Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Figuring Out Those Damned ATMs

When I was in college, ATMs were cutting edge technology. I recall one day standing in queue behind an elderly woman as she fumbled, struggled, and finally gave up on trying to figure out this simple machine. I offered to help her and as I did, she muttered about the world passing her by and how these machines were made for young people. Since then, I've been waiting for the day when I run into my own version of that ATM machine.

As an early childhood educator, I'm a screen-based technology doubter. It's not that I don't think children can learn anything from them, it's that I'm yet to be convinced that there is anything young children can learn better via a screen than they can from genuine interactions with the real world, other than, obviously, how to operate those devices, which are so simple even a kid can use them.

Maybe there is a grand future in which technological innovation catches up with rocks and sticks and cardboard boxes and water and other people, but so far, everything I've seen (and because so many of you nice people read my blog I'm on the promotional distribution list of just about everyone with a new machine or app to sell) appears to be just a more expensive way to provide kids with experiences that are impoverished and hobbled versions of experiences already available for a lot less money. And it's quite apparent to me that many of these "innovations" are really just ways to persuade parents, teachers, schools, and school districts to invest their scarce resources in the latest screen-based technology.

And as frustrating as it is for me as an early childhood educator, it's even more aggravating as a taxpayer. We would get way more bang for our buck if we used the billions a year our schools spend on screen-based technology on things like smaller classes or better professional development.

I've been making these assertions for as long as I've been teaching and, truthfully, I've rarely run across anyone who disagrees, including kids. For the last several years I've been posing the following questions to our oldest children:

Would you rather play inside or outside? Would you rather play with an iPad or your friends?

Overwhelmingly, they answer "outside" and "with friends." 

No, the main pushback I get is something along the lines of, "It's just amazing how she takes to my iPhone. She's already figured out how to do things I'll never figure out. It's in her DNA!"

We're so often amazed that kids figure out new technology faster and better than adults. Let me tell you why: because they play with it. In fact, that's why young children learn everything faster and better than adults. Play, not swiping fingers across screens, is what's in their DNA, it's in all of our DNA, but we've unlearned it as we've gotten older. We worry that we're going to break something or look foolish or somehow do it "wrong," so we resort to instruction manuals and tutorials and our kids to show us the way.

Why do we stop engaging new things through play as we get older? I don't know the full answer, but part it must lie in how we're taught to learn as we get older. In our society, the younger children are, the more likely it is that they are allowed the time and space to play, to explore, to discover, to make mistakes, both inside and outside the classroom. This is why most young kids tell us they like school: learning is pleasurable, exciting, and interesting when we pursue it though play. Yet as we get older, the opportunities to play become increasingly rare until by the time we hit middle school, it's pretty much all about instruction manuals and tutorials and getting the "right" answer. That's why in traditional schools, the older kids get, the more likely they are to report they hate school.

The fact that young children "take to" screen-based technology shouldn't surprise us. They also take to rocks and sticks and cardboard boxes and water and other people. We're not so impressed by that, however, because we too have mastered those things, years ago, as we freely played.

Education "reformers" have it backwards. They look at middle schools and high schools and see children struggling, hating school, so they are seeking to make our preschools and elementary schools more like middle school and high school to get the children "ready." It should be the other way around: we should be trying to make the middle school and high school experience more like what we find in early years. It's not our job to make kids school ready, it's our job to make schools ready for kids. If we do that, I'll bet we'll find that even adults can figure out those damned ATMs.

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Christina said...

Thank you for working with children in this crazy upside down backwards world! I really appreciate this article and your beliefs. Thank God you are with little people daily!

Scott said...

Tom, I really appreciate your comments about using technology with young kids. It seems that everything I read pushes this idea. I'm not against it; like you, I just haven't found the best way to use it.

Your last paragraph is powerful. We do need to make upper grades in school more like early childhood - play and discover and less about "right answers." (

Anonymous said...

My sentiments to a tee. Great insight about Middle and High schools. It seems to make such sense to do what works. It's interesting that in NYC where there is both progressive based schools and very competitive spots for quality public and private schools, I see parents of preschoolers choosing play-based preschools but then "supplementing" with Kumon type after school programs. As if they feel the need to "cover all bases".

Andrea said...

After watching one of the most amazing women of the next generation graduate 8th grade, I can say without a doubt that the last 8 years of play, fights, council meetings, respect, and love did more than any Common Core curriculum could do to prepare her for this crazy world!

Kirsten said...

I am right there with you, though perhaps more of a Luddite. Can you imagine how fun and powerful a play-based high school would be? My son went to reggio preschool and would have stayed there, happily, forever if he hasn't aged out. So we homeschool now until we can find or make something fun and good enough to replace it. It seems so simple, what you're saying. Better training, smaller classes, maybe a modicum of trust that kids aren't simple lumps of clay...

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