rom politicians to parents to pundits, many people believe computers are like Harry Potters magic wand: the ultimate answer to lifes problems. Computers can be very helpful, and most futurists foretell a rosy world of high productivity and creativity, thanks to keyboards and modems.
But educators are learning that whats behind the flash of color graphics and funky audio determines success for children. A recent paper authored by UWM School of Education Professor Dominic Gullo describes how computers can be used effectively in classrooms with the youngest students.
Gullo is using a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Helen Bader Foundation to examine ways to apply computer technology within early childhood curriculum.
Just as the use of a crayon depends on whether a child is given a blank piece of paper or a coloring book, the benefits of using computers depend on how teachers integrate them into the curriculum, he says.
Its initially important for children in kindergarten and first grade to be comfortable with developmentally appropriate technology, Gullo says. Young children need to know that just using a mouse or finding keys on a keyboard can produce amazing results.
We encourage more experimentation, rather than having to get a right or wrong answer. They get to experiment, make mistakes, and learnrather than just be focused on the right answer, he says.
Classrooms impose an artificial structure on curriculum that may not interest children. If theyre just sitting there and getting instruction, they lose interest. With a constructivist approach, a child may come in with an idea, and the teacher capitalizes on that idea to teach the kinds of things they were going to do anyway, he says.
Concrete to computer
Hi-Mount Community School in Milwaukees Washington Heights neighborhood has focused on computers and technology for 15 years. First it was Apple IIe computers and very limited software. But since the boom in personal computers and childrens software in the past six or seven years, theyve followed Gullos child-centered approach.
We start out with something concrete, such as shapes on a felt board, then show how they can create whatever shapes they like on the computer using a mouse, says Fran Bulger, Hi-Mounts Library Media Specialist.
The software Bulger and other teachers use with young children includes:
Graph Club. Children take data on a subject thats interesting to themsay, how many pets are owned by classmatesthen make several styles of computer graphs, such as bar charts, line graphs and pie charts.
Kid Pix. A program that encourages children to write and illustrate their own stories.
First Connections. A simple, picture-oriented encyclopedia that allows children to conduct their own research.
Hi-Mounts use of technology in curriculum is based on three elements: Accessing information, producing information, and to a lesser degree, reviewing skills. That final areadrill and practice using computersis the least constructivist but still may have limited use in the classroom.
Not a reward
One of the most important points, Gullo says, is to make sure the computers are not used as a reward.
Some teachers might say, If your behavior isnt good, you cant use the computer. Well, you wouldnt say, If youre good, then you can use the books. Computers are the same as other learning tools in the classroom, he explains, adding that if a child views the computer as a reward, it wont become the learning tool it should be.
The learning should continue in a contextually appropriate manner, Gullo says, as children enter advanced elementary-school grades.
Children become more autonomous as they mature and as they become more proficient and experienced in constructing knowledge. Children should be given opportunities to become independent, make their own choices whenever appropriate, and direct their own learning, he says.
The one other vital element in all this learning is the teacher.
The primary role of the teacher is that of facilitator, Gullo says. He or she provides opportunities for social interaction, asking questions of children as they work, modeling appropriate computer behavior, and offering occasional suggestions. The teacher also needs to monitor the learning and modify the environment based on what the children do.
The challenge, says Hi-Mounts Bulger, is finding enough time to train teachers in all the new software thats available. But she says shes always amazed with how teachers inject their own creativity.
One first grade teacher worked with children on a drawing program to produce a presentation for incoming kindergartners on the ABCs of first grade, she says. The final project was a wonderful example of the childrens own ideasguided by the teacherand an excellent demonstration of their emerging computer skills.
According to Gullo, computers should be thought of as only one of many materials to be used in conjunction with others in a constructivist classroom.
Just as we no longer give much thought to the various materials that children can use to write with, to color, to read and to construct with, we must also come to realize that the computer is just one more tool that the child has in his or her repertoire for writing, coloring, counting, reading, or for gathering information, he says.