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Computer Pedagogy: Questions Concerning the New Educational Technology

by Arthur G. Zajonc - 1984

At this point in the "computer revolution" one can do little more than speculate concerning the long-term benefits or detriments that may accompany the extensive use of computers in education. Yet if we are to use this technology responsibly we must not hesitate to frame critical pedagogical and ethical questions concerning the use of this or, indeed, of any new technology in education. Few things are more important for our future than the education of the young, yet in our rush to embrace a new fad we risk overlooking the long-term deleterious effects of what may appear to be a harmless or progressive new technology.

At this point in the “computer revolution” one can do little more than speculate concerning the long-term benefits or detriments that may accompany the extensive use of computers in education. Yet if we are to use this technology responsibly we must not hesitate to frame critical pedagogical and ethical questions concerning the use of this or, indeed, of any new technology in education. Few things are more important for our future than the education of the young, yet in our rush to embrace a new fad we risk overlooking the long-term deleterious effects of what may appear to be a harmless or progressive new technology. I wish to ask a few of what seem to me to be the most significant questions regarding computer-based instruction or education. Yet any such set of questions must be based, explicitly or implicitly, on one’s view of the child and its maturation, emotional and volitional as well as intellectual. In attempting to pose a set of questions responsibly, I will make explicit the theoretical framework from which they arise. This article, therefore, falls into two parts. The first summarizes those elements of developmental psychology1 that will later, in the second part, act as the matrix within which we may develop questions. The answers, the real answers, must await sensitive and careful research. But then should we not submit each of our educational initiatives to systematic theoretical and empirical scrutiny?


I begin with the explication of three aspects of Piaget’s theory: accommodation and assimilation, cognitive structures, and development by stages. Once we have understood each of these concepts and their relevance to learning, the place (or misplacement) of computers in education gains clarity.


The polar processes of accommodation and assimilation form the logical center of Piaget’s “genetic epistemology.“2 Although the newborn infant may completely lack all formal knowledge and, according to Piaget, all static “cognitive structures,“3 the activities of accommodation and assimilation arc sufficient to initiate cognitive development. Accommodation and assimilation can perhaps best be understood through their most vivid manifestations. In the case of accommodation, imitation serves this purpose, and in that of assimilation, symbolic play or imagination.

The process of accommodation is one in which the subject transforms or creates inner structures in order to accommodate a new object. This seems to be accomplished by a rehearsal, inner or outer, of the new experience. Piaget recognizes three levels of imitation: imitation through action, deferred imitation, and interiorized imitation. These provide the vehicle for the constitution of both operative aspects of thought and, through the last form of imitation, that of mental imagery. In the very young child the capacity for imitation, that is, pure accommodation, is present to an extraordinary degree. Not only is every aspect of the child’s external environment an object of imitation, but also less tangible complexes of activities and emotions. The teacher’s tender caress after a fall may turn up in endless variations, for example, as the comforting of a fallen doll or a wounded playmate. Thus are the moral, emotional, and aesthetic sensibilities of the child powerfully influenced by its capacity for imitation, for accommodation. Once one accepts the fact of accommodation, there arises the enormous responsibility for the educator to provide an environment fully worthy of imitation. Once again, I stress what should be entirely obvious, namely, that the objects accommodated should also be considered in their aesthetical and ethical dimensions. That is, the nursery should be beautiful, secure, and caring as well as instructional. In fact, as will become more evident later, the instructional component of early childhood education has essentially nothing to do with the teaching of conventional materials; rather, one should assist at this time in establishing the cognitive bases in the child for later and higher levels of learning. Thus the aesthetic and ethical dimensions become all the more important in the early years. In summary, child development hinges on the selfless capacity for imitation, that is, the ability to accommodate in order that something new can be absorbed from the environment.

Equally important is the complementary activity of assimilation, which Piaget defines as “the integration of external elements into evolving or completed structures of an organism.“4 When a child selects a nearby pine cone to become a loaf of bread, and a stone to be its knife, it is “assimilating” or integrating external elements (pine cone and stone) into an existing structure (domestic activity). Vigorous imaginative or symbolic play is an active projection of self. The whole world changes to serve the needs of the moment. Assimilation is an essential ingredient in development; it provides for continuity and, indeed, is necessary for recognition itself. Yet if it existed alone, no development could occur. The will and imagination to change one’s world, whether in play or later through technological invention, must be coupled with the selfless capacity for accommodation. “Progressive equilibration” of these two processes is essential to intellectual growth, but it is not a static equilibrium. Rather it is a dynamic ebb and flow, a systole and diastole, a movement between receptivity and activity, between listening and speaking, which underlies cognitive growth.


Out of the interplay of accommodation and assimilation arise what Piaget terms “cognitive structures.“5 Certainly the notion that all cognition, from ordinary perception to scientific discovery, depends on implicit mental structures is neither new nor unique to Piaget. The Romantic poets were filled with the idea that nature is an active agency that is constantly fashioning new organs of cognition in man, or cultivating those we have allowed to atrophy.6 Goethe would write, “Every new object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ within us.“7 For our immediate purposes it does not matter at all whether we view the structures as innate but undeveloped (Chomsky and Fodor) or as constituted entirely by interaction with the environment (Piaget).8 What is essential, however, is that we realize that education is concerned with the development of cognitive structures. Let us consider one such structure, its construction and its dependence on the feature of action—the structure of the “group of translations.“9

Associated with the infant’s gradually attained conviction that external objects possess an independent existence is his construction of a cognitive structure based on simple spacial coordinations. Geometrically these might be represented by such operations as: (a) AB + BC = AC; (b) AB + BA = 0; (c) AB + 0 = AB; (d) AC + CD = AB + BD. Through its own sensorimotor coordinations, and the experience accompanying them, the child maps out the laws of space. Perhaps this may first occur with the discovery of its own hand, or develop through a game of peek-a-boo. But gradually a cognitive structure is built up within the child out of its own actions that will allow it later to coordinate not only its own bodily movements but also its mental activities. Herein lies the critical point. Later cognitive activities rely on the development of suitable mental structures, and the construction of these structures is predicted primarily on action, not language. As Kurt Fischer writes in a recent article, “All cognition starts with action. . . . the higher-level cognitions of childhood and adulthood derive directly from these sensorimotor actions: Representations are literally built from sensorimotor action.“10 Piaget writes:

From the most elementary sensorimotor actions (such as pushing and pulling) to the most sophisticated intellectual operations, which are interiorized actions, carried out mentally (e.g., joining together, putting in order, putting in one-to-one correspondence), knowledge is constantly linked with actions or operations, that is, with transformations.11

Piaget and subsequent workers have focused almost exclusively on those inner structures associated with human cognition. I would like to suggest that there exist two other aspects of the human psyche that demand similar attention both by developmental psychologists and by educators. I will term these the aesthetic and the ethical dimensions of the psyche. We may ask about them the very same questions we have asked about cognitive development, but for my purposes I will simply assert that development of a balanced life of feeling and purposive moral action requires a similar basis in early aspects of the child’s development. Furthermore, I would maintain that accommodation and assimilation play an important role in this arena also. If we would have a child act kindly to another, lecturing or explaining about moral conduct is to demand a formal operative capacity of the child that it simply does not possess. Clearly, one’s actions should set an example worthy of imitation. Similarly, the cultivation of a balanced life of feelings depends on an environment in which the use of color, form, materials, song, all unite to create a surround that fills the child with a lively experience of the beautiful. As for ethical conduct, so also for the beautiful. To lecture the five-year-old on aesthetics is a commonsensical absurdity. Yet by ignoring its active counterpart, one creates a void in childhood that cripples the child for later experience, action, and knowledge in just that dimension. One task of education, then, is to cultivate faculties that will later allow for perception and discernment in the ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual domains of human experience. We may turn to a rather unorthodox source for good counsel in this educational matter. Plotinus, writing of beauty and the faculty whereby it is apprehended, writes in the Ennead, “Beauty”:

For the eye must be adapted to what is to be seen, have some likeness to it, if it would give itself to contemplation. No eye that has not become like unto the sun will ever look upon the sun; nor will any that is not beautiful look upon the beautiful. Let each one therefore become godlike and beautiful who would contemplate the divine and beautiful.12

The “structures” or more metaphorically the “organs” that are required for cognition and for aesthetic and ethical judgment form themselves through action, imitation, and assimilation during early childhood. The Greek triad of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True still retains its significance as an educational ideal even in an age of relativism.

It is against this vision of child development that we must examine the place of computers in education. Certainly if one defines education in an impoverished way as the transmission of information and skills, then different and lesser questions will arise. But one can maintain, as I would, that up to at least the age of seven years we are seeking to nurture those capacities or structures on which subsequent development depends. In this context the place of the computer in early childhood education must come under very careful scrutiny.


Few aspects of Piaget’s theory have undergone greater critical discussion than his conviction that cognitive development proceeds by stages relatively unaffected by teaching efforts. That there is a natural rhythm to the development of the child is also a principle of Waldorf pedagogy, one that largely determines the content and form of presentation used in their classrooms. While the problem is highly complex, I would like to use some of the concepts of Piaget and Fischer without entering into the debate as to exactly when certain mental operations or functions reach maturity. Nevertheless, my questions regarding the use of computers in education depend on a developmental scheme. It is my conviction that the vast quantity of empirical evidence supports such a view, although detailed knowledge of the psychogenesis of specific structures or operational skills may be faulty.

As is well known, Piaget recognizes three major periods: (1) the period of sensorimotor intelligence; (2) the period of preparation and of organization of concrete operations; (3) the period of formal operations.13 Likewise, Fischer speaks of three “tiers”: (1) sensorimotor, (2) representation, and (3) abstract.14 The first of Piaget’s periods lasts from birth through the second year. Here there is a “prefiguration” in action and spacial coordination of mental operations that will appear later. For example, “on a small scale and on the practical level, we see here exactly the same operation of progressive decentration which we will then rediscover on the representative level in terms of mental operations and not simply actions.“15

The second period, of concrete operations, extends from two to about twelve years, and contains two subperiods—one of preparation but with only pre-operatory structure, and a second of concrete—operatory structures. Here mental operations develop but are restricted to those that bear on manipulable objects. Only with the onset of formal operations at age twelve do we see the capability to manipulate verbal propositions and abstract logical elements.

Piaget maintains that these stages are relatively immune to acceleration through training. Others will disagree. More to the point, however, is not whether one can accelerate normal development of formal operational skills but whether we should do so. Here it is a matter of informed judgment based not on the short-term goal of intellectual prowess but on long-term objectives that will include social and emotional dimensions as well. The recent raft of studies, books, and monographs on the dangers of early schooling should certainly restrain our optimism that artificially induced precocity yields long-term benefits.16 If we can restrain our arrogance and allow ourselves to be guided by the child itself, then our task as educators should be to cultivate those facets of the child’s nature that are critically active at that time. For example, in the first years when action, imitation, and imagination (or symbolic play) are vitally important, the child should not be set at a desk and drilled. Play should be allowed full space and encouragement. The objects of the nursery should be as simple as possible to enhance and even demand imaginative action (assimilation). A primitive doll made of a knotted handkerchief is infinitely superior to the usual explicitly membered and painted dolls replete with sounds, bed-wetting, and microprocessor control.

With these considerations we (at last) encounter certain of my fundamental concerns about computers in education. In our enthusiasm to do whatever is possible we neglect, as Weizenbaum writes, to ask whether we should.17 By providing so completely for our children, do we not deprive them of their most creative faculties? By creating images for them, whether through television or a rouged doll’s face, we still the imagination and blunt the senses. Waldorf nursery teachers constantly remark on the difference between “T.V. children” and those without television in the home. T.V. children do not know how to play, they cannot imagine what to do. If they are shown something to do, they perform it mechanically, without variation. It often takes months before the pine cone becomes a loaf of bread.

Let us ask this same question of the computer. Will it subvert or usurp, through its own extraordinary power, those capacities we should be seeking to cultivate in the young?


I should begin by making it completely clear that I am not a flat-earther. In my work as a physicist and teacher I use computers, large and small, constantly—whether to interactively run complex experiments in laser spectroscopy, to perform calculations, or to write this article. Perhaps because of this, the “mystique” of the computer has faded the more I have grown to respect its usefulness. The idiocy of those who maintain that one must start young to master the machine can be explained only by their complete unfamiliarity with computers. It is not a piano, which demands years of training and practice to operate. Especially as more and more effort goes into making programs or canned packages “user friendly,” the computer becomes increasingly easy to use. This is not to imply that no intellectually exciting horizons exist in computer science, but that is an entirely different question.

Let me also say that I see little harm in encouraging adolescents (older than about twelve years) to use the computer. I would hasten to add that any curriculum should be balanced with vigorous programs in more traditional subjects including the arts, but this is obvious. My questions primarily concern the child at those stages of development before the “abstract” or formal operation period, that is, before the age of twelve.

We are used to hearing complaints about computers’ replacing the teacher. As serious as this is, my primary concern is that the computer may replace the growing child. Consider the various components of any computer system: the central processing unit (CPU), the memory, and an input-output (I-O) device. Imagine the most powerful computer you care to: The CPU runs at blazing speed, the memory is practically infinite, and the I-O device is the most sophisticated touch-screen, color-graphics unit conceivable. Now add to this impressive hardware the software that certainly will one day be possible. It is a completely conversational and interactive language cueing not only on keystrokes, but perhaps on verbal or gestural commands. In one scenario this might be utopia for a computer-based pedagogy. To me it presents the problems in their most intense form.

The computer is like a fragmented projection of the human psyche. Each of its functions replaces one of our own. Just as we have replaced the child’s active imagination (that is, the exercise of assimilation) through television imagery and certain toys, so the computer has the potential to replace nearly all the mental functions of the child. For example, memory has been found to be an essential factor in the successful operation of transitivity (A = B, B = C, so A = C).18 We may possess the ability to perform this operation, but be prevented from doing so by an inability to retain all the elements in memory. The development of this operational ability depends, therefore, indirectly on the strengthening of memory. Reliance on an external device—the computer—can easily weaken that faculty. I would maintain that entirely similar arguments can be made with regard to the computational and logical functions of the CPU and program elements. These can replace and thereby undermine the development of corresponding faculties in the child. If the capacity to imagine has been undercut by television, interactive computer graphics threatens to complete the assault. Simply by pressing a button the child can transform his visual field at will. The use of language is here intentional, for there is clearly no will involved. The child is a passive doodler in such a situation, captivated by the images it can apparently create. But there is no creation here either. All these activities have been usurped by the machine. No one would contend that physical therapy is obsolete because the wheelchair has been invented. Neither should the computer be allowed to assume those functions that act as the foci for child development just because it can do so.

We may now profitably turn to another of the points discussed earlier action. Piaget and others constantly stress that later mental operations are interiorizations of earlier sensorimotor activity. This has been a basic tenet of Waldorf pedagogy for over sixty years. Waldorf teachers, following Steiner’s suggestions, commonly have their students run a triangle before proving that the sum of its interior angles is 180 degrees. Seymour Papert in his book Mindstorms recognizes this element fully.19 In order to do “turtle geometry,” one should walk the pattern. By observing what the body does we have the basis for both a concrete representation and later the formal or abstract description of that operation. The learning of represented and abstract operations must be based in action. But the computer distances us from action. It may assist in the development of formal operative functions, but it fundamentally interferes with learning at previous levels. We first execute geometry and mathematics through the coordinated activity of the body. The natural transition to the concrete or representational stage can be provided simply by pencil, paper, compass, and straight-edge. The equipment should be kept minimal, never intruding or exercising its own volition. The straight line should be drawn by the child, not the computer. Once again turtle geometry ultimately usurps important activities essential for the child’s cognitive development. The turtle moves, not the child.

I have written about the computer as potential usurper of actions and assimilation, processes necessary for childhood development. I shall finish by considering that extraordinarily important function accommodation, which, as I described, is responsible for the formation of new cognitive structures. Moreover, I maintained that it is responsible also for the formation of aesthetic and moral structures. In truth these three are inseparable aspects of the process of accommodation. When the child imitates it cannot filter out the cognitive component of the lesson from its aesthetic and moral aspects. It imitates the whole, and the whole should be worthy of imitation. Yet the use of the computer is predicated on the assumption that cognitive structure scan be cultivated in an aesthetically and ethically neutral environment. This is pure illusion. “No values” is just as much an ethical system as one that gives full conscious attention to them.

We must ask, in what sense can the child imitate a computer or its display? A pictorial answer is perhaps provided by the video-game imitations that fill current childhood behavior. The sounds and movements of Pat-Man become the movements of play. As much as I love technology, this image fills me with revulsion. On a less visceral level we may query after the cognitive structures we hope to induce via computer. If we learn, as Piaget maintains, through interaction of subject and object, indeed through actions in which “subject and objects are fused,“20 if new structures depend on the profound imitative capacity of childhood, in what sense can computers teach? Shall small children mimic CRT displays? Are the structures thereby induced the ones we wish to fill our society?

Put simply, the world of childhood, environment and teacher, should be filled with the movements, patterns, emotions, images, and actions that, when transformed, should underlie adult intellectual, emotional, and moral life. By attempting to neglect the inevitable presence of the latter two, and by inserting what is properly a device involving formal operations into earlier periods of child development, we risk doing violence to the orderly and natural course of child development. Time and again, we have attempted to outdo, speed up, or improve on nature. Technological advance is predicated on our ability to do so. Yet we must ask what should be done, what in the light of our best understanding of child development is an appropriate use of a powerful technology, and what is inappropriate.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 4, 1984, p. 569-577
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 855, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 10:45:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Arthur Zajonc
    University of Massachusetts-Amherst
    ARTHUR G. ZAJONC is assistant professor of physics at Amherst College. His areas of research include laser and atomic physics, and the history of science. He is particularly interested in the scientific work of Goethe.
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