An online forum discussion at my children’s preschool was very telling. The staff had posted an article about the benefits some early childhood centres were seeing from incorporating iPads as tools for learning. A flurry of parental responses ensued, some showing tentative support for the concept while others were “on the fence” or “totally against it”.
Those opposed to the idea of their little ones using ICT to aid their learning are likely to subscribe to German neuropsychiatrist Dr Manfred Spitzer’s research, which shows that when young children spend too much time using a computer, their brain development suffers and the deficits are irreversible and cannot be made up for later in life – a phenomenon known as ‘digital dementia’.
Spitzer’s study shows that everything a person experiences leaves traces in the brain, reports Die Welt. In the early years when the brain is developing, memory links are formed making a foundation for everything else we learn. With computers taking over many functions that are good for young children, “it inevitably has a negative effect on learning,” says Spitzer, who goes so far as to argue that digital media should be banned from the classroom. “In reality, using digital media in kindergarten or primary school is actually a way of getting children addicted,” he claims.
Based on the philosophies of Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), who believed the process of learning involves the heart, the brain, and the hands, Spitzer says children would be better off learning finger games to help them deal with numbers, instead of relying on computers.
Unsurprisingly, Spitzer’s claims have sparked controversy all over the world, including within the New Zealand early childhood education (ECE) sector.
A recent Herald article described how the introduction of five iPads at each of its five centres has helped transform learning at private preschool chain, Little School.
At these centres, the children are taken into a separate room in small groups and use the iPads in pairs, playing interactive games that help their mathematics and language skills.
One of the rationales for incorporating the iPads into the preschoolers’ education was that the owners claimed the children were surrounded by technology already, so it made sense.
Clare Wells, chief executive of New Zealand Kindergartens, agrees that children today live in a world where ICT is a part of everyday life. “Including ICT into learning opportunities at kindergarten allows teachers to support children connecting with and making sense of the world around them,” she says.
“For children and families who do not have the use of computers and other technology at home, including ICT into kindergarten provides an introduction to resources that many people today take for granted,” says Wells.
New Zealand Kindergartens recently conducted a survey of teachers within its network to find out more about the role of ICT in kindergarten.
The findings were interesting, revealing that children tend to use educational software individually, in small groups, or with a teacher to support literacy and numeracy learning, research, and creating art, for example. “Engagement most often occurs among small groups of children, supporting co-operation, negotiation, communication, problem solving, and information sharing,” says Wells.
The survey also found that children use digital still cameras, video cameras, and microscopes to document and explore their world. Teachers research on the Internet with children.
“Through ICT at kindergarten, children gain confidence in their ability to use technology and an understanding of the role of technology in communication and learning. They also start to learn about using technology responsibly and with respect,” says Frank Bourgeois, board president of New Zealand Kindergartens.
In addition to increasing children’s exposure to technology, New Zealand Kindergarten teachers are also expanding their knowledge of technology and confidence in incorporating ICT into their teaching practice. “Teachers are increasingly integrating ICT into core educational programmes and weaving different types of technology – digital cameras, Skype, digital microscopes, video, movie-making software, and Internet research – into teaching and learning, assessment, reporting, and planning,” say Wells.
New Zealand Kindergartens’ supportive stance on ICT is backed up by literature that suggests ICT use should be grounded in an understanding of the purposes, practices, and social context of ECE. According to a 2004 literature review on this topic by Rachel Bolstad in Education Counts, ICT can support children’s learning such as language development and mathematical thinking. It can also support learning for children from diverse cultural or language backgrounds or with special learning needs.
Although the review might be dated, this is certainly the current experience of Champion Centre, a Christchurch centre for preschool-aged children with disabilities. The Herald reported that the centre is seeing the benefits of children using iPads to assist their learning and help their cognitive development. iPads are proving to be particularly helpful for children with cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, and autism.
“We’re finding that with some children, they’re able to tell us what they know through an iPad in a way that they’re not able to tell us through verbal language,” says Champion Centre director Dr Susan Foster-Cohen.
Foster-Cohen’s experience echoes the findings of research led by Professor Jeff Sigafoos from Victoria University and Dr Dean Sutherland from the University of Canterbury, which shows that devices like iPads may decrease frustration and subsequent problem behaviours in autistic children.
However, teachers at Champion Centre are mindful that the tablets are used as one of many tools to help them learn and not as a replacement for physical and verbal interaction.
This appears to be the key: incorporating technology into early childhood education, rather than substituting other aspects of learning for ICT. Bolstad’s review shows that ICT’s value in ECE appears to depend on the tools selected, and when and how they are used. Early childhood educators need to understand how ICT can be linked with learning and development and existing and emerging theories in this area.
This was addressed in a more recent Education Counts study by Hatherly, Ham, and Evans, which looked at the impact of the Early Childhood Education Information and Communication Technologies Professional Learning (ECE ICT PL) programme, which ran from 2006 until 2009. The authors found through surveying 60 centres that a range of technologies can be used to improve learning outcomes for children, communities, and teachers in ECE settings. ICT-based activities were shown to have significant benefit potential with respect to enhancing children’s learning in terms of thinking skills, cultural awareness, literacy learning and communication skills, agency and sense of self as learners, and a range of affective domain outcomes such as confidence, motivation, and sense of belonging. Interestingly, the findings show that learning outcomes are likely to be greater when children use the technologies themselves or when they have some measure of control over which, how, and why, various technologies are used.
The surveys also showed that ICT helped early childhood centres connect with their communities, and improve the quality of teaching.
So if the research tends to look favourably on ICT being used in ECE settings – with the notable exception of Spitzer’s work – why is there still marked resistance from many, particularly from parents?
There is a degree of irony that those parents with scathing opinions about the inclusion of ICT in ECE are venting their views on the centre’s facebook page, a technological tool for enhancing the link between the centre and the community. While it could be argued this is not the same as exposing their children to ICTs like iPads and computers, it appears many parents and caregivers think such technologies should be left until their kids are older. This is often thought to be based on parents’ own ICT-free childhood experiences. Another common misconception held by parents is that children are plonked in front of a screen at the expense of discussion or running around, which is no doubt more reflective of their own usage of technology.
Early childhood educators are faced with the challenge of communicating to parents and whānau why and how technology is used to support their child’s learning, along with all the other tools that are used to do so. The ‘learning stories’ that are now prevalent in centres are just one way for children to engage with their own learning and reflect on their interaction with technology, and for parents to be actively involved in their child’s learning rather than to fear change and the unknown.