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Technology and Early Childhood: What Would John Dewey Say?


By Adjunct Faculty Member Toni Jeffries

We all know technology is the medium of the future. Yet when it comes to early childhood there is still a great deal of controversy!

Does it do more harm or good?

Are young brains ready?

Will it impact social functioning?

Can it even damage developing children?

There is actually concern from some that computers could eventually replace real-live teachers!

John Dewey is still considered one of the cornerstone thinkers in educational reform. He was born in 1859 and died in 1952.Thus, he made his mark in education well before the rush of the Digital Age, yet his words offer some timely advice –

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

From the beginning of human life on earth, the brain has developed and changed based on societal norms. We have evolved from simple tools to sophisticated machines, from symbolic interaction to written communication, and from primitive gestures to highly complex forms of speaking. We have determined that brain development evolves based on environmental stimuli, so it makes good sense that technology can be a powerful catalyst for new patterns of thinking.

The influence of technology on young children is undeniable, but the specific impact can be a moving target.  Having a young child sit in front of TV, movies or even interactive video games is a very passive situation and yields limited if any positive outcomes. As a matter of fact, it deprives the child of social modeling and cognitive problem solving. A social play date offers greater benefit. Even hands-on technology tools such as cameras and computer programs may be beyond the developmental stage of preschoolers. But when that tool is integrated into meaningful real-life situations it can become a boost no other medium can match for early childhood growth and development. A child who records his life story on a digital camera and shares that story with peers has demonstrated a powerful achievement!

Technology also offers remarkable results for young children with disabilities, offering them the chance to communicate with others and demonstrate their thinking in ways they could not otherwise do. With today’s cutting edge devices, doors that were previously closed have opened for students with both sensory and motor deficits. Observe the light go on for a preschooler with information processing difficulties that is able to make meaning from a visual multimedia presentation!

kids techTechnology can allow an early childhood classroom to be transported to places from a zoo to outer space; the students expand their world through media. Children connect written words to authentic experiences with computer programs, and are able to learn at their own pace by replaying, adding voice, and making notations with a digital pen. Young children can make magical creations with virtual drawing tools and can learn to collaborate using voice-enabled applications.

Dual language learners are often at a disadvantage academically and socially as well due to language barriers. You only have to watch a young child who is proudly sharing her thoughts, feelings and culture in a digital story to appreciate the value of technology.

Technology can be a scary prospect for teachers and parents who are aware of the dangers inherent in cyberspace. But restricting access for students is like taking them to a swimming pool but warning them not to get wet! Just as we teach children pool rules for safety when they swim, we must guide them from the beginning toward responsible cyber-citizenship so they can be life-long safe, respectful consumers of technology.

Technology is revolutionizing the way we think, behave, and learn. Young children deserve the opportunity to explore, create, communicate, and problem-solve with the best we have to offer, and technology is often the thing that makes a difference. We cannot afford to ignore this wave in our youngest children, for they are the ones that will need most to connect across the universe, hold jobs that do not yet exist, and succeed in a world we can only imagine.

As John Dewey said,

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”

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