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.

Is SOLE The Answer?

A curious article turned up on HuffPost recently, written by a man named Sugata Mitra. The man advances a thesis about education that sounds awfully familiar, though it pretends to be brand, spanking new. In fact, it is “Summerhill” on steroids — or computers, which amounts to the same thing in this case. And A.S. Neill’s Summerhill  is as old as the hills. Mitra stresses creativity and turning kids loose with computers to become self-learners, which is precisely what Neill proposed (without computers) in the early 1900s. After a brief history lesson in which he claims that the traditional educational system came out of Victorian England where it was designed to turn out factory workers (wrong!), Mitra tells us that

But what got us here, won’t get us there. Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.

For one thing, phrases like “outdated pedagogy” beg the question, which is precisely whether or not traditional teaching methods can be effective. The answer, contrary to Mr. Mitra, is that they can —  they have been and they continue to be. And the Victorian educational system that he claims was designed to turn out factory workers produced people like Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill. Furthermore, it is not clear to me that students today are not rewarded for “imagination or resourcefulness,” and, heaven knows, they are asked to memorize very little. Mr. Mitra’s claims are rife with errors.

The main issue here, aside from the fact that Mr. Mitra is actually selling a package he designed himself and which he calls “Self Organized Learning Environments,” or “SOLE” (a bit of a conflict of interest there!), is that he reduces education to “salient points” which is another word for “information.” It is clear that the internet is full of more information than one can assimilate in a lifetime — even if they spent all of the time sitting down staring at the screen. And that is the key: assimilation. Education is a complicated process that takes information and translates it into action by means of thought. And it is precisely thought that is missing in Mitra’s equation. One cannot teach young people how to think by sitting them down in front of a computer, and education is more about thinking than it is about the information they may or may not download from the computer.  Information is merely a means to an end.

One is reminded of Mary Shelly’s monster in Frankenstein who is supposed to have learned to read by staring at a newspaper day after day: it is absurd. There needs to be interaction, give and take. In a word, there needs to be a teacher to ask key questions and guide the students through the impossibly confused jumble of information on the internet to that information that is relevant — another key word. How does one determine unguided what is and what is not relevant by simply staring at a computer screen? Answer: you can’t. Relevance and the ability to assimilate information require interaction with teachers.

To be sure, we live in an electronic age and it makes sense to incorporate electronic equipment, such as computers, into the curriculum. But as Jane Healy has shown, excessive reliance on these gadgets can actually stunt the growth of the left-hemisphere of the child’s brain thereby making future learning nearly impossible. What is required is a selective use of electronic toys and a lively imagination on the part of the gifted teacher to draw young people from the frantic rapid-fire world of electronic toys into the world of words and ideas where real learning takes place. And let’s not burn the books quite yet. SOLE is not the answer: good teaching is the answer, and teachers are precisely the ones who would be shoved aside by Mr. Mitra’s plan — known as “the bad plan.”