Microcomputers in Education: Why Is Earlier Better?


by Harriet K. Cuffaro - 1984

Intrinsic to my perspective as an early childhood educator is the emphasis given to an organic, developmental view of children and their particular learning styles. This view serves as the context for the discussion that follows and is the link that thematically connects the topics to be discussed: an examination of the different types of programming activities and the variety of software available for these young ages.

The work presented here was supported by a fellowship from the Center for Dewey Studies and the John Dewey Foundation. I also wish to express my appreciation to Yvonne De Gaetano and Barbara Dubitsky for their thoughtful reading and criticisms.


The discussion of microcomputers in education has become an arena in which one can learn a great deal about education itself. In explaining, describing, hypothesizing, and questioning what computers can or will do in education, statements are also made, implicitly or explicitly, about the purpose of education, teaching, the content of curriculum, and the nature of the learner. Educational discussions have been revitalized as the known, the taken-for-granted, and the usual are rotated and viewed from this new and different perspective. It is as though every aspect of functioning in education must be questioned and considered now in relation to this technology. In this article, I would like to consider the relevance of microcomputers to the education of children in the lower age range of early childhood—three-, four-, and five-year-olds.1 Intrinsic to my perspective as an early childhood educator is the emphasis given to an organic, developmental view of children and their particular learning styles. This view serves as the context for the discussion that follows and is the link that thematically connects the topics to be discussed: an examination of the different types of programming activities and the variety of software available for these young ages.


Certain claims for microcomputers have been made so frequently that by now they have achieved the status of attributes. We “know” that computers “generate excitement in the learner,” provide “immediate feedback” and opportunities for “individualized learning.” They promote “social interaction.” And, most compelling, in using computers children will learn how “to think.” This familiar clustering of attributes, creating its own logic, often leads to stating that the child is in “control of his or her learning.”


These seemingly new educational possibilities have been basic considerations in the thinking that has guided the planning of programs for young children for a long time. The materials commonly found in early childhood settings—paint, blocks, crayons, paper, wood, water, sand—are selected because they invite the active participation, experimentation, and impact of the child. Their unstructured nature allows children to set their own agendas in learning and they are open to a variety of individual approaches. Classroom activities for young children are arranged to invite and promote social interaction. These materials, activities, physical and social arrangements, and the developmental perspective of early childhood educators come together to create an environment in which children are encouraged to formulate and reformulate their ideas and hypotheses about self and world. In and through their play, children reconstruct their experiences, make connections, and experiment with possibilities. The statements made about early childhood settings may be questioned just as claims about computers may be. In both instances, potential and possibility can be limited by the perspective of the people involved. Richness and variety can be standardized and packaged, and underlying principles can be overlooked. What is needed is clarity about what we do know and the questions to be asked. The order of our questions is important. If how is asked before why, we will be building on a shaky foundation.


Basic to the rationale of early childhood educators is the consistent attention given to the transactional relationship between the child’s development and the content and planning of curriculum. It is just such a perspective that is evident in articles by Favaro and Barnes and Hill,2 as they consider computer programming in relation to young children. Basing their view of the child on Piagetian research, they detail the cognitive abilities and characteristics of the preoperational child in juxtaposition to the skills needed for programming. Finding little compatibility, if any, in the match between abilities and necessary skills, they seriously question the introduction of microcomputers into the classrooms of three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Written from a different perspective, and focused on teaching these skills, articles and studies have appeared that describe programming activities with young children.3


What is striking in these articles is the degree of individualized instruction and the preparation and time needed to enable young children to engage in programming. The one-to-one attention and the extended preparation required serve to underline the gap that exists between the abilities of the young child and the skills needed for programming. Assuming that one would wish to expend the time and effort, a basic question remains: What self-generated problems/projects do young children have that they can bring to the microcomputer? The activity described most frequently in these articles, and usually suggested by adults to children, is the making of geometric shapes using LOGO. Countless hours are being spent in early childhood settings discussing, comparing, making, manipulating, examining these shapes, in words and action, and in a variety of situations. What further benefits or understanding do young children gain by creating these shapes on microcomputers, even if it is only a supplementary activity? Is it the logical, sequential ordering of commands that is desired? Is it the precision of the shape on the screen that is sought? Surely, regardless of the degree of their understanding, young children cannot deliver such graphic perfection. What does it mean to children to command a perfect square but still not be able to draw it by themselves?


The need for adult support and preparation can be circumvented in instant programs that can call up geometric shapes by simply pressing a key on the board. Touching the T produces a triangle, S a square, C a circle, and B will change the background color of the screen. Children are then able to arrange shapes and colors as they wish. To the observer of young children using these programs independently, what seemed to be happening primarily was the creation of a situation in which children were altering their usual television experience by causing things to happen on the screen, particularly the changing of background colors over and over and over again. In other, similar programs, by pressing keys the child can call up a variety of objects on the screen and then move and connect them. The simple pressing of keys by a child to make shapes, vehicles, houses, sprites, and colors appear and disappear, or to place them in motion, raises questions in relation to one of the essential and fundamental tasks of these ages—the gradual move away from magical thinking and the need to clarify the distinctions between reality and fantasy, actuality and desire. What is to be gained, for example, in calling up cars and garages on a screen and then trying to park a car in a garage? If a benefit is an opportunity to exercise eye-hand coordination, that must be weighed against the exacting precision and timing needed to arrange this placement on the screen. There is a further consideration. The child is not parking the car; it is the program, as directed by the child, that does it. Control is shared by the child with the program. Yet, at the child’s level of understanding, the extent of the microcomputer’s contribution to the happening is not apparent. This computer activity may be contrasted with a situation in which a child is “parking a car” in block play. Here, the child’s eye-hand coordination must also contend with the qualitative, with the texture of the surface on which the car is moved, and with the fit between garage opening and car width. Such complexities do not exist on two-dimensional screens. The computer version of parking a car is action in a vacuum, motion without context, and with reality twice removed. The child’s direct manipulation with concrete objects is in itself a representation that has reduced and simplified the task of a driver actually parking a car. The activities described thus far have implicit within them many collateral learnings that go beyond the specified aims of the activities.4 It is the presence of these collateral learnings—the distancing and narrowing of physical reality, the magical quality of pressing keys, the “invisible” sharing of control, the oversimplification of process, the need for precision and timing—that merit great attention when thinking about young children’s learning and the use of microcomputers.


Though self-evident, it is worth noting that the microcomputer also introduces a particular learning style into the school setting of young children—the familiar posture of television viewing. The added dimension of interaction with the screen is small compensation when one thinks of the usual large-muscle, full-bodied movements characteristic of young children as they interact directly with the environment. The price for entering the world of computer programming seems rather high for young children.


Turning from programming to the software available for these ages, one finds Mother Goose and Sesame Street characters along with butterflies, clowns, animals, shapes, and dazzling colors. Much of the content is comprised of skill-oriented activities such as letter and number recognition, one-to-one correspondence, and concept formation. Opportunities are offered for visual discrimination, eye-hand coordination, finding similarities and differences. The addition of musical notes and sounds introduces auditory cueing and discrimination to the skills being promoted. A good deal of this software requires an adult to interpret procedures and to assist in reading words, prompting the next move, and identifying the correct keys.


On the whole, skill-oriented software is very similar to workbooks in content, with the exception that these “workbooks” move. Animation is a familiar mode of presentation and much like the television programs children watch. The difference lies in the fact that the child can direct, within limits set by the program, the actions that occur on the screen. The question here is not “Why use a microcomputer?” but rather “Why use workbooks, animated or not, with young children?” Workbooks present skills in a symbolic, sequential manner; differing approaches to skill learning account for the variety to be found among them. Their diversity has not modified criticism of them as being, all too frequently, uninteresting and unchallenging in their standardization, and mindless, repetitious, and stereotypic. Putting them in motion does not redeem them. For example, workbooks and software exist that deal with directionality (right/left, above/below). Whether on paper or a screen, these two-dimensional representations are far removed from the situations in which directionality is learned and named. It is in interactions with the environment as children move self and objects through space, cope with obstacles, direct and position self and others in play, that they learn the meaning of these concepts.


Regardless of the colors, tunes, and entertainment approach of this software, the presentation of skills is more formalized, prescribed, and impersonal when contrasted with situations in which activities to promote the same skills are based on and grow out of the interests of individual children and their classroom situations. In such instances, process and product inform each other, and the content is relevant and responsive to children’s lives. A time does come when the learnings derived from interactions in the physical and social world are transferred to a symbolic level. What must be remembered is the long stretches of time and the variety of situations young children need to “experience referents” before they can deal with them symbolically.


Another category of software—computer graphics—offers a variety of activities in which children can “paint,” “draw,” and “finger paint.” Peripherals that bypass the keyboard such as joysticks, paddles, and Koala pads allow the child to function more independently once procedures have been explained. Ease is achieved through the additional hardware and the fact that graphics do not require a correct answer as does most skill-oriented software.5 Computer graphics also pose questions. For example, in “painting” via the computer, the experience is reduced and limited by eliminating the fluid, liquid nature of paint. In this painting there are no drips to control or spills to mop up. Neither are there opportunities to become involved in the process of learning how to create shades of colors; gauging the amount of paint to be mixed; experimenting with and discovering the effects of overlaying colors; understanding the relationship of brush, paint, and paper, the effects achieved by rotating the brush and varying pressure, or how one gains control of or incorporates those unexpected, unintended drips. The possibilities for nuance, gradation, and the full-bodied movements of children as they paint are diminished. There is an absence of texture, of smell, a lessening of qualitative associations with the experience of painting. In the software available to young children, computer graphics have a “stamped-out,” standardized, “painting-by-number” quality. Though the design or arrangement of colors, lines, and forms will vary with each child, there is a quality of sameness in appearance, if only because the intensity of colors is identical. It is as though individuality is flattened by the parameters of the program.


The imagination of the child is present regardless of the material used, but the nature of the material influences and affects style and expression. For example, magic markers have affected both the experience of drawing and the look of it. Variety in color intensity, differing textures achieved by varying pressure, subtle shading—all possible with crayons—are difficult to achieve with magic markers. As with any material, the possibilities offered by magic markers and crayons are determined by their physical composition. The nature of the “material” in computer graphics is the program, and that is less accessible to the examination and understanding of the young child. Again, the line of inquiry is not whether microcomputers can or should be used for painting and drawing with young children. The question is: Why are these activities included in most early childhood programs? When that is answered, attention can then be turned to selecting those materials that can best realize these aims.


Materials comprise a large part of the early childhood curriculum; they are the means by which children pose and reflect upon their questions, the means by which they give form to and communicate their thoughts and feelings. The materials chosen to create the learning environment of young children may be seen as a reflection of the teacher’s organizing structure.6 They are a statement, in outline form, of the possibilities that can occur in that room, of the teacher’s aims and understanding of young children. In educational settings that have consistently stressed the importance of experience, direct participation, and sensory exploration, the presence of two-dimensional screens, abstractions, and simulations is anomalous. Phrased in early childhood terms, what kind of a “material” is the microcomputer? The programming possibilities for these ages are minor and limited. It is difficult to think of one simulation activity that could be more meaningful to young children than their own dramatic play. As for software, what has been selected from the existing early childhood curriculum are those activities that are adaptable to the functioning of the microcomputer. The technology has determined the predominance of skill-oriented activities. (The repeated references to skill learning and task-oriented activities is not to imply that they are not a desired or significant part of the early childhood curriculum. They are. What is debatable is the manner in which such learning is to be approached and the context in which it occurs.)


Thus far, microcomputers have been viewed primarily as a supplementary activity. I question even that. Computers would not be simply a new addition to the curriculum. They have the potential to alter how we view children and their learning styles and to influence the content of curriculum. Earlier, I observed that the use of microcomputers was causing a rethinking of the known and taken-for-granted. As I observe the introduction of technology into early childhood settings, it occurs to me that it is the prevalence of computers in the adult world, and the increasing importance given to them, that is a determining factor influencing the choices being made in early childhood classrooms. I think that what we are encountering primarily is an adult agenda, the adult wish to have children enter the computer world as early as possible. It is the “earlier the better,” the “they are here to stay” mind sets that are reshaping aims and influencing our understanding of children. Uncritical acceptance of these overused, hollow phrases is one of the ways by which we disempower ourselves and limit our choices. We must be clear and honest about the constructs we create to rationalize our work. Whom do they serve? Where will they lead? To attend to consequences is not to resist change. It can also be seen as giving thoughtful consideration to the meaningful connection between theory and practice.


Until now, computers have not offered young children opportunities for qualitative experiences, situations that can serve as catalysts to stir new possibilities and to awaken vision. At the young child’s level of capability, the world of microcomputers lacks the permeability and flexibility to accommodate the kinds of problems that children spontaneously deal with at these ages, the questions that arise from daily encounters with people and things. It is possible that some future merging of sound and color, a technological kaleidoscope that may stir aesthetic sensibilities and move the imagination, will provide opportunities for experiences that can expand the child’s world.


A situation does exist at present in which microcomputers can enrich the world of young children rather than narrow it. I refer to microcomputer use with children with certain disabilities. In such instances, computers may give the child expanded access to the physical and social world and bring it closer—even if indirectly—to be examined as it has not been before.


My consistent emphasis on direct experience is not meant to imply that young children using computers are not experiencing. They are. It is the quality of that experience and the accompanying collateral learnings that are being questioned. What may be added to what has already been noted is that analysis, definition, and logic do not suit every realm of knowing or state of being. Ambiguity, uncertainty, and the qualitative also are a part of knowing and living. It would be ironic if in introducing the microcomputer to young children—a tool with enormous potential for expanding capacity and learning possibilities—we end up limiting the range and quality of their experiencing.


It is when children move more firmly into functioning at the concrete operational level, at about age eight, that they are better able to take true advantage of the challenges that computers and programming may offer.7 Much adult eagerness to have young children use computers is based on the belief that it will be impossible to function or to be employed in the future without such expertise or knowledge. Anxiety can obscure judgment. The young people of today who have manifested remarkable programming ability did not have years of practice or preparation with computers. What they did have were ideas—the problems and projects they created and brought to computers. It may be more pertinent to think about what is missing in our educational situations that has not permitted the abilities and imagination of students and teachers, which we are currently seeing, to surface. What other capacities are we not eliciting?


However the present technology is used, imaginatively or not, it appears that it will have an enormous impact on education. The nature and quality of this impact will continue to be debated particularly as descriptions of what computers can do meet the reality of their use in classrooms. Substantive questions will be raised8 and generalizations will be differentiated as computer use is studied in relation to actual institutional structures, decision-making policies, and the details of the reality of social and educational contexts.9 For the present, the enthusiasm over computers has given rise to some interesting phenomena. There is a striking openness in communication and the sharing of ideas. (I have wondered if the public, social nature of the screen, its accessibility to being shared in use and in viewing, has contributed to this atmosphere of openness.) Articles directly invite comments. Reviews of software ask readers to share their ideas and experiences. Networks have been created and newsletters circulated to extend support. The vulnerability of not knowing, of being a novice (a position not particularly comfortable for many educators), has become a shared experience.


In working with teachers, seldom have I seen such self-conscious awareness and analysis of what is involved in learning. Thinking about their own functioning with computers has given rise to insights and an empathic view of the learning process of children. Lines of distinction and of distance between and among parents, teachers, administrators, and students are becoming blurred as the possessors of computer knowledge and expertise appear at any level of the institutional structure. Equally interesting has been the attention given so early to some of the consequences of computer use in the schools. If these matters are seriously considered and acted on, we may not have to face a ton of commission reports and recommendations in the future. I refer to the concern over the long-term effects that will result from unequal access to computers as determined by gender and socioeconomic status;10 the impact of business and commercial interests on education;11 and the possibility of health hazards.12 Questions and concerns will continue, generating a flood of research studies. One further comment about early childhood education that bears upon other ages as well: Whether or not microcomputers enter the early childhood classroom, they will be present in the lives of young children—in homes, the games that surround us, television advertisements. Their style of presentation—sounds, colors, speed, competitiveness—and the atmosphere they create will reach young children. When television appeared, teachers had to (and still do) contend with and give serious attention to the effects of television content and its mode of presentation on children’s interests, their attention span and responses. The influence of this new presence must also be included in our planning as we think about teaching and learning.


The emphasis I have given to quality, to context, to connections and process, reflects my view as an early childhood educator as well as the influence of John Dewey’s philosophy on my thinking. In 1929, Dewey commented on another technological innovation:


The radio will make for standardization and regimentation only as long as individuals refuse to exercise the selective reaction that is theirs. The enemy is not material commodities, but the lack of the will to use them as instruments for achieving preferred possibilities.13


Educators must think long and hard and with the utmost clarity about the possibilities they choose to offer children.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 4, 1984, p. 559-568
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 872, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 10:37:52 PM

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