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The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children’s Education at Risk

reviewed by Debbie Denise Reese & John Burton - 2002

coverTitle: The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children’s Education at Risk
Author(s): Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement
Publisher: Robins Lane Press, Beltsville
ISBN: 0876592108, Pages: 254 , Year: 2000
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Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement use The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children’s Education at Risk to identify a number of very real issues and problems in the use of computers with children. Unfortunately, the authors’ lack of expertise, superficial interpretations of the professional literature, and evident personal bias limit their ability to analyze the issues and problems they have identified. Computer technology is not inherently good or bad, just as print technology is not inherently good or bad. We had the feeling that Armstrong and Casement wanted to roll things back, so that elementary-aged children would no longer be exposed to the computer or the Internet in the school environment. But, is protecting children as good as preparing them? If Armstrong and Casement are really concerned about children and their interactions with computers, perhaps they should support a curriculum that prepares children (physically, psychologically, ethically and critically) to use computers safely.

If predators on the Net are a problem, teach kids about them. If advertising is a problem, teach children about it. Otherwise you are assuming that computers are going to go away, and that is just not going to happen. Children negotiate their lives within a computer-enhanced world. Teach them to navigate safely. By their throw-computers-away-because-they-are-dangerous attitude, the authors are missing all of the good things computers can do for children. Computers help children to build confidence, social skills, self-efficacy, self-reliance, gender-equity, creativity, motivation, and problem-solving ability. We do not let a six-year-girl drive a car, we keep her away from the stove, and we don’t let her run the VCR. But watch her at a computer. Without external "strokes" a six-year old will use a computer to learn. Computers engage the user through open-ended software. This computer interactivity (computer responsiveness to user-input) provides intrinsic rewards, motivating the user—even the six-year-old in our example—to push the envelop of her own learning. And as they learn and grow at the computer, children tend to interact socially. Computers encourage social exchange because they are a presentation medium that children manipulate and control. Kids naturally share what they have learned and created with a computer, and even Armstrong and Casement begrudgingly agree that ". . . children working together at a computer tend to socialize more and ask each other questions more often than when working at more traditional classroom activities. . ." (p. 44). The children are eager to teach others what they have learned through the computer. Computer-mediated learning environments encourage children to work together, to think together, and to create as a team.

The authors’ tirade against the computer and its affordances as an educational and thinking tool leads us to believe that Armstrong and Casement are unaware of the paradigm shifts that have transformed American society from an agrarian, through an industrial, and on into an information society. Reigeluth (1995) proposes systematic and systemic educational reform to shape educational environments of "continuous progress, attainment-based learning, individualized testing, performance-based assessment, personal learning plans, cooperative learning, learning centers, teacher as coach or facilitator, thinking, problem-solving skills, meaning making, communication skills, and advanced technologies as tools" (p. 89). Properly designed and implemented, computer-mediated instruction supports the cooperative and holistic autonomy necessary for citizens and organizations within a liberal and diverse democratic society.

Our usual practice, during a book review, is a discussion of the author’s position through review of the salient points, strengths and weaknesses of each chapter. Unfortunately, Armstrong and Casement’s book does not afford such treatment. Although the authors provide about 300 bibliographic references, many of the individual arguments presented in The Child and the Machine are poorly cited or simply not cited at all. The arguments are emotional, based upon extrapolations beyond the data. The logic is often flawed, perhaps because the authors do not understand the process of academic research within the social sciences. For example, we do not, we cannot, conduct media-comparison studies (i.e., Is this better than that? Are teachers better than computers?). The results would be situation dependent; that is, determined by the idiosyncratic delivery systems investigated within the study (in this case, a specific teacher delivering a specific lesson and specific computer-based instructional software). Researchers can’t possibly make such a comparison because the results do not generalize. Additionally, many of the authors’ arguments are flawed because of their persistent use of the "straw man " fallacy. Throughout, The Child and the Machine reads as though the authors took a shotgun approach to refutation of the computer in education, as though they collected a mass of unrelated data and attempted to knit it together into a fiber they could associate with computers.

Admittedly, the book sports an intriguing, well-designed cover. The chapter titles tease, titillate, and beg the reader’s intelligent consideration of important issues. Unfortunately, the chapter content doesn’t deliver; it doesn’t provide insightful analysis. Additionally, some of the authors’ rhetoric appears geared toward manipulation of a particular lay audience. There are just too many problems with the text for us to discuss it chapter by chapter. The best we can do is present a few examples. Actually, two should be sufficient to illustrate how the best of intentions and dedicated accumulation of data are limited when author bias, lack of expertise, and vacuous, emotionally driven discourse engender superficial analysis and conclusions.

One of the more interesting things that Armstrong and Casement do is purposely to confuse a solution for the problem. That is, they take a problem for which technology has been used as a remedy or partial solution and then blame the technology for the initial problem. A good example of this device is their treatment of the dire problems that libraries, particularly large research libraries, began facing in the ’80s and continue to face today: the escalating costs of print materials (particularly periodicals) and the dramatic budget shortfalls in many states that did not allow building new space to house growing acquisitions. Some universities turned to off site "bunkers" to store books that were not highly circulated. When requested by patrons, these books would be retrieved and brought into the library. Academic journals whose costs (and therefore prices) were escalating while libraries were canceling subscriptions, forcing the journals to increase their charges to those who remained, began to consider "electronic" publishing. Since libraries had for some time used older technologies such as microfiche to deal with particularly fragile print media such as newspapers, and since card catalogues were being replaced by electronic databases which were much cheaper and easier to maintain, it is natural that librarians turned to computers as a partial solution to the problems besetting them. It is fair then to say that the increase of electronic publishing and data bases was correlated with the decline in traditional library acquisitions; it would be unfair to suggest that technology caused the decline – it was in fact the other way around.

Armstrong and Casement frame much of The Child and the Machine as an argument against the creations and visions of one man, Seymour Papert. The title, itself, is a play on Paper’s The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, and Armstrong and Casement’s "Chapter 3: The Disembodied Brain", argues that Papert, through computers and the child-centered programming language he developed and named LOGO, acts by "molding young minds to work like machines" (p. 38). And this, they claim, is very different from "meditative thinking based upon self-knowledge and careful observations of the world" (p. 38). But no narrative within the Armstrong/Casement book presents as eloquent a picture of the risk Papert posses for our children than their book’s cover art: The image of an innocent, peach-faced child whose left eye, forehead, and cheek are already fading, morphing, into regular squares containing zeros and ones. Armstrong and Casement’s argument against Papert as the fiend of the disembodied mind is, perhaps, the book’s fatal flaw.

If anything, Papert is the spirit of embodied learning. The LOGO Turtle, the cursor that children program within the LOGO learning environment to move and to draw, was created as an embodied metaphor. According to Papert (1980), children can identify with the Turtle (it navigates through space as they do) and are thus able to bring their knowledge about their bodies and how they move into the work of learning formal geometry" (p. 56). "Working with the Turtle mobilizes the child’s expertise and pleasure in motion. . . . The goal of children’s first experiences in the Turtle learning environment . . . is to develop insight into the way they move about in space" (p. 58). Papert’s goal was to teach children about mathematics through syntonic learning. The LOGO turtle was body syntonic because it was "firmly related to children’s sense and knowledge about their own bodies" (p. 63). When children decide to use the LOGO language to draw a circle on the computer screen, they embody the characteristics of a circle by walking, tracing the path of the circle with their bodies. And while stepping the shape of a circle, the children discover that walking the route of a circle means taking a step forward and a step to the side. Unlike the LOGO lesson Armstrong observed of bored or confused students staring at a transparency of a shape, taped to their computer monitor, the LOGO learning environment was designed as dynamic and creativity-filled. The teacher acts as a mentor, children interact as amorphous teams as they pose and solve problems of ever-increasing complexity. Armstrong was astute enough to note something greatly amiss within the educational environment in which she observed the LOGO lesson; her answer was to throw out the software rather than provide adequate training for teachers who attempt to implement LOGO.

When the level of analysis is the individual human mind, cognitive scientists have modeled two types of human knowledge. One is declarative knowledge, or "knowing that". The other is procedural knowledge, or "knowing how". LOGO teaches children to recognize that goals are attained through a series of steps, called procedures. While Armstrong and Casement argue that learning to program within the LOGO learning environment is alien to the children’s normal thought processes, cognitive theorists have accepted that a good deal of the human thinking (climbing out of bed, climbing on to a school bus, climbing on to the kitchen counter to get a snack) is comprised of procedural knowledge: step-by-step procedures. With time and practice, smaller procedures are embedded within, or called by, larger procedures. And this is procedural knowledge, and this is the stuff of programming. The child who steps through tracing the circumference, who isolates and identifies those steps, and who types them as commands to control the LOGO turtle is engaging in some very embodied, personal, introspective, and creative work. We would have to agree with Armstrong and Casement’s statement, at the conclusion of chapter 3, "for children, the greatest aide to "thought support" is, in fact, the human body (p. 59). And within correctly designed and implemented lessons, Papert’s designs for the computer bring a very embodied view of mathematics into the horizon of children.

Finally, scientific theories gain validity when diverse research agendas converge toward the same conclusion. In 1980 Papert, at MIT, had proposed that an embodied (body syntonic) understanding of the procedure of creating a circle (FORWARD 1, RIGHT 1) referred only to "the difference between where the Turtle is now and where it shall be momentarily be. This is what makes the instructions differential." According to Papert, "the Turtle program is an intuitive analog of the differential equation, a concept one finds in almost every example of traditional applied mathematics" (p. 66). During the same period, George Lakoff, based in Berkeley, refined his theory of conceptual metaphor and the embodied nature of human thought. His recent collaboration with Rafael E. Núñez, Where Mathematics Comes From: How Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being proposes that ". . . mathematics is grounded in embodied experience" . . . "conceptual metaphors structure mathematical ideas" (p. 6). This is a cognitive perspective, and Lakoff and Núñez believe "that classical mathematics can best be taught through a cognitive perspective (p. 11). All three scholars (Lakoff, Núñez, and Papert) deal with the embodiment of the differential, a concept central to the understanding of calculus.

Although Armstrong and Casement reviewed Papert’s discussion of his embodied discovery of gears and their connection to mathematics, and although the authors detailed and critiqued the system of LOGO drawing commands, they overlooked the concept of the differential and the embodied connection from Turtle graphics to a body syntonic understanding of a central mathematical concept. And yet, Lakoff’s recent publication, resultant from research in linguistics and cognition, reaches conclusions that echo Papert’s of long ago. How is it possible that Armstrong and Casement overlooked the embodied essence of LOGO, that they critiqued the LOGO turtle "as an object whose sense of direction differs from [children’s] own"? Somehow, the authors missed the connection between the LOGO child programmer and the Turtle. Casement and Armstrong failed to map the metaphor between the Turtle and the programmer. This is curious, as LOGO was developed about the Turtle metaphor. It appears that the authors lack sufficient domain knowledge to place their data in proper perspective.

The Child and the Machine was written as a follow-up to a feature newspaper article Armstrong had written, "questioning the benefits of computer usage with young children," (p. xi). When some readers "responded with outrage," she and Casement researched and wrote this book to address the criticisms. The question foremost in the authors’ minds was: "Do computers improve the quality of instruction in the schools?" (p. xi). Anyone knowledgeable in the literature knows that it is not the choice of technology (i.e., computer, radio, educational films, television, film strip, or face-to-face instruction) that has an impact on learning, it is the quality of the instruction. Example after example, chapter after chapter, page after page, Armstrong and Casement are actually addressing one issue. When they discuss the cost of computers (hardware, software, maintenance and technical support), the physical hazards of computer usage (ergonomics--how and how long to sit at a computer), questionable aesthetic, intellectual, and affective value of computer software (the design, content, and goals of computer-enhanced instruction) and ineffectual infusion of computers and computer experiences into the curriculum (how teachers incorporate the computer as an educational tool within the classroom) what they are really talking about is Quality.

And how do we infuse computer-enhanced learning environments with quality? First, school leaders must make informed decisions that incorporate long-range technology plans into quality educational goals. This means that district policy makers require training programs in technology management . Teachers, too, require training in the design, delivery, and evaluation of instruction that incorporates technology. As we observed during the discussion of LOGO, regardless of the quality, vision, or educational goal inherent within particular software, incorrect implementation within the learning environment may undermine any potential educational value. Preservice and practicing teachers require on-going professional development in the effective design, delivery, and evaluation of instructional technologies to craft quality educational experiences that capitalize on the richness, charm and community of computer-enhanced learning environments. To this end, the federal government, under Title III of the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, provided millions of dollars in grant monies through the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) program for the design and implementation of on-going and comprehensive technology training for pre-service teachers. In 1996 the Department of Education’s technology literacy plan called for a two billion dollar investment in public schools, seed monies to be matched by state, local, industry and business dollars to meet four goals (Riley, 1996):

  • All teachers in the nation will have the training and support they need to help students learn using computers and the information superhighway.
  • All teachers and students will have modern multimedia computers in their classrooms.
  • Every classroom will be connected to the information superhighway.
  • Effective software and on-line learning resources will be an integral part of every school's curriculum.

Today we see the results of those seeds sprouting across the nation, as states begin to require technology competence for all teachers. As the move toward technology literacy continues, professional organizations draft competency standards for the teaching profession in which technology inclusion is emphasized. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2001) proposes that professional teachers' instructional repertoires also include knowledge of available curricular resources such as primary sources, models, reproductions, textbook series, teachers' guides, videotapes, computer software and musical recordings. Their commitment to learning about new materials includes keeping abreast of technological developments that have implications for teaching; for example, how to engage students in the rapidly expanding field of computer technology, as well as how to use the computer to enhance their own teaching.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) standards of accreditation for teacher training programs stipulate that preservice teacher candidates must "... understand and use appropriate technology to help students become capable technology users through communication; through access, management, analysis and problem solving with information; and through collaborative and self-directed learning." (National Council for Accreditation of Teachers Education, 2000, p. 34)

Both NCATE and the National Board are supported professional associations of teachers, teacher educators, content specialists, and local and state policy makers. Both are committed to quality teaching, and represent millions of individuals . These professional coalitions represent a commitment to quality in education, and in contrast to Armstrong and Casement, they recognize the place of computers, computer literate professionals, and computer-enhanced educational environments in making quality education available to all students.

Finally, the issue of quality is up to individuals, to parents. The human body is physically bounded. A wrist can make a finite number of mouse clicks. The bones, ligaments, and muscles can safely spend a finite number of hours at sedentary tasks. Let us, as consumers of computer software and hardware, join educational professionals in a quest for quality. Let us demand a healthy, nutritious diet of commercial and educational computer-based applications. With just so many wrist clicks, just so many hours of fixed focal length, just so many hours of sitting available to our children and ourselves for interaction with a tool as versatile, engaging, and potentially enriching as the computer, let us demand quality—from business and industry, for our children, and from ourselves.


Lakoff, G., & Núñez, R. E. (2000). Where mathematics comes from: How the embodied mind brings mathematics into being. New York: Basic Books.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2001). What teachers should know and be able to do: Proposition 2. Arlington, VA: Author. Retrieved June 11, 2001, on the World Wide Web: http://www.nbpts.org/standards/know_do/prop_2.html

National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. (2000). Program standards for elementary teacher preparation. Author. Retrieved June 11, 2001, on the World Wide Web: http://www.ncate.org/standard/elemstds.pdf.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1993). The children's machine: Rethinking schools in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.

Reigeluth, C. M. (1995). Educational systems development and its relationship to ISD. In G. J. Anglin (Ed.), Instructional technology: Past, present, future (2nd ed., pp. 84-93). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Riley, R. W. (1996). Executive summary, Getting America's students ready for the 21st century: Meeting the technology literacy challenge. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved June 11, 2001, on the World Wide Web: http://www.ed.gov/Technology/Plan/NatTechPlan/execsum.html


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 1, 2002, p. 158-166
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10780, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 3:01:44 AM

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