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October 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 2

The I-Generation—From Toddlers to Teenagers: A Conversation with Jane M. Healy

    Jane M. Healy reflects on the ways that technology influences the Information Generation—and what educators need to know about its impact on teaching and learning.

      Author and educator Jane M. Healy has been at the forefront of educational technology since we first started seeing computers in the classroom. But her ideas about technology have changed over the past 20 years, from passionate advocate to cautious critic. In her latest book, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds—for Better and Worse, she argues convincingly that technology is not a panacea to education's problems, though some would like to see it that way. Healy examines the pros and cons of computer use, warning that high-tech products, no matter how advanced, do not have the same educational weight as good teachers, small classes, and a challenging curriculum.
      Healy spoke with EL about what is right and wrong with education technology, how students of various developmental stages are affected differently by computers, and why educators need to take charge of technology use in their classroom practice.
      In Failure to Connect, you caution that as we hurry to get the latest technologies into the classroom, we need to reexamine our educational goals; it is a fallacy to think of computers as inevitably beneficial to student learning. Before we get to some of the drawbacks, could you begin by talking about where technology has "gone right" for schools?
      I've been involved in educational technology—working with children and computers—for about 20 years because I am intrigued by the possibilities of technology not only for teaching and learning but also for learning about the learning process. How can we plug in more effectively to kids who are at different stages of development and who experience learning in different ways? I am interested in applications that reach for that goal and don't simply recapitulate the old educational models. We haven't found a way yet—and I doubt whether we ever will—to let machine technology replace human technology in the education process. But through research, we may eventually combine human and machine technologies to discover why children are or are not learning certain things and to present information in a wide variety of modalities.
      What about the idea that computers can actually shift classroom management to a more student-centered or constructivist approach?
      I have seen many excellent examples where that has happened. If teachers understand the computer, are fluent with it, and use the proper kinds of applications, technology can really excite the kids and contribute to collaborative learning. Although in my book I cite some appalling examples of technology use, the classrooms that really excited me—and some gave me goose bumps—were those that used constructivist applications. The child was asking questions rather than simply answering.
      But teachers have to be part of the educational process. Unfortunately, the political pressures to toss computers into classrooms and to get Internet connections before people even know what to do with them is an attempt to run around the teaching profession. This troubles me a great deal. To assume that adding a computer and software to a classroom will automatically make kids learn better is a perfect example of how little our culture understands the dynamic interaction between teacher and student.
      And yet we hear again and again that educators are finding that their students are more at ease with the latest technologies than they are. How can we increase the comfort level of teachers and help them meet the changing needs of their students?
      A skilled teacher can ask questions that spur the child's thinking in new directions. Many times, we will ask children questions that we don't particularly need the answer to, for the sole purpose of getting students to broaden their thinking and to see new ways of approaching a problem. The fact that children are more fluent with the technology is a great gift to education. It's going to teach us that the student really can initiate important learning. By that I do not mean that the student is necessarily in charge of planning the learning or directing it, but that the student is ultimately the one who is responsible for the learning.
      Seymour Papert and others have described technology as a "revolution" because it has the potential to transform the ways that we teach and learn and because the students themselves will be the ultimate transformers.
      But the question remains, Who is defining the learning? Young students are not in a position to decide what constitutes important learning for them. This is the responsibility of the educator. We do have to become comfortable with technology. But the idea of forcing teachers to use computers even though they may not be skilled in using them or understand how they relate to the important content that they want to teach is a terrible mistake.
      You know, it may turn out that most high school English classes are not the best places to use computers, compared with math and science classes, for example. A recent study showed that a huge proportion—somewhere around 90 percent—of high school teachers claim that their students are using computers, but students are actually using them only for word processing. They are doing work on a costly Pentium processor that could be done with an electric typewriter.
      How much do we know about how computers affect a child's brain?
      Actually, we know very little. But we do know that using computers, or, in fact, other technologies for learning, such as books and pencils and papers and crayons, will have an effect on the child's brain. The brain is plastic and responds in critical ways to repeated outside stimuli. Computers will make a difference not only in the way kids learn but also in the way their brains approach information processing. The extent of this effect is unknown, and we should be directing our efforts toward well-supported and intelligent research. We need the time to conduct field trials, and we need people who understand the learning process to stand behind kids and observe carefully what is happening while they manipulate various kinds of software or Internet applications. Until then, much of what we're doing with education technology may actually be harming rather than helping kids' brains. This is a complex idea, which I explain in more detail in Failure to Connect.
      But much of the current research is funded by companies that have an obvious interest in selling their products.
      Oh, yes. If I were in the industry, I would want to support research that indicated how well products work. Obviously, the industry wants to push the notion that technology is a great thing for kids. The simple fact is that there has been very little objective research done on computer learning. Of that objective research, much of it documents no significant improvement in learning, and some actually shows a decline. Of course, it depends on what we do with the computers. But I have read some very shoddy industry research that school systems have used to rationalize buying huge, expensive learning systems and other kinds of equipment. It's appalling. If you know anything about educational research, most of this stuff is worthless.
      Then how can schools that are trying to find high-quality hardware and software ensure that they are actually spending their money wisely?
      It is extremely hard these days to find a reviewer who isn't in some way affiliated with the tech industry. But if we are good educators, we make an effort to understand our own curriculum, what our students need, and what is working to help them. Schools need to ask, What can we do with this technology in terms of curriculum and learning that we can't do as efficiently by beefing up other more proven methods? This technology is expensive in every respect, including adequate tech support to keep it up and running so that instructional time isn't wasted.
      We must also reengineer newly electronic classrooms so that they meet the important standards for children's physical safety when using computers. If it turns out that a better-trained teacher and good print resources are going to have the kids learning equally as well (or even better, as some studies have suggested) as a computer, why spend the money on the computer? If the computer can actually do something new—for example, if it can give a child a good simulation of the scientific and mathematical principles of velocity—then the technology is worth looking at. So we're talking about cost efficiency and innovation. Innovation will be the greatest benefit from these machines.
      You also differentiate between technology that has educational versus "edutainment" value. Can you explain that difference and talk about what teachers need to look for?
      It goes back to what we know about all learning: Understanding the student and the learning process is the key. It isn't simply a question of whether the students seem "motivated," are having fun, and can repeat back what was on the software, but whether they understand what they are doing and can apply it in a broader context. The key is carefully watching the student and asking important questions about what she's really learning. We need to ask, Is this something meaningful to do during their school time? Too often, I have watched kids in classrooms wasting time on games that are wrongly construed by educators and the general public as educational. For example, there is a geography game where children playing without a teacher nearby are rarely thinking about geography—or even reading the screens—but are far more interested in just winning the game ASAP.
      Another thing to watch for is, Whose mind is really doing the thinking here? Is it the child's or the programmer's? When you first see a 5th grader give an oral report using PowerPoint, you're bound to be stunned. It looks great. It is unbelievable. How can this child be so smart? But PowerPoint is not really that difficult to use. How much thinking did the youngster actually put into this report?
      Many teachers say that all of their grading standards are suddenly out the window because they can get a beautiful, neat report with all kinds of good content. But, in fact, the student has done nothing but cut and paste. At some point, we may find that the A paper will be the one original paragraph that synthesizes a great deal of information and actually demonstrates real understanding of the material.
      What is the proper age to start using computers? Are there developmental differences that educators should know about?
      This is the big question. What is good for a 15-year-old is not ipso facto good for a 5-year-old. All teachers and developmentalists know this, but the computer industry has missed this point in their barrage of advertisements. Personally, I've had a complete 180-degree reversal from my original position 20 years ago when I was stuffing computers into our kindergarten as fast as I could get grant money. Now my feeling is that children under age 7 really do not need to be using computers.
      We should be putting our money and efforts into the older students who can profit most and who are closer to the job market. The idea of giving a 4-year-old a computer now to "prepare him for the future" is nonsense. When he's 21, his computer is going to look totally different from what he is using now, and we may be actually teaching him a set of completely maladaptive skills. For example, nobody is confident there will be keyboarding—or a mouse—in 10 or even 5 years from now.
      The point is that these early years are crucial for developing children's language, their social skills, motivation, auditory-attention span, and skills in problem solving, reading, and personal learning. Math concepts develop through three-dimensional work, not through two-dimensional icons on a screen. If we encourage parents to believe that it's appropriate to put 4- or 5-year-olds in front of computers, I think we're asking for trouble. It may be trouble that is hard to solve later on.
      So computers can actually do more harm than good for young learners?
      I absolutely believe that they are doing more harm than good. We're wasting incredible amounts of developmental time because these seductive technologies are drawing children away from the activities that normally occupy a developing brain. Now, by middle and high school, it's a shame if children don't have access to a wide variety of technologies across the disciplines.
      Health is a related issue. We're going to hear more about how computers affect a student's vision and body mechanics, with such problems as repetitive strain injuries (for example, carpal tunnel syndrome) and posture issues. In addition to physical problems, psychological problems may develop in children who aren't using their bodies enough—even depression may be induced in children spending too many hours at the screen instead of getting a normal amount of free play and exercise.
      I believe that administrators could eventually be facing lawsuits when we start to see the effects of too much screen time for young children. We just don't know. If I were an administrator now, before I put all my little kids on computers for any significant amount of time, I would surely want to see some research documenting the fact that I wasn't going to be harming their vision or causing them irreparable physical or other developmental problems.
      Parents often think that putting a young child in front of a computer is at least more educational than putting him or her in front of a television.
      Actually, it may be far more damaging. Research shows that while kids are watching TV, many are actually playing—interacting with other kids, building with blocks, rolling a ball, jumping up and down in the room. But when they are on the computer, they are glued to very seductive software. This is especially dangerous for youngsters who have a propensity toward social and emotional disorders.
      We're seeing a whole new spectrum of pervasive developmental issues, which many therapists now believe are exacerbated by too much early computer use. If you have trouble with interpersonal relationships or with paying attention, the computer relieves you of all that responsibility because it forces you to pay attention and it gets you away from having to interact with other people. You don't have to worry about eye contact or gestures or facial expressions or all those things that are very difficult for some children but are essential parts of their learning.
      I wonder whether you could discuss the equity question—what's termed the digital divide—between those who have access to technology and those who don't.
      To me, a disadvantaged child with an excellent teacher, a decent school plant, a reasonable class size, good materials, and no computers is far better off than the same disadvantaged child surrounded by technology but lacking the teachers who can help him or her develop the brain power to be successful in any age, technological or not. We have schools in which one area looks like IBM headquarters—with glitzy, high-tech computers—whereas the rest of the school is falling down—heating pipes falling off the walls, huge classes, teachers who are dispirited by the impossible demands being placed on them, no reading or math specialists, no psychologists, no arts programs. You can't tell me that those children are better off than children in a school without computers but with other essential educational materials to help them be successful.
      Yet the political forces seem to be saying, If we put the computers in the schools, everything will be fine.
      Why are educators willing to accept this quick-fix mentality that comes out of political expediency? Endemic problems require huge, wide-ranging, and well-thought-out approaches, and they cannot be solved by tossing money or technology at them.
      I think that this whole technology "revolution," if you want to call it that, is in the position to powerfully influence the future of American public schools. But if we mess up, it's going to be hard to extricate ourselves. Forcing any school to cut the arts programs, to stop buying books for the library so that it can be turned into a tech center, or to cut teachers' budgets for chapter books to meet some absurd technology goal is just folly.
      We know that certain activities help children not only master information but also become whole and well-rounded human beings. If we focus so narrowly on a limited delivery of low-level "academic" content, we risk jeopardizing far more than students' academic competency. We risk jeopardizing their competency to become contributing human beings. We're not just developing this child's left and right hemispheres. We're trying to develop the entire brain and the entire child.
      And we're preparing students to be responsible citizens.
      At least we should be. But you have to wonder when we're training—and that's the word, training—children to press buttons in a stimulus-response, guess-and-test pattern, with "educational" materials that are really disguised video games, what kind of thinkers and citizens we are training them to be. Aren't we training them to be knee-jerk followers of whatever will give them the quickest pleasure? I'm very concerned about a generation of stimulus-addicted kids, and I'm certainly concerned about stimulus-addicted voters.
      In Failure to Connect, you say that kids today are going to be the first generation forced to make choices about interacting with artificial intelligence. What kinds of choices will they be making?
      In our children's lifetime, machine intelligence is expected to surpass human intelligence. Moreover, our children—or their children—may see direct and powerful interfaces between computer hardware and the human brain. Some writers predict that human brains will become nothing more than pieces of software, and that the computer mind will become our ideal of the desirable mind. Our students today will be the ones making decisions about these issues and more. Will they be able to reflect on what is involved in being human and how valuable it is to them? I believe the first thing we ought to do when we put kids in front of computers is begin a thoughtful dialogue with them: What can this computer do that we as humans can't do, and what can we do that the computer can't?
      Should these questions be built into the curriculum?
      Yes, and I don't mean that we need a new curriculum guide for teachers. As intelligent educators, every time we work with students on a computer, we also have to be probing their sense of what it means to be involved with this technology, asking them to be reflective and critical thinkers. Too often, today's software puts the computer in charge of the students, not the other way around. Most of us originally went into this idealistically believing that the child would learn to think by mastering the computer. What has happened is that the child has become the tool of the tool.
      One of our big jobs is to teach children to understand technology and to reflect on its consequences and its relationship to human development. Every school should be integrating a multidisciplinary effort to get middle and high school children talking about or studying the history of technology. How did the printing press affect political, social, and economic development? How are these themes reflected in literature, the arts, science, and math? What have been the good and bad effects of the automobile? And how about computer technology? What potential is there to help human progress—and to interfere with it? Even our much younger students are old enough to start considering these questions in depth. But if policymakers and educators themselves don't have the wit to engage in this kind of reflection, how can we expect it of our students?
      I know that you have children and grandchildren. How are your grandchildren using technology?
      Well, my grandchildren are not very old—the oldest is 5—and they spend little, if any, time on computers. Their parents, like many young people, never saw a computer until they were in junior or high school. Now the parents are totally fluent with whatever technology they want because there is no critical period for learning to use the computer. Fortunately, they understand enough about technology that they don't see any rush to put their children on a computer. And I think that's very wise.
      Any final thoughts?
      I get riled up about these topics because I am concerned that the public is soon going to say, "Wait a minute, we spent an awful lot of money on technology, we don't have any results, and here we go again." We may lose the impetus to do the wonderful kind of research that explores how technology can benefit teaching and learning. Educators have to get their wits about them and take charge of technology, take this potential back from the industry and put it firmly where it belongs—in the world of educationally, and humanly, sound practice.

      Carol Tell has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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