These days, technology is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. If we look at Forbes’ list of billionaires, one is struck by a preponderance of tech-savvy figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and of course Bill Gates. It is no surprise that technology is now part of almost every facet of our lives, including education. For those of you who were born in the 70’s and 80’s, you can probably remember lugging home a stack of books and covering them with paper bags. These days, things have changed. As a parent of two, I can’t think of a single instance when my children brought home a text book. For many of America’s schools the text book has been supplanted by tech (it bears noting that this is likely not the case for all schools, and that broader access to technology could help contribute to closing the achievement gap.[i]). It begs the question, how is tech being used within the educational landscape? And, as both educator and parent, how do I discern between what is worthwhile and what is not?
This question is even further muddied when one considers the early childhood audience. The American Association of Pediatrics writes:
For children younger than 2 years, evidence for benefits of media is still limited, adult interaction with the child during media use is crucial, and there continues to be evidence of harm from excessive digital media use, as described later in this statement. [ii]
For preschoolers, AAP states there is some evidence that well-produced apps can help children build literacy skills. The dilemma is that not all apps are created equal, and many of the products categorized today as “educational” do not adhere to strong educational standards. Moreover, many of these apps do not take into consideration one of the most important factors in successful early tech experiences – interactivity. Adult interaction with a child while using technology can make a significant difference in whether a tech experience provides any benefits for young children.[iii] Having an adult present AND engaged in the activity has many added benefits. Adults can enhance the experience in a variety of ways. For example, they can narrate the experience, thus building vocabulary and helping the child process the information. They can model how to use the device and application, they can model a growth mindset, and they can help children practice executive function skills like patience and problem-solving. Adults can also ask meaningful questions that reflect the child’s interests, and that are open-ended to allow practice in critical thinking. Ultimately, having the adult present can tailor the experience for the child and turn a passive exercise into an active one.
Similarly, making tech part of a well-balanced activity “diet” makes it more likely to be effective.[iv] Young children require a variety of experiences to facilitate their growth and development. At SEEC, our educational approach is varied. Our classrooms incorporate a variety of pedagogical approaches that meet the child where he/she is: object-based, STEM, play, inquiry, Reggio-inspired, tactile, experiential. For us, adding tech is a natural extension of these approaches, one that almost always includes an educator and is a part of a much larger whole.
As educators, we have especially welcomed the inclusion of videos and recordings. Having such resources available while in a museum setting have proven invaluable. Now when we go to the bird hall at the Natural History Museum, we don’t just look at the birds and feel examples of feathers, we also listen to different bird calls. Or when we head over to see the Freer and Sackler’s Shiva Nataraja, we can also show children videos of contemporary religious festivals in India. Our iPads are also tools for STEM learning. In an ideal world, educators have the time and resources to set up an experiment like, ‘what floats and what sinks?’. But what if you have a question like, “Do polar bears communicate?” Technology can help us answer that question in a way that is robust and concrete – both particularly important for young learners. For example, when preparing a lesson on this very topic I came across this resource that plays the different sounds polar bears make.
Finally, the very acts of asking questions and searching for answers are ones that are particularly important to SEEC. When we use an emergent curriculum, we pay particularly close attention to what our students are doing and asking. With access to tech, we are able to take their questions and explore answers in a multi-dimensional way. We can model for children the choices we make in using reliable sources, how to collect and synthesize information, and most importantly, we can demonstrate that we, the educators, don’t have all the answers.
Our hope is that in coming months, we will continue to collect information about how tech is being used in our classrooms and share that with our audiences. As always, we are welcome your input and ideas too.
[i] “Technology Can Improve Achievement Gaps, Improve Learning.” Stanford Graduate School of Education. Stanford University, September 10, 2014. Web. July 3, 2017.
[ii] “Media and Young Minds.” AAP News. American Association of Pediatrics, November 2016. Web. July 3, 2017.
[iii] “Guiding Principles for Use of Technology with Early Learners.” Office of Educational Technology. U.S. Department of Education, Web. July 3, 2017.
[iv] “Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8.” National Association for the Education of Young Children, Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning, and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, National Association for the Education of Young Children, Web. July 3, 2017. p.7