fun to do and initiated the project that would seem different for me -- it would seem like imaginitive play and not like I'd be imposing something weird on him. That time seems better spent taking a walk to look at flowers (an activity he loves) and learning how to touch them without breaking them off the plant.

Kathleen K.
Philadelphia PA

10/10/2006 9:51 PM  
Anonymous c. wess daniels said...

Robin you've brought up very legitimate concerns concerning technology and children, something I am personally not able to say much about. I think the old for/against technology, or other forms of media no longer work for us and I am equally glad that you've sought a nuanced view of how to use technology in appropriate ways.

I think it is the task of our generation to form practices appropriate for our technological age and the Quaker notion you offered, "that of God..." and the query are two good starting points for all of us.

I've been toying with the classic Quaker view of the Sacraments as way to understand Quaker's invovlment with culture (i.e. technology). The sacraments were spiritualized by Fox because of their oppression of the people, and the way in which they were used by the church to create classes. And then the sacraments were spread out, levelled, we can break bread with Christ through just about any event in life, not just the Eucharist at a mass.

I think this latter part has to do with the fact that the Sacraments were too limited by the church, and didn't allow for the idea that God's seed is in all.

I've made the leap, and maybe that' what it is, from this thinking to considering how God permeates all aspects of life, the arts, athelitics, the sciences, philosophy and even technology. And that in some way, our practices that are invovled with each reflect our own nature accordingly. So what can we learn about God and others from things like the internet (I think we can learn a lot), and what about other aspects of life often considered too secular for even God?

I've haven't formulated much but it's a place I am trying to start from. And you're discussion here adds more importance to the borader conversation due to it's relevance in your life.

Oh and thanks for the query I am going to use it.

10/12/2006 11:59 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Tom - I didn't know that about either of you. I'm glad that technology has made life simpler for you and your daughter. (Her writer-husband was in my workshop at FGC this summer.)

Liz - people regularly comment on how well my children play by themselves, with their imaginations and whatever props are at hand. I think that not having a television had contributed to that, but some of it is just the personalities they were born with.

Kathleen, I admit to dressing my children up for Halloween from the beginning. Now I struggle with the conflict between plain dressing and dress up. Amanda had a great post about this last year, about costumes and rainbow socks and plain dress and Halloween. But learning how to smell the flower without pulling it off, now that is higher education.

Wess, I'm really glad you like the query. I will think more about the rest of your comment - it deserves more than a simple thank you.

10/12/2006 11:50 PM  
Blogger Heather Madrone said...

Hi Robin,

I've certainly faced this issue in homeschooling my own four children (ages 7 to 17). Computer use definitely needs to be balanced against the essential in their lives.

It seems to me, though, that the answer to most of your questions is "It depends." My children learned to type sometimes between age 4 and age 12. Each child learned to type when she needed to type. Each child has had different interests and different abilities, and so the amount and types of computer use has been different for each of them.

Sure, children ought to do research in books, but there are types of research that are more practically done online. There seems to me no good reason why children can't learn to use computers in much the same way they use libraries, and at roughly the same age.

One of my first responses to your posts was that there's a class issue hidden here. Sure, your children and mine will learn to use computers because their parents use computers. Poorer children, however, might very well need early school exposure to computers in order to develop a level of comfort with the technology that they will need to know in their lives. For them, using the Internet to write a research paper at age 10 might be a very good thing.

As for cursive, did you know that schools began teaching cursive so that their students could imitate copperplate engraving? The purpose was not so they could write faster (studies have shown that pretty much everyone can print faster than they can write), nor so their writing would be more legible. Children were taught cursive so that they'd be able to produce fancy invitations. I didn't teach my children cursive. I taught them italic handwriting instead, as it's cleaner, plainer, and more legible than cursive.

For a long time, we had computer-free Sundays in our family. It helped us realize how much our computer use was integrated into our lives. The children have to finish their chores and schoolwork and spend some time playing outside before they can use the computer.

People used to say that too much reading and writing was bad for children. You don't hear people say that these days because they are comfortable with the technology of reading and writing.

I'd like to see your last query expressed in a more neutral way:

Do I use computers, television, phones, automobiles and other forms of media and technology mindfully and appropriately? Is my life so filled with the Spirit that I can use these tools wisely?

10/13/2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

The teachers I have spoken to have said that cursive is faster than printing for most people. The version my son is learning at school now is simplified from what I was taught, but it is still connected letters.

I know that for myself, when I have something to really write, like an article or a blog post; if I'm thinking while writing, I write in cursive. It flows better and I organize my thoughts better.

1/12/2007 3:45 PM  

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