Keeping the Digital Divide in Perspective

In this photograph illustration a ten-year-old boy uses an Apple Ipad tablet computer on November 29, 2011 in Knutsford, United Kingdom. Tablet computers have become the most wanted Christmas present for children between the ages of 6-11 years. Many parents are having to share their tablet computers with their children as software companies release hundredes of educational and fun applications each month.

This article from the Sydney Morning Herald frames a disturbing discussion about the ubiquity of tablets in an early years classroom and asks the question about the wisdom of these changes in schools. As we cascade into this future of technology that seems to be at our children’s fingertips, it is really easy to slide into believing that it is essential for our young children to become “digital natives” at the earliest possible opportunity. This means that they should have easy access to digital technology and be taught skills in this area at school. BIS is one of the few schools that doesn’t introduce tablet technology for each student in the early years. The push from all around us is to encourage the use of technology as early as possible to prepare for learning code as a second language. BIS is also not implementing computer coding for children within our core curriculum. These skills in use of devices and simple coding are framed in the mainstream education sector as inevitable; to deny this direction is to limit our children’s possibilities in the future.

There are a number of problems with this seemingly inevitable link:

  • The communication that what digital technology offers is crucial to child development; without engaging in it now they will “miss out”,
  • School should be the site for computer and digital learning rather than home and,
  • Primary school level coding will give students skills for understanding computer programming

Spoken language has a critical time for best acquisition in our minds and it is because the brain appears to be wired for spoken language with new born babies already working with accumulated sounds of speech from within the womb. The use of sounds for children is incredibly important, speaking to another human being and getting a response; engaging in communication with sound. Linking the written letter to sound starts to happen for children from 3-5 years of age with the reading brain really starting to kick in for most kids from 6-7 years old. Grammar understanding and vocabulary building don’t stop from then on, with some studies showing that it is often only in our 30s that we really get our head around our native language grammar.

So where does digital communication fit in this? Device use is not learning a new language, it is learning to use a tool. These skills work for us throughout our life, our human brain is wired for it. When we watch children seem to work out devices so quickly it isn’t because early childhood is the “best” time for them to do it neurologically, it is just that they haven’t learned to fear risk-taking and failure yet! They just persist until the intuitive technology rules are worked out. The same way we all do, but children don’t give up as quickly, nor do they fear not knowing to the same level, as life is still all about not knowing how to do things. If you expose your child to any problem solving activities it will prep their mind for device learning. The greatest minds of computer science didn’t grow up with these devices, they had electronic kits and board games. What your child needs is opportunity to speak with humans who provide facial expressions and body language cues; the really complex language interactions they need to master. Infrequent use of digital devices will stop them from dominating their experience and as long as they aren’t used as a “treat”, they won’t see them as something to try and seek. This does of course mean we, as their adults, need to stop using them around them instead of talking with them. When we split our attention between a device and our child, we are teaching them to seek the device as an alternative for us. Like any practice, if your child sees the behaviour as being more important than them, they will try and mimic the behaviour to gain your attention. So, let’s just chill out on using the devices so much peeps. Your child should be seeing their device as a tool for making, not as an option for company.

The second link that is made is around the idea that school should be the site for digital device learning rather than home. This assumption is what sees schools around the world adding computer skills to their programs so that students can learn how to use word processing software, spreadsheets and drawing tools. This is an odd decision for us to have made as a society, with families introducing their children to pencils, crayons, scissors and pens, long before they set foot in a classroom. When our children become passionate about using watercolour pencils (an inevitable stage for many children ) we introduce them at home and help our children learn to use them or give them the room to try and fail in learning with them. Similarly, learning to use devices, apps and programs is the same. These are digital tools and watching their parent and sibling use these tools at home can be a powerful process. Like working on handwriting with them at home, supporting them to learn typing and voice to text tools can be a rewarding and fun process to do together. This removes the use of the device as something to communicate with and instead our children learn to see them as nothing more than a tool to use and master.

Coding as the new requirement of our already overcrowded curriculum is the most recent bizarre decision, as it assumes that the coding children do in primary school is going to empower them in adulthood. Primary aged children’s brains are not set up for the level of abstraction that computer programming requires, consequently the coding they are doing in primary schools is linked always to objects moving; something visible changing. Often robotics and programming go together at this age to make this possible. The coding or syntax that they are using therefore is the end result of an adult programmer creating a coding system that chunks code together so that the child will get a result that is visible – super fun but not leading directly to them understanding computer programming. In some respects this chunking-of-code process gives the child the idea that they can program whereas, really, they are using a library of code already set-up for them to “do” what it is predicted they want to “do”. This is exactly the same kind of logic that Lego blocks provides kids; pre-developed blocks designed to create structures with limited failure possible and based on assumptions about the type of things kids want to make. We don’t assume that use of Lego is somehow going to help our children understand engineering, building and architecture, it may certainly steer them in that direction but kids are under no illusions that Lego is the same as a house because they can see the house. Children rarely get to see computer code that sits behind the coding toys they play with, which makes sense as it is so abstract that it would be a rare child who is drawn to it. For our children to be ready for their future, try reading this great article on Slate “I’m a Developer. I Won’t Teach My Kids to Code, and Neither Should You.”  where the author outlines the importance of key skills like precision, creativity, persistence and problem-solving.

The future is such an unknown, but the nature of human interaction and child development is a given, so communicating directly with children should be our goal, not mediating that communication through a digital platform. Equally, tablets and laptops should be part of our experiences with our children in learning how to manage our use of them and ensure that we set the value to be placed on them in our own homes, rather than school doing it. We have no idea what devices, code or systems our children we be using when they are adults but, we do know they need to learn how to talk to each other, solve problems, be resilient in learning and have courage to try new things.  Digital devices, as the new tools, are an important new addition to learning but like all tools, they shouldn’t dominate our lives and they should never replace interactions with another human being.