Computers and Kids

I have blogged about this before, but a recent post by a dear friend congratulating a former teacher for taking time out of her retirement to fit out a bus with computers and take this “fully equipped mobile tech center” to the kids to help them get a leg up on education disturbed me a bit and made me recall what I had read some time ago about computers and the kids. It’s not at all clear that getting young children on computers — or any sort off electronic device — will help them develop their minds. The jury is still out on the question, but there is growing clinical evidence that those devices develop the right side of the human brain and leave the left side almost totally undeveloped. In addition, there are “windows” when certain types of brain development must take place in young children or it will never happen.

The problem here is the left hemisphere of the human brain is the side that controls language and thought. The right side is the “affective” side, the side of imagination and emotion. There’s nothing wrong with developing the right side of the child’s brain — unless the left hemisphere is left undeveloped as a result. And that seems to be the case when we rely on computers to teach. In addition, it has been shown that there is a direct correlation between increased computer usage and attention deficit disorder.

Ironically, the schools are on the bandwagon, buying computers for the kids — or accepting them from all-too-willing corporations that are delighted to get the kids hooked as soon as possible. And the parents applaud these efforts, which often include providing the child with his or her very own computer, because they are convinced that this will put their kids squarely on the information highway and on their way to a successful life. They may not support increased salaries for the teachers, but they will gladly see their tax money spent on computers.

Nothing provides us with information as quickly or as efficiently as computers. That much is clear. Moreover, we all know that information is a key to understanding.  It is a sine qua non of all knowing. But it is not alone sufficient. Humans must also know how to process information, separate the wheat from the chaff and determine what is true and what is fiction —  recognize “false facts.” Thought requires the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain and as Jane M. Healy has told us in her book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think, recent clinical studies of human brain development involving brain scans and MRIs  have shown that electronic devices do not help that portion of the brain to develop. To quote Dr. Healy directly:

“The experiences of children today [involving television and the use of electronic devices such as computers] may be predisposing them to deficits both in effective coordination between hemispheres and in higher-level linguistic and organizational skills of the left hemisphere [of the brain]. They may particularly lack practice in the use of left-hemisphere systems of auditory analysis and in the skills of logical, sequential reasoning.”

Moreover, as Marie Winn points out regarding television in the book referred to above,

“.. a carefully controlled study designed to explore the relationship between television viewing and the language spoken by preschool children discovered an inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development; the children in the study who viewed more television at home demonstrated lower language levels.”

Computers, like television, are essentially passive devices — even when “interactive.” They cannot substitute for a human being sitting down with another human being, or several other human beings, and having a discussion. Human interaction, especially at a young age, the telling of stories, reading stories, making stories up, or simply visiting and chatting about the sort of day the child is having are certain ways to help the child’s mind to grow and develop fully — not just on one side. I hasten to point out that we are talking about young children here, kindergarten through eighth grade. There is plenty of time to teach students basic computer skills to help them get a leg up in the job-hunting arena when they reach high school, after the critical windows have closed in early brain development. These skills could at that time be taught along with civics, history, literature, mathematics, and science, subjects that will deepen the young students’ minds and broaden their horizons well.

My wife and I gave a book of brain-teasers to a precocious young child we love dearly thinking it would help her develop her mind and that she would enjoy the challenge. After a very few minutes she was looking up the answers in the back of the book! This is learned behavior. One wonders how often this happens with computers as attention spans shrink. In any event, it is something that would not happen with another human being. There would be give and take, exchanges back and forth, encouragement, hints, and the kind of coaching that goes into good teaching. That’s what should have been happening on the “mobile tech center.” Computers are not the answer to helping young kids learn how to use their minds. Good teaching and good parenting are the answers.

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18 thoughts on “Computers and Kids

  1. Excellent post and so appropriate. As an instructor, I completely agree. I While technology does have a place in education, it cannot take the place of direct instruction nor group discussions. Education seems to be pushing the “flipped classroom ” and “blended” learning and while that’s all good stuff it is no substitute for great teachers and classroom community. Thanks for your thoughts! ☺

  2. Hugh, you puzzle example at the end speaks volumes – having the answer is more important than developing the answer or just knowing the answer.

    An easy test to prove your point is ask people to make change from a transaction being given a $20 bill, without the benefit of a calculator. Or ask them to tell you a friend or relative’s phone number without their phone.

    In my profession, I had to take ten rigorous mathematical tests. We were not allowed to use calculators, so if the arithmetic got tough, we knew were headed down a bad path. Now, the students use calculators which do not aid in learning as they are a crutch. Keith

    • Hey Amigos
      Yes, Keith, I’ve noted the pause when many young people try to make change, especially if – for example – the total price is eight dollars fifty three cents, and I give the person ten dollars and three pennies.. or ten dollars and a nickle, and they then stand there totally baffled on what to do.. until they punch it into the machine, which tells them how much to give back…

      Very interesting, Hugh, about the computer skills help the right brain but not the left – and totally correct that a balanced left/right brain is important….

      • Tests reveal the ugly truth that high school graduates read at what used to be an eighth grade level and they cannot compute the tip in a restaurant. Indeed, many college graduates fall into this camp as well. It is very sad.

  3. Y’know, Hugh … after reading your post and pondering just a bit, I fully agree with you! I would much rather see teacher-student or parent-child reading together, talking about the great events and people of history, than see a young child sitting at a computer looking these things up. I don’t completely denigrate the use of computers in classrooms or for the use by children in homes, it would see that this is a case of ‘less is more’.

    One example, my young neighbor, a junior in high school, sometimes struggles, as he is an Iraqi refugee and still struggles with the language barrier. He came over one day, said he had a paper for American History that he would like my help with. Always happy to help, I said sure, come on in, and lets talk. I looked over his paper, then began discussing with him the various things that had taken place during the era he was studying, explained the reasons those things had taken place, who did what, when and where, and felt that I had given him a good overview that would help him answer the questions on his worksheet. After listening to me for an hour or so, young Tholfaqar said, “But I wanted you to give me the answers to the questions”. I felt a bit deflated, and granted he has extra needs, but still …

    And to Keith’s point … (I’m full of stories tonight, yes?) A few years back I made a few purchases at a local international food market. Their computer was down, so it did not tell them the change to give me, and I was paying with a $100 bill. The clerk tried to figure it out. I did the math in my head and told her how much change, but understandably, she couldn’t take my word for it. I suggested paper and pencil, but instead she called for the store manager. He came along and couldn’t figure it out either! Finally they found a stock boy with a calculator. Sigh. The dumbing-down of the U.S.???

    Anyway, I do agree with you, especially after reading this post. Good job, Professor!

    • Thanks, Jill. I do think it is a problem — especially with the very young. Jane Healy has studied the problem at length and is convinced that the early years are critical for intellectual development. There are several “windows” of opportunity that close even before the kids get school, others soon thereafter. There is time later on for them to learn about electronic toys.

      • True. Back in our day, the closest thing to an electronic toy was an Etch-A-Sketch … remember those? I never could even get those to work quite right! And television? 3 channels, black-and-white with rabbit ears atop the set, and sign-off at 11:00 p.m. Ahhhhh … the good ol’ days. So, whatever did we do??? We read books, we played football in the yard, we built tree houses and forts, built castles out of Lego blocks. My, weren’t we deprived? Technology certainly has some good uses, but … perhaps not always.

  4. True. Back in our day, the closest thing to an electronic toy was an Etch-A-Sketch … remember those? I never could even get those to work quite right! And television? 3 channels, black-and-white with rabbit ears atop the set, and sign-off at 11:00 p.m. Ahhhhh … the good ol’ days. So, whatever did we do??? We read books, we played football in the yard, we built tree houses and forts, built castles out of Lego blocks. My, weren’t we deprived? Technology certainly has some good uses, but … perhaps not always.

  5. I worked for over twenty years in commercial finance whereby communication and interfacing with people was imperative to be successful. I went back to school and became a computer engineer as I switched careers. What stood out to me as I became a computer nerd later in life is that all the young people were better than me when it came to technical expertise, but absolutely none knew how to communicate with people. Known had the ability to interface with people and lacked what I deemed as necessary social skills.

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