The Kids are Alright: Technology is a Larger Part of Our Kids Lives Now More Than Ever. But Is Technology Making Our Kids Smarter? Part 1 of 2
By Michael Dillon
As we enter the new millennium, we face many uncertainties. The cultural and political landscape of the world is changing rapidly, often making it difficult for us to keep up. There are very few constants that we can point to and say, "This will always be here." Could you have imagined, twenty years ago, that there would no Soviet Union? Or that it would be easier to get a handgun or rifle than a fishing license?
However, one of the few constants of the new millennium that has remained the same is technology, and its presence in our lives. We can say for certain that technology will continue to move forward and that it will continue to be a dominate force in our lives, especially in the United States.
Technology has integrated our lives on the most basic levels, often without us even being aware of it. For example, most appliances and tools we use daily have what we would have thought twenty years ago to have complex technology built into them. Televisions, dishwashers, automobiles, telephones and even toaster ovens have computer chip co-processors built into them, and these chips and essential to their function.
More than any other area, education has seen, felt and benefited the most from the rise of technology from the early 1980's until the present day. Computers and the Internet have become as part of classrooms today as pencil and paper. Schools depend on this technology to convey their teachings to their students as well as prepare these students to survive in a technology-dominated world.
The class of 2002 is a very special class in terms of technology and its affect on the students. This class is the very first class to have gone through the entire educational system, kindergarten to graduation, in which computers and the Internet were an integral part of their learning experience. They cannot remember a time when they did not have these tools.
Like many of you, I can still remember a time in school and even in college when there was little technology. Until my senior year in college in the late 1980's, affordable PC's had not yet been made available (a Macintosh computer with a printer that you can get today for under $900 was about $6,000 back then) and there was no Internet, so most of my term papers were typed out on a typewriter (with gallons of Liquid Paper) and all my research was done in the library, going through moldy stacks of books. Mention that to a student in the class of 2001, and they might look at you as if you were from another planet.
Today, powerful computers can be bought for under $1,000, word processing programs often correct grammar and spelling errors as you type them, and information on every subject imaginable, from "The Ramifications of the Dread Scott Decision on Modern Legal Pleadings to "How to Make an Atomic Bomb", can be found on the Internet.
The class of 2002 and the classes that will follow them have a distinct advantage, with the technology available to them. Yet, this privilege they enjoy does beg a certain question: Has all this technology made our children smarter? Has it improved the education experience or are there skills the class of 2002 has lost? What, if any, are the ill effects of technology on actual learning? What are the greatest benefits?
Nolan Ryan, baseball's all-time strikeout king, was asked by The Sporting News magazine last year about all the advantages that modern pitchers have now as opposed to when he began his career back in the late 1960's: A larger strike zone, computers to help them breakdown their motion, speed radar guns to clock their pitches. "I think it's nice that pitchers have all these advantages to them now, it certainly makes life easier for them", he said, "but in the end, you still have to pick up that ball and throw."
The same analogy can be made for the class of 2001 and other children now in the public education system: it's nice they have all these advantages now, and it certainly makes their lives easier, but do these students have the ability to throw strikes?
Part One: The Case against Technology. It is not making our Kids Smarter.
Leslie, Bennetts, a writer for Family PC magazine, tells of an encounter she had with her son's teacher in a February 2001 article on Zdnet (www.zdnet.com), when she explained that she wanted to get a PC for her son to use at home:
"Don't do it!" he exclaimed. "If you get Nicky a computer now, he'll become a hacker. He's very drawn to this, and he'll spend all his time on the computer instead of learning the things he's supposed to be learning at this age--not just basic information, but social, physical, and interpersonal skills. Please, please hold off."
"How long?" I asked timidly.
"Wait as long as you can," the teacher said. There wasn't even the glimmer of a smile on his face.
This was probably the last advice she thought she would get. Her logic, not unlike that of many parents, was that computers were good for children, they were excellent learning tools and would probably make their children smarter.
However, there is growing amount of evidence and opinions from educators that computers and technology may hamper your child's intellectual growth, make them unprepared for intellectual pursuits outside of the public school system and worse, make them anti-social.
According to Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist and author of Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think--and What We Can Do About It (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), at present, a lot of the time children spend on computers is "making them much dumber than it is smarter". According to an article that appeared on ZDnet in November 2000, her research has identified several key areas in which a misguided approach can have negative results. "If the wrong software is used too much, it can reduce a child's creativity and imagination," she says. "It can also shorten a child's attention span. The child is paying attention not because he's managing his own brain, but because it is being managed for him by the software. When he gets off the computer and tries to solve a math problem, he's going to have to know how to do it himself, without someone seducing him through it. We're finding that kids are having a lot of trouble with that."
According to Healy in the same article, inferior software can also hamper a child's motivation. "The kid just pushes buttons, like a little droid, to get the desired effect," says Healy. "Software is predicated on the idea that the kid does a little bit of learning and then you give him a reward. In motivation research, we have learned that this is a sure way to kill internal motivation--the kind where the person is a self-starter. That's what employers look for."
There is evidence from other independent studies that support Helay's findings in this area. "Children can have significant increases in IQ if they use developmental software, but if they use drill-and-practice software, they have significant losses in creativity," says Susan Haugland, a Southeast Missouri State University child development expert who evaluates computer programs, in an article published by the August 2001 Journal of Education. She defines drill-and-practice as software that gives several choices and requires the child to pick a correct response. "It's a worksheet on computer," she says. "Developmental software allows children to explore the world by making choices and decisions so the software does something different."
While Healy's studies are primarily focused on young and pre-school students, is there evidence that supports the ill-effects of technology for students who have been immersed in it, like the class of 2001?
Theodore Roszak, the author of The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking (University of California Press) and a history professor at California State University, is increasingly alarmed by the intellectual deficiencies he sees among today's college students, according to an article on the CNet (www.cnet.com) news site in October 2000. "They (the students) feel that information is all you need, and it comes out of a computer," says Roszak. "The fact that there's a whole world of books in the library is vanishing. These kids are under the impression that because there are a lot of eye-popping effects on the computer, that's superior. But the World Wide Web is a mishmash of whatever anybody wants to put up there, and what they often get is misinformation and incomplete information."
This sea of information often fools kids into thinking they are participating in intellectual pursuits, when in fact they are not. "Information is the lowest level of thinking, as opposed to higher levels like judgment, interpretation, evaluation, or mastering great ideas," Roszak explains. "Take an idea like 'All men are created equal.' That's not information--it's a moral assertion about human equality. Information is what you get when you dial 411 to get a phone number: low-level factual data. My students can no longer tell the difference between reporting on something, and evaluating and interpreting it. That's critical thinking, and they're losing it."
Roszak's greatest fear is that because most technology makes the work used in education easier and can even create the atmosphere of being fun, that the idea of intellectual pursuit may become a thing of the past.
"Kids can spend hours clicking on icons and surfing the Web, but that doesn't mean they're learning anything; it's like playing pinball," he says. "Computers create the lethal impression that everything about learning is supposed to be fun. A lot of the satisfaction of learning comes at the end of a process that may be hard and not immediately gratifying, and getting to the end of it involves having an attention span. Computers are fragmenting attention spans, to the point where children are losing the capacity to follow a line of thought through a chapter or a book."
"And contrary to popular mythology, there's a tremendous amount of wasted time involved in using computers. A kid with a pencil in her hand is ready to write," says Roszak. "A kid with a computer is ready to begin a learning curve that starts with booting up and virus checking and includes learning the interface, arranging the desktop, fussing with screen savers, searching for misplaced files, downloading, uploading, and deciphering error messages--unless, of course, the teacher does all that for the student and creates the illusion that it's easy to do. What kids learn from using computers is how to use computers. That might be valuable for people looking for jobs, but in school that's not the highest priority. Teaching kids they need this machine to answer a question is distancing them from the art of thinking."
As if the fear that their children may be surfing through their educational experience without really learning anything wasn't bad enough, there are now studies that show that kids who spend too much time with technology may be hurting their social skills as well.
In November 2000, Family PC magazine ran an excerpt of computers and anti-social behavior on the ZDnet web site. A few parents openly expressed their fears of the computer taking over their kids lives:
"Sometimes they retreat to the computer instead of interacting with other people," says Wayne Allen, father of two teenagers. "They seem to want immediate change and gratification, which is not always possible when doing day-to-day chores and handling problems with real people," observes Laura Wilson, who has a 16-year-old daughter. "While the computer helps the children with many things and can broaden their horizons by allowing them to 'talk' with kids they might not otherwise meet, it takes away from time they may have spent in real social situations, outside with their friends, or going to the library or a museum, or doing physical activity," says Lynn Blackadder, who has three children.
This view is also endorsed in Healy's book. "This is a seductive technology; it lures kids in so a little bit of time becomes a lot," Healy says. "Kids get addicted to video games and the Internet, and parents need to become aware that the more time children spend on the computer, the more it takes away from their physical and motor development. Children are having a terrible time with handwriting and managing simple activities that involve coordination, sequencing, and spontaneous movement, which have a great deal to do with higher cognitive development in ways that scientists don't fully understand yet."
What is the bottom line concerning technology and children? According to Healy, it is close supervision and not starting them out too early.
"Normally developing children are better off without computers before age seven," says Jane M. Healy. "The fourth or fifth grade is an ideal time to introduce this technology, and by middle school there are things we can do that are exciting and that can help kids learn. We have been sold a bill of goods about computers--'The sooner the better!'--and this is so wrong."
...continued in Part Two...
About The Author
Michael Dillon is the owner of a web development company, The DMC Company http://www.dmccompany.com. He lives in McKinney, Texas.