Computer Fix

Jane Healy, whom I have referred to in these blogs before, has written a book Failure to Connect that comes out against computer assisted learning, especially in the early grades. Her message comes through with considerable conviction and persuasive power. One of the reviewers on Amazon gave the book high grades:

“As a person who grew up in the technology age, who has over 10 yrs of experience in industry, who has two young children in public schools, and who happens to be working on a Ph.D in issues of technology and society, I am directly involved with the issues she raises. Healy’s research and argumentation leave something to be desired, but her basic conclusions are correct: there is little or no justification for the use of computers or other high technology devices in schools, especially elementary and middle schools. [Those] who are critical of Healy are not addressing the main points: (1) there is little evidence that computer-aided instruction improves academic performance; (2) there is sufficient evidence, although no proof, that computer usage can be both physically and mentally harmful, and this justifies great caution; (3) the idea that kids need computer experience ‘to get ready for the real world’, or ‘to be competitive’, is a complete myth. Everything a child needs to learn about computers can be accomplished in the last few years of high school. Children in K-5 especially have virtually zero need for computer technology, and no one I have come across has provided arguments to the contrary.

“Too many teachers and parents mindlessly follow along with the trend of computerizing our schools. In a debate dominated by one side, all opposing views are welcome. Healy provides an accessible account of the anti-technology case, and this alone makes her book well worth reading.”

I quote the comments at some length because they are both well stated and also to the point. It is certainly the case that the argument in favor of using computers in the classroom has been made, for the most part, by those with a vested interest in their use — to wit, the corporations that stand to profit from computer sales. Healy on the other hand, has no axe to grind. Further, she has had considerable classroom experience and has also taught in schools of education. She started her career in complete support of computer-assisted learning and after years of hands-on experience and considerable research decided that putting computers in the hands of young kids is a serious mistake. I think this must be right because it is what I thought all along and, as I have said before, we tend to think those claims correct that fit in with our belief system. This one fits like a glove.

Healy has for years given careful thought to the question of what we are doing to our kids’ minds. The evidence is strong, as the reviewer above suggests, that we should pull back and rethink our fascination with things technical: they may be damaging the brains of those who use them, especially young kids. Whether or not we buy Healy’s thesis, prudence would urge caution, surely.

Is there any way to improve on the way a child learns than to have them in a room with a dedicated teacher who listens and carefully explains what kids need to know? Surely not. You simply cannot replace dialogue. We need to think again about our mindless conviction that what is newer and faster is ipso facto better. What can technical wizardry possibly promise that would in fact improve on human contact and interaction? Nothing.

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