Some thoughts on the arguments concerning
children and computers.
There are basically two strongly opposing viewpoints, one favouring the
equipping of schools with as many computers as the authorities can
afford, the other of preventing children as far as possible from
using computers at school or in the home. Amongst the reasons for the
latter are worries about the largely violent nature of computer games
and the harmful messages they contain, as well as the effect on
children's health and wellbeing.
In view of the importance, even urgency, of these and related questions
and the fact that they appear irreconcilable, we will examine whether
there are any aspects on either side of the argument that could be
looked at from a holistic viewpoint and put to practical use for
the children's benefit.
The main arguments.
The main arguments in favour of early computer education are, basically,
that they present a totally new approach to learning; that people with
learning difficulties or physical handicaps are able to perform well in
some areas where they otherwise could not; that children who master
the relevant techniques at an early age will be ready to enter the
labour market well prepared, that they will be in command of skills and
information needed in modern life, that they enjoy having ready
access to these powerful tools, and that they learn the necessary
skills easily and with enjoyment. Set against this viewpoint is the
belief that children who come to rely on mechanical means of learning
lose the skill and enjoyment of using their individual and human
potential for doing so, that they get out of touch with their own
cultural roots and lose their imaginative powers; that they come to
confuse actual reality with virtual reality; that they are wasting their
valuable childhood years in which they could be developing their human
and intuitive powers and discovering life for themselves.
I believe that all these views are valid. There is little doubt that
'I.T.' is a technological advance which can be seen as an outcome of
human development and evolution. A number of useful studies on
computers in education and as entertainment have been carried out which,
as might be expected, produce widely differing results. The National
Children's Bureau ran a series of seminars in London in 1995, in which
specialists in various fields presented papers, and it published
these in 1996 under the title 'Electronic Children - How Children are
Responding to the Information Revolution' .
Whether its eventual effect will be to the overall benefit of
humankind, or to its detriment, is in the hands of responsible people
at this very minute. It is too powerful a phenomenon for us to allow
ourselves to neglect, waiting later to reap its consequences, good or
bad. The advent of this tool has changed civilisation irrevocably and
its likely implications and applications need to be discussed now at
every level so as to gain a better understanding of it, and to find
ways in which it may be harnessed to greatest advantage. If they seize
the opportunities open to them even at this late stage, it might
still be possible for parents and teachers and others concerned, to
have an influence on the way the trend develops because it is to a
considerable extent consumer led.
Some ways of preparing children to benefit from present developments.
Because there are an enormous number of ways in which computers are
affecting life in society, I will in this article focus on a specific
aspect, namely on ways in which some of the beneficial uses of
computers by children may be maximised, and the possible damage
minimised. It is in this area that observations and experiences of
adults and children involved could be of great value in forming future
Time spent on the computer.
As one of the generally acknowledged detrimental effects of computers
on children is excessive time spent looking at its screen, both schools
and parents could ensure that children do not do this for more than a
given time. Depending on their age, starting at eight, perhaps 15
minutes, not more than twice a day. This could increase in stages, the
maximum time from age 15 upwards being 90 minutes in a day, in two or
three sittings, not more than 45 minutes at a time.
Of perhaps even greater importance is the content of the programme. In
the opinion of older teenagers with whom I have discussed this, they
regret not having had the opportunity to learn the mechanics of
arithmetic,because they learnt on machines too early and had become
dependent on these and lacked a basic understanding of the underlying
principles. As these machines become more sophisticated and more widely
used, so the human element in understanding of the principles and the
key to problem solving, evaluation, estimating and other mental
skills, diminishes. In this way human capabilities atrophy . While
adult users of advanced programmes can achieve truly wonderful results,
most of these people will still have a basic understanding of principles
which they learnt when they were young.
Some basic principles; Investigating, exploring and developing the
creative potential of the computer;
a) The Importance of Puzzling.
The kind of learning that leads to an understanding of basic
principles contains an element of puzzling; of seeking solutions
through challenging intellectual effort; an invitation to the intuition,
a teasing out of the intangible, - or a kind of ' brain game'. It is
a great joy to children of all ages and should be an important
ingredient in any learning programme. While computers eradicate the
tedium of repetitive mechanical operations, they can at the same time
cut out a vital spark from the mental process and eliminate a certain
challenge and discipline. In order to counter-act this, children's
programmes, both educational and entertaining, should engage their
fundamental curiosity, challenge them to tease and search out
information for themselves. It is well known to many teachers that we
learn more through questioning than by being fed information.
Asking the right questions and searching for possible solutions
through puzzling and personal effort is one of the intellectually and
spiritually most important and satisfying activities in childhood.
This involves the imagination, visualisation, invention and intuition.
It leads to creative thinking and originality and brings with it that
essential ingredient for healthy personal growth and development,
namely a sense of achievement, leading to self-esteem. With the loss
of opportunity to experience and exercise this vital attribute,
humankind is deprived of a source of wisdom, its very essence; and
becomes a robot of its own making.
b) Loss of inhibitions
Some people find that the computer has the effect of loosening
inhibitions when writing, producing graphics, numerical configurations
or sound. A likely reason for this is that results are immediate, and
one is aware that errors can be eradicated with ease. This can
produce an easy flow, boldness and the exploration of new
possibilities and lead to real creation. However, if discernment and
self-discipline are lacking, the resulting work can turn out casual
and of a low standard or shoddy. Users need to be aware of this and
, and while enjoying the freedom gained, should scrutinise their
Practical application of the principles.
The principles discussed can be applied in the home as well as school.
It is under present conditions not easy for children to find enough to
do to fill their leisure time away from the screen, which can leave
them with a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction. This creates
problems for parents. If time at the computer ( and TV) is limited,
as suggested, children, and probably their parents, need to find
alternative occupations for some of the time. Depending on the age and
number of the children in the home this will vary considerably.
However, the underlying principle suggested for educational computer
programmes can be applied in the home; namely by finding challenging
and demanding occupations which fulfil the needs discussed. Some of
these may not involve as much intellectual challenge, love of puzzling
or searching for solutions, however, the exercising of the imagination
is present in many games as well as in domestic occupations like
cooking or decorating one's room, providing good facilities for pets,
designing clothes or even such mundane occupations as repairing a
broken table leg. To these add the enjoyment of craft work, music,
dancing, singing and the other arts. Being actively involved with and
handling a variety of natural materials stimulates awareness of their
physical properties, texture, weight and substance.
Computers can be used for designing, picture making, music making,
story writing, producing magazines and other creative work. Such uses
are challenging and can be combined with the kind of activities
discussed. For instance, decorative patterns made on the computer can
be tried out in various media and textures, and either combined or
compared. Stories written on the computer can be acted out in real
life; tunes made on the computer could be sung or transposed to other
instruments, and so on. In this way the two-dimensional, texture-less
and weightless screen images can be transformed to take on substance
and real life. Children and adults will gain a deeper understanding of
the qualities of the different mediums and able to assess the
suitability of each for its chosen uses.
If creative and intellectually challenging principles on this basis are
introduced into school and home, the new opportunities offered by the
computer are put to good use, and a counterbalance to the danger
from an overdose of mechanical or technological influences will be
set up. This benefit may be absorbed into attitudes to life and the
values adopted and can strengthen people to resist the shoddy
standards in much of today's entertainment and they are helped to keep
in touch with actual, down to earth reality. They are less likely to
lose their sense of living humanity when they encounter virtual
reality. Some of many issues arising from virtual reality will be
discussed at a future date.
While much of the work described can be done in school and home, a great
deal does also depend on educational policy set by governments, and on
local communities and local government in providing sufficient
suitable space and opportunities for children and young people to
fulfil their creative potential and to gain maximum benefit from
technological developments in education and leisure.
Elizabeth Stutz - email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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