Should Computers Be In Schools?

My son started grade 1 this week.

His mom and I took him to his first class on Monday to meet his teacher and some of the other kids. We also wanted to survey the facilities to make sure it was an environment we were comfortable with.

I was disappointed to find a couple of old clunker iMacs stuffed into one corner of the room.

It might surprise you to know that my son has very little computer experience. This is not an accident.

I’m not a supporter of exposing kids to computers at an early age.

The research I’ve read is conflicted on the matter.

Some reports say computers make kids smarter, others say they impair learning. Some say they help kids develop social skills, others say they inhibit those interactions.

Without any clear resolution on the matter, the computer is a wildcard in the early learning experience. So why even deal it into the deck?

Computers are an abstraction of reality. They present a limited, boxed-in environment that imposes a set of methaphors – files, folders, desktops – on their users in an attempt to manufacture a sense of place.

To be successful in that place, a computer user must adopt the environment’s methods and materials, and be limited to them.

Meanwhile, my son loves to do junk art. He loves to take wax cartons, paper towel tubes, yogurt pails, and cereal boxes and turn it all into spaceships, cars, farms, furniture, people, animals, or cities.

You can’t take the files and folders of a computer’s desktop and turn them into anything.

The metaphor-based world on a computer teaches kids that all there is to an object is what it is.

Reality begs us to explore the idea that things are really what they’re not, to take things and transform them.

What’s more, computing is, by its very nature, binary. It is a world of 1s and 0s, on and off switches, that continuously works to prove that something is either true or false.

Reality, however, is never true or false. We live an existence that ebbs and flows with uncertainty, negotiation, and flexibility.

Then there’s the commercial-political aspect of computers.

Mac versus Windows versus Linux versus who cares.

Folks get more heated about their computing platforms than they do about national elections.

And therein lies the rub: commercial politics drive certain platforms into classrooms.

This is possibly the worst aspect of computing for young kids: the building of a brand-based consumerist mindset.

Whether it’s Coca-Cola or Apple, early exposure to a brand, especially one condoned by respected adults such as teachers, builds a deep mental predisposition to it. It will affect the child’s consumer behaviour for life.

It’s not the place of schools to influence future brand-based consumer habits.

This is especially true when such early influences will provide these future consumers with a tendency to overlook the negative aspects of a product, like its impact on the environment.

And computers are arguably a more detrimental force on the environment than any other mass technology, cars included, ever was or will be.

Massive amounts of a variety of substances must be extracted from the earth to provide for the form of a computer. Mind-boggling amounts of energy and resources are consumed in the manufacture and use of computers.

And despite developing improvements in the after-life of a computer, more often than not they become a toxic legacy that betrays the environment once we’re done with them.

Yet, there those two iMacs sit in my son’s classroom, cute as buttons.

The students who will use them have no idea how dirty they truly are.

The long and short of what I’m saying is this: computers aren’t really that great for young kids.

They inhibit critical thinking. They impose artificial limitations through the use of an arbitrary metaphor. Their very existence promotes a materialistic-based mindset that promotes blind consumerism.

And these are things that young kids aren’t prepared to cope with. If they’re exposed to the very limited worlds of computers too early, they’ll develop an inflexible, binary mentality that will inhibit their ability to cope with the weirdness of the world.

Kids need to experience the world in all its glorious, confused messiness before they are forced to endure the tedious, abstract limitations of a computerized regime.

The computer is an unnecessary challenge to young children that distracts them from the essential learning they must experience in order to evolve as human beings.

I’m hoping that those iMacs in the corner of my son’s new classroom don’t get a heck of a lot of use.

He’s got too much learning to do in that class.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 3, 2009.

8 thoughts on “Should Computers Be In Schools?

  1. Unless something has changed, I believe you allow your son to watch television at home. Compared to a computer, where a child’s interaction can be strictly controlled – one website, one game – television exposes them to a much larger amount of the very thing you’re wanting to protect him from. In this way, a computer is a safer environment.

    Still, nothing, absolutely nothing, replaces good ol’ hands-on arts & crafts and a child’s imagination. Well, except maybe hugs.

    • I don’t believe that, for the purposes of this discussion, it’s a relevant argument to compare one form of media to another. I was discussing the computer in isolation as an element of the classroom in an environment of learning. Besides, televisions with cable access are rarely present in schools.

      And, for the record, I don’t subscribe to cable or satellite television. Now there lies the darkest depths of the modern soul.

  2. Computers, like any tool, have good uses and poor uses.

    One of the strongest benefits I have received from computers is clarity of thought – an understanding that many large problems break down into smaller ones, and the ability to sense the fault lines a given problem that I may be facing on any given day. I’m naturally analytical, and I don’t imagine that I wouldn’t have learnt other ways to build my analytical skills in the absence of computers, but the fact is that their presence in my life has contributed deeply to who I am and how I view the world.

    On the other hand, computers should not be used in isolation. There is a richness, depth and ambiguity in nature that does not appear to be captured by computers, and there is perhaps some good reason to think that it is not possible to capture this true essence of nature.

    The point of an education should be to provide the student with a well-rounded, culturally and historically aware sense of the world around him or her. Clarity of thought and analytical skills are as much a part of this as delighting in a beautiful piece of visual art or music, and this is where computers can and do excel.

  3. I teach adult computer courses, so my direct experience isn’t really relevant (although my wife teaches English in classes with the same model of Mac tucked into the corner), but my impression is that computers are an element of friction when used to teach non-computer subjects in the classroom. They’re too much of a physical and social hurdle and, as you point out, their manichean structure hides the hazy, mysterious, and often contradictory topics that constitute real-world learning.

    One anecdote from my adult courses. When teaching spreadsheets we do some simple calculation exercises: if you buy 37 litres of gas at $1.009 per litre, how much is the total? With pen and paper, and calculator, no one has any trouble getting the answer. Stick the same students in front of a blinking cursor, and the friction kicks in, leaving them staring in uncertainty at their motionless hands poised above the keyboard. It’s not until they learn that bigger problems can be solved by stuffing small values and formulae into little onscreen boxes, that they’re able to answer a primary school problem.

    But we shouldn’t be squeezing primary school children’s learning into those same virtual boxes.

  4. I teach senior kindergarten in Macao. I would prefer my children to be at ‘Making Things’ or playdough or sand table rather than on the one computer in my room. Actually the computer can really unnerve me, when I see a child standing, mesmerized, staring at the screen as another child works on the computer. But computers are here to stay and children have to learn how to use them, they are the natives of the computer age, I am hardly an immigrant. Ya, they are not great environmentally but neither are cars, paper, tetra pacs or many other things we use daily. Sooo even though I think children need socialization and manipulatives more than computers the computers need to be a part of school. Now a part of kindergarten…..ummmmm but I have no choice in my school.

    • Hi Mom. One question: are computers really here to stay? I don’t think we can be certain of that. I see a time when more human-friendly devices replace the desktop computer completely for the average person’s purposes. And I see it happening before your grandson graduates from high school.

  5. Not that I don’t agree with you, but just to play devils advocate here are some beneficial aspects of early exposure to computers and computer use:

    Clicking of the mouse and pushing buttons on the keyboard help to develop fine motor skills in children.

    Moving a mouse across a desk while watching on the screen develop hand eye coordination.

    Computers are a portal to a lot of information. If taught early, children are better prepared to handle that information.

    I disagree that computers inhibit critical thinking. If anything they teach us to be more critical.

    While I’m from a generation that has always had computers in the classroom, it’s hard for me to imagine school without one. Early on though we may have gotten to use the computer for five minutes each once a week in school. Computer use was monitored by the teacher and I don’t think was allowed to use the internet at school until high school LOL.

    But with two computers shared amongst the entire class, it’s safe to say your son will be spending more time at his desk than he will in front of a screen.

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