Do primary pupils need computers?

29th September 2000 at 01:00
IS our obsession with computers in primary schools anything more than a fascination with fool's gold? According to eminent educationists and child health professionals at the Alliance for Childhood, computers are developmentally out of step with the low-tech needs of young children; in the context of elementary education they are, indeed, fool's gold. The alliance contests that after 30 years' research there is no clear, commanding body of evidence that children's sustained use of computers or TVs, the Internet, word processing, spreadsheets and other applications has any impact on academic achievement.

The alliance is not the first to question technology in primary education but it will find itself in a tiny minority. Many parents are delighted, and very impressed, when they see their child doing something such as using a mouse (which often parents can't). Why should teachers deflate innocent belief - my son's primary teacher tells me I am the only parent she talks honestly to about computers.

The Department for Education and Employment's website features a Year 5 residential field trip as an example of best practice in primary ICT. The trip used live web cams so "Big Brother" parents could follow it virtually and stay in touch via e-mail. Why are parental e-mails seen as a measure of success when until nowphone calls to children on residential trips have been for emergencies only, because the point of the trip is for children to be out of touch? There is also the issue of putting identifiable groups of children on the web for uninvited adults to watch. If this "best practice" were widely adopted it could even put children at risk.

The alliance's belief that what is useful for adults and older students may be inappropriate for youngsters needs to be objectively assessed by practising primary school teachers.

Is giving a computer to a young child like giving them Pete Sampras's tennis racket to learn with? Does the sheer power actually hamper their ability to be taught?

Take spreadsheet programs that provide a complex system for analysing intricate data. What young children need to master is the simple system from which complex systems like spreadsheets evolve. Entering simple data into a spreadsheet is overkill an clicking icons to make charts takes away vital learning experiences.

The same criticism applies to computer simulations. How can games with real magnets, for example, ever be bettered by anything simulated on a computer screen? The effect that "creativity" tools like clip art and Microsoft's WordArt and PowerPoint have on children's originality needs to be watched as well. And is e-mail a good communications tutor or just a practice ground before children graduate to teenage internet chat? The alliance is critical of computers for isolating children and weakening the relationships that less sociable young children make with their peers and teachers.

Most incongruous in primary schools is the world wide web. Imagine proposing a library for young children that contains pornography, is unedited, organised like a second-hand book shop after an earthquake, costly to use and may or may not be open. An army of expensive consultants has told us that there are one or two useful things out there and now we are paying them to find them. I asked one of these consultants why we need the Internet and her reply reminds me of the world Laurie Lee described: too busy with statistics and information to experience life. "How else are we going to know if it's raining in Birmingham or where Tony Blair is today?" she said.

So will computers follow calculators out of primary classrooms? I do not believe anyone who justifies them as preparing children for using technology later in education or at work: to be a good screen reader, you need to be a good reader. I would keep computers out of primary classrooms (except for pupils with learning disabilities who benefit from technology) and support teachers in their complex task by giving each one a laptop with training and free Internet connection. Instead of children treading water (at best) when they arrive at secondary school, Year 7 would have new purpose as technology year.

Only independently-minded practising teachers will really know the value of computers in primary education. As a society that is mesmerised by technology, we need to make sure they are both free to speak and heard.

Debbie Davies is a journalist and author of the BBC's Webwise tutorial for online beginners.

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