March 1, 2015
TECHNOS Interview II:
by Carole Novak
Warning: The mind you save by not buying that whiz-bang computer could be your own childís! That is Jane Healyís message for parents and educators today. She is an educational psychologist with more than 35 yearsí experience as a classroom teacher and principal, college professor, and reading and learning specialist. She is also a parent and grandparent who not only has studied the development of childrenís minds but also has lived with the responsibility for her own childrenís cognitive development. Dr. Healy is the author of four books on the subject, the most recent of which is Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Childrenís Minds ó And What We Can Do about It (Simon & Schuster, 1999, paperback edition). It is a cautionary tale, warning that the rush to computers for early childhood use is foolhardy and dangerous. She says too much of the software being developed for young children is merely edutainment masquerading as educational products ó and itís far too costly.
Do you ever feel like a voice crying in the wilderness when it comes to getting your message across?
I do very often. But itís been extremely interesting and surprising to me that the greatest support for my new book has come from the most technologically sophisticated people with whom Iíve had contact. I think the reason is that they understand very well the potential of this technology, which is so enormous. But they also know that it isnít a miracle worker, and that it can have a downside, depending on what kinds of applications are used.
You write in Failure to Connect: Personally, I believe that the most important potential benefit of technology use is to free the power of childrenís minds.’ So, you arenít anti-technology, per se, are you?
Hardly. I love technology and have been very involved in thinking about and watching the development of children using computers for long before it was widely accepted.
You began in 1979 as a teacher-principal getting computers in your school.
Yes, well, it was about 1980, and we started with the old Apple Classic, which was a fascinating bit of equipment! I was intrigued by them, and I thought that the potential there for freeing childrenís minds was terrific. This was, of course, Seymour Papertís vision in those days, when he first wrote his book Mindstorms. Unfortunately, what has happened is that because of the rapid commercialization of this field ó and that certainly includes educational applications, not to mention what manufacturers are trying to peddle to parents ó this potential has been almost completely diverted into getting kids to think inside the box instead of outside. And by that I mean, itís turned into a very reductive technology because the software, generally speaking, has one way that the child can work through it or maybe a set pattern of ways. There isnít much freeing up of childrenís minds, and I actually see it as limiting for them. I also have serious concerns about the mental habits that some of the most popular childrenís software is encouraging. Thatís extremely important, because at the age when these children are using the technology, the brain is very malleable, and the kinds of activities that the child engages in will make a significant difference in the kinds of mental skills they develop. This includes such things as internally generated motivation, and the habits that theyíre training their minds for, whether theyíre looking for a quick visual fix by punching buttons and clicking on a mouse or whether theyíre actually using their minds in reflective, creative, and deep ways ó which children are very much capable of doing. But Iím afraid much of the software diverts them from that.
I was fascinated by that discussion in your book and the idea that if preschoolers and even toddlers use certain types of software, their brains would develop possibly in a different way than they were meant to evolve.
We donít have good research to answer that question, so it is currently a hypothesis. We do know that the brain at that age is very susceptible to different kinds of stimuli, and we know that there are sensitive periods when children need exposure to such things as direct human contact, language, behavioral habits, such as motivation and perhaps attention, not to mention just a basic sense of who you are as a human being and what the world is all about. The way that children gather these learnings is through their senses, through their bodies, through three-dimensional experience, not through a one-dimensional, symbolic excursion that ends up being someone elseís symbols and images, and someone elseís program.
What age do you recommend that children be introduced to computers?
I believed early on that earlier would be better, but I have since reversed that position and now believe that seven is a reasonable age to start thinking about it. Some experts in the field are actually saying eleven is a better age. But I truly believe that preschoolers and kindergartners, and possibly even first graders, for most applications, really have no business playing with these machines.
Thereís a big difference between educational or instructional software and edutainment’ software thatís on the market now. The company I work for is the Agency for Instructional Technology, and itís always included sound instructional design and formative and summative evaluation in the products it develops, so Iím familiar with this topicÖ but Iím worried about those parents who donít understand that there is such a thing as sound instructional design.
Well, there is instructional design, and there is field testing, and there is such a thing as an observational study where we can actually see how children are using a product. Research must include more than finding out whatís going to sell and whatís going to keep them clicking back for more, like little droids ó but what is actually going to show some accountability in terms of the time and the money being spent on it. And that, so far, has not happened, especially for the younger ages. We have no objective evidence that this is doing young children any good in the long haul. In fact, my observations suggest that it might be doing them a good bit of harm.
You just emphasized the word objective’ [evidence], and I wanted to bring that topic up because in a number of places in Failure to Connect, you mention that you suspect a lot of research is being funded by self-serving companies that just want to sell their products.
I donít suspect ó I know. And that obviously is a good way to go about selling products; thatís their business and their right. There may also be a number of educational professionals who have "sold out" to industry and have become consultants and yet are still publishing in educational journals under the guise of being objective researchers. You have to look very carefully in any kind of study to find out where the funding came from and who did the study before you can decide if this really is research worth considering. So far, we have very little objective research, and almost none of it points to a benefit.
And you would like to see objective research’ come from universities or medical institutions?
Sure. And, as you say, both formative and summative. Both looking at how you can design a product that is actually going to do a job that you know you need to do. So much of this is sort of hit-or-miss, and the way, unfortunately, that schools have gone into this is so scattershot in approach that they really havenít started by defining what it is they want to teach. They just want to get technology into the school so that they can be up with the crowd. But what should precede any purchase is a strong effort to identify what this very expensive, time-consuming, very personnel-consuming technology is actually going to be able to do in terms of the curriculum. We not only have the expensive hardware and software and wiring, but we also have the training of the teachers, which should consume a large part of the technology budget, and then something that has rarely been considered, which is adequate technical support so that the teachers donít have to act as repairmen while theyíre trying to teach a class. This is expensive, too. And keeping up-to-date, as we all know, with the new products, is a very costly job. Thatís another reason why schools need to be thinking in terms of a research approach, asking thoughtful questions: What do we really need? What can this technology do that no other medium can do for us? Or what can it do better than any other medium? There are precious few examples of places where the computer does it better than real human teachers of good quality.
Some things still work: smaller classes, good teachers, parental involvement...
We have years and years of educational research pointing to appropriate approaches, and I donít know why we tend to overlook that so often in this frenzy to get up with the latest trend Ð when the latest trend may be more destructive than it is beneficial.
You donít seem terribly impressed with the idea that we should introduce children to computers in schools so theyíll be good workers when they get out of school.
Letís take as an example this idea that having a child on a computer at age two or three is going to prepare him or her for the future. This is incredible nonsense! Which, basically, has come from the industry. Obviously, itís a good marketing approach. But donít we have more sense than to realize that whatís going to make children really successful in the 21st Century is not todayís technology? Itís like teaching them to drive a buggy, when theyíre going to be racing around in spaceships! For example, weíre spending a lot of time thinking about mouse skills and keyboarding, and there very likely will be no mouse and no keyboard before too long; these things will soon be obsolete.
What children are really going to need to be successful in the 21st Century are good work habits, internally driven motivation, creativity and imagination to deal with these incredible new scenarios that are going to be presenting themselves, good interpersonal and communication skills, and the ability to maintain their focus from inside, rather than having it driven by some stimulus object that will hook them in and keep them engaged. We worry about why our children are having trouble reading ó it isnít really that weíre not teaching them how to sound out the words; itís that they donít have the mental stamina or the linguistic wherewithal to make sense out of whatís on the page. Because that takes hard work; it doesnít offer you an immediate, glitzy visual fix; there are no reward screens; thereís no programmed praise ó itís purely a mental activity. Children who canít do that sort of thing will certainly have trouble in the future.
Thereís a passage in your book about the progression of implementation ó or non-implementation, it turns out ó of technology in schools, which you credit to Larry Cubanís research. It goes like this: First, products are wildly over-sold by vendors who are non-educators; then, educators find these products to be ineffective, or they are unwilling to use them because the products are unproven in the classroomÖ
Or, in the case of computers, they take up a lot of teachersí time; they break frequently, and they are so easily diverted into time wasters for students that a teacher has to be very careful how the computer is used in the classroom and what is available to the kids, either in terms of software or online.
Exactly. That, then, causes disillusionment on the part of the educators, because the technology has no effect or even has a bad effect; and finally, the community begins to blame the teachers for not using the technology. So really, itís the teachersí fault that computers donít work for studentsÖ
All of that has happened. I think that computers will be with us in constantly changing incarnations, but currently thereís a lot of discomfiture in the teacher corps because a lot of the technology has been forced on them, without adequate training, without adequate tech support, and they havenít had an opportunity to learn how it can be used as a part of their curriculum. In the examples that I cite in the book of schools that have taken this on in a responsible way, the first question the teachers asked is: "Hereís my curriculum. Now, what do I need to teach it most effectively? If itís computers, fine; if itís chalkboard, if itís the art room, whatever, itís okay. And, if it is going to be computer technology, what is available there that is going to help me deliver a particular aspect of the curriculum? Then, weíll have it in the classroom; weíll have it as an organic part of the lesson." And this is where it works! It doesnít become a distractor or time waster because itís part of the learning process.
And the teacher is open to using it, too.
Yes. It seems to take about five years for most teachers to become fluent with this technology in a classroom, and what that means is that, when he does a lesson plan, for example, itís automatic to him what to do with small-group activity, what to do with lecture, what to do with computer software or Internet applications ó all become a fluid part of the process. As it is now, it has just been grafted onto the system and weíve got a ways to go. For example, in high schools, a recent survey looked at teachers who claim that they use the computer as part of their lessons, but it turns out that about 90 percent of those are using them only for word processing. And here we have these Pentium processors that are being used for something that an electronic typewriter can do.
So, we really do have a long way to go, and I think the point of my book and of my thinking right now is not that we ignore technology or try to throw it out ó which would be ridiculous ó but that we stop for a minute and first of all ask the question: Whoís in the driverís seat here? Is it the educators, or is it the marketers and the industry? And which industry is it? Is it the computer technology industry, or is it the entertainment industryí Because theyíre very interlinked right now, and getting more so all the time. The second question is: How can we proceed judiciously on this? And maybe not start spending money until we have made a sensible plan and have some kind of evidence that itís going to do some good.
Itís common sense, for the most part.
There are many people who feel as I do, and there are many parents who are quiet because the pressure is on to have these children on computers at ridiculously early ages, even to give them their own computers. The very worst thing parents can do is to place a computer in a childís room until they know that that youngster, usually a teenager, is absolutely capable of making wise decisions about it. Parents are being pressured to do all these things, and they sense that itís wrong, yet they donít have the technical knowledge themselves to understand why itís wrong.
A lot of that has to do with the guilt advertising on the industryís part.
Oh, guilt is the parental hormone! It flows through all of our veins very freely, and itís very easy to exploit. A huge amount of money is being spent in the industry to keep this the biggest growth aspect of the whole industry and to extend it. Not only that, but weíre seeing more direct marketing online to kids of younger ages, so that even though a recent survey looked at the ten best-rated Web sites for children, in terms of what educators and psychologists have chosen as really good, worthwhile content for school-aged kids, it turns out that none of them are in the kidsí top favorite sites! Because the top sites that get the most visits from kids are the commercial ones where you can buy something online through a variety of increasingly clever gimmicks, or you can pester your parents until they get it for you. I think parents really have the right instincts ó they just need some help in sorting through the difference between a marketing message and a real need of the child.
You get this feeling on the Web that thereís a vast amount of stuff out there ó that youíll miss it, if you donít get out there and get online. I think that may be part of the fascination for kids, too, besides just the fact that itís pretty ó the graphics are wonderful these days ó but when you get to be a teenager, thereís a lot of information out there, and the promise of finding it is rather intriguing, too.
Observational studies have shown that kids surfing aimlessly waste about 85 percent of their time, unless an educator or parent has helped them set up a particular goal. We all tend to jump from one thing to another on the Web, unless we have a very clear plan.
Planning, setting goals, and critical thinking are still the foundation for education, whether youíre using computers or not.
Yes. Of course, itís very easy for politicians to say, If we give everybody information, this will level the playing field and bring everybody up to speed.’ But if youngsters canít read the information and understand the text, or if they donít have the mental habits to synthesize it and apply it to something they already know and make it useful, then they might as well go sit in the library and hope that knowledge will soak into them.
Letís talk about the level playing field’, the haves and have-nots. In a couple of places in your book you mention an opposing theory. For instance, you cite something from Diane Ravitchís work: In the end, it will be the poor who will be chained to the computers; the rich will get teachers.’
Actually, the way things are now, the way computers are being used, particularly with young children, I believe that the children who donít have computers early on are going to be far better off.
Because theyíll develop the critical thinking skills and motivational skills on their own?
Yes, theyíll have a chance to develop a mind of their own, not one thatís been constructed by a program with seductive graphics and flashy rewards. I believe that we should be putting our money primarily with older students, where many computer applications are showing that they have a lot of value. And it certainly isnít just word processing; itís math and science simulations that help students move beyond concrete thinking to understanding some of the more difficult concepts, such as proportion, velocity, ratio, wind speed, the way molecules interact with each other, as just a few examples. All of these things may be better learned by a combination of a good teacher and a really good computer program. And in history classes, to have the Internet available is extraordinary, if the teacher knows how to use it. Why arenít we putting our money into leveling the playing field so that all kids, say from early adolescence on, can have access to this technology ó and good teachers to teach it?
I just heard a report from a university in Florida, which had found an amazingly large proportion of its entering freshmen really didnít know the first thing about a database or a spreadsheet. This is absurd, when weíre putting technology money into kindergarten! I think our high school graduates need to have access to these skills, and they can be an integral and useful part of their learning process at this point. Things like image processing can add an incredible dimension. I included in my book one example of a seventh-grade class, where the teacher had really expanded these young peopleís learning through the use of image processing. It wasnít that heíd thrown away the old methods, but adding this new way of processing information really enhanced what the kids were getting out of the lesson. Why arenít we thinking more about those kinds of things?
For the most part, the software for elementary school children is the drill-and-practice type that offers a reward at the end, and you point out that kids, rather than practicing at the highest level that they could and challenging themselves, often choose to work at the lower levels, so they can play star-wars games as a reward.
Thereís an interesting body of research in the psychological field of motivation, which suggests that those kinds of reward systems can actually do a real number on a childís internal motivation. When you start dispensing frequent, trivial rewards for learning, you may soon have a kid who wonít do anything unless he sees the immediate prospect of a reward. And that does not help you much on the SATs! There are no lovely graphics or games to play after you manage a problem on the SAT, which of course is for older students, but formation of the brainís motivational tendencies starts much, much younger. I think itís a serious source of concern. The people who should be developing these products are educators, psychologists, people who understand child development and motivational research, etc., working along with the programmers.
You also mention the difference between constructivism in education, which is more learner centered, and is something weíve talked about a lot in TECHNOS, and the more traditional educational model where the teacher is the authority figure Ö the sage on the stage as opposed to the guide on the sideÖ
Those battlelines can be a little overdrawn, too. But I think that the computer in this sense is acting very much as a mirror. Teachers and systems with a didactic approach will choose the drill-and-practice software (which, incidentally, is starting to show up in studies as having a more negative than positive effect on overall learning). And the teacher who is able to relinquish center stage and think about how to get the studentsí minds more actively engaged will be more likely to choose simulations, group activities that involve problem solving with the technology, and more open-ended kinds of software and Internet use.
But do they really need technology to do that? Itís just a different technique of teaching.
Exactly. In many instances, they donít really need the technology. Yet we will increasingly see that there are some topics ó and I use math and science in the upper grades right now as an example ó where the use of some kinds of instructional technology will really improve learning. But it probably wonít be totally didactic. The issue here, of course, is: can the use of computers in the classroom move a teacher away from being overly teacher centered and allow her to understand that the students do have brains and that they need to be developed along with that of the teacher? I have actually seen a couple of examples where I think it has moved teachers toward better teaching, and some research does suggest this possibility, although it takes an enormous amount of staff development to move a teacher off dead center in allowing the students to assume responsibility for their learning.
The final chapter of your book touches on a fascinating topic.
Yes. The idea that our kids are going to be the first generation forced to make serious choices about interacting with artificial intelligence. Certain experts are now saying that computers will be sentient in some sense by about 2030, and that they may in fact declare themselves autonomous and demand rights.
You know, I spoke with the author of one of those books [see Gregory Rawlinsí Interview III], and he says that theyíll be sentient only if humans allow them to be.
Thatís exactly the point: If humans allow them to be! But, if we raise a generation of children in thrall to the glitzy screen, raised to believe that the computer is ipso facto going to make them smarter, and without developing the personal, interior mental life and humanity and moral sense to make such decisions, who knows what could happen?
These kids will be grappling for the first time with real issues of what constitutes being human, of how to interact successfully with intelligent machines. We have barely thought about this as yet. And yet, at the rate things are moving, these moral, ethical, and personal choices will very soon become critical. Itís my contention that if human beings wish to stay in charge of our machines, weíre going to have to raise a generation of kids who are capable of really deep and original thought about difficult problems. Unfortunately, the way most computer technology is being used right now ó and of course this is a reflection of much that is happening in other aspects of education ó we are not developing such deep, innovative thinkers. If we let the media and entertainment industry take over our childrenís minds at an early age, it will be no great surprise if they are soon in thrall to machine intelligence.
Sure. And if they allow the computer to do the work for them, why not allow that computer to become sentient, as you say?
Exactly. Itís easier to let somebody take control. If youíve been controlled by marketers all your life, and by software that has you going through certain tricks to get certain kinds of outcomes, it would be very difficult to move into feeling that you need to be in charge and be able to make decisions and focus your mind sufficiently to know how to think about those things.
Itís interesting that you end your book with this discussion, and you begin your book with a discussion of how the whole technological revolution is almost of a religious fervor. As I was reading it, I thought there were a lot of parallels here with a religious movement.
There are very interesting overlapping circles here in terms of the issues and the challenges. And it gets into several very basic questions, such as: What do we think is the nature and purpose of childhood? Is it simply to prepare kids for the future? Or is it to help them realize their humanity? And, secondly: What is the real nature of humanity? If we view children only as potential consumers to be developed and potential workers in a technological economy, we will treat them one way. But if we view them as thinking, moral individuals and see it as our obligation to help them come to grips with self and ethical issues, then we will treat them very differently. In that case, weíre certainly not going to attach them to machines when theyíre preschoolers, nor are we going to market incessantly to them so that they think that shopping or being entertained is all there is to do with your mind and your life.
Thatís food for thought! Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about all of this.
You ask very interesting questions. I enjoyed it.
Photo courtesy of Rex Kepp Photography.