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Lisa Guernsey Headshot

EdTech for the Younger Ones? Not Without Trained Teachers

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Amid the agitation over childhood in the digital age, two visions are battling it out.

One side soars with optimism. Digital technology has become so intuitive, so finger-swipe simple, that even babies can open and manipulate information on a touch-screen tablet. The world is at their fingertips. Who needs adults anyway?

The other side panics. Digital technology is becoming so pervasive, so irresponsibly rampant, that children's minds are at risk. Learning is only learning when it happens in old-fashioned ways, with wooden blocks and playdough.

Both visions spell trouble. Parents, families and teachers are either omitted or in the background. There is no recognition of how much learning happens when adults get involved and expose children to the wonders of the world and then, using the growing range of tools at their disposal, help children seek answers to questions about what they have seen and experienced.

That's why it's so encouraging to read Take a Giant Step: A Blueprint for Teaching Young Children in a Digital Age, a new report from Digital Age Teacher Preparation Council established by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute, funded by the Joyce Foundation.

The report provides a refreshing take on what early childhood education could look like if teachers were given the power, skill and technological tools to expand horizons for young kids. It gives examples of teachers incorporating online games and episodes from the PBS series Sid the Science Kid into a 10-week science unit of hands-on "investigations" inspired by the show. It triggers ideas of what might be possible if logs of children's observations from nature trips could be collected in online databases as is already underway in some environmental courses for older children. It considers how young children might see themselves as authors with wider audiences, sharing and reflecting on each others' stories and prompting new creations and conversations.

These possibilities won't end debates about exactly how much technology belongs in pre-K, kindergarten or early grades classrooms. Contentious and thought-provoking conversations about this subject have permeated the recent efforts of the National Association for the Education of Young Children to update its position statement on technology expected early next year.

But one area of agreement among nearly all early childhood experts is that, no matter how much technology is adopted, teachers shouldn't be marginalized. Instead, they should be front and center, guiding children on how, if and when to use technological tools and digital media. None of this can happen without teachers making good decisions about which tools to use and knowing how to integrate them into their lessons.

It's unclear just how much creation-prompting, conversation-starting use of technology is happening in early childhood classrooms today. Are most teachers holding "computer time" in the corner, with kids putting on headphones to play games or click through books by themselves? Are children having chances to take photos or capture video of their marine field trips or block towers? Is someone helping them to scan books and conduct online searches for more information on whales or skyscapers?

A 2010 survey of NAEYC members showed that while 61 percent of classroom teachers are using computers "sometimes" or "everyday" with children, only 45 percent have an Internet-connected computer in their classroom. (The survey's respondents were predominantly based in child care centers and preschools.) The survey wasn't constructed to illuminate how teachers have used those tools - there's no way to know whether these teachers showed children multimedia content linked to the day's activities or whether software was harnessed to help children create projects.

One of the few other pieces of research is a 2009 study in Pediatrics on TV use in child care. It showed that children who attend programs operated out of a person's home watch TV for 2.4 hours per day on average, compared to 0.4 hours when they attend child care centers.

The Digital Age Teacher Preparation Council, which first convened in January 2010, has found reason to be concerned. It reports on "major disconnects between the potential of technology and what actually happens in most classrooms." (Full disclosure: I was invited to provide input at one of the meetings.)

"Although some teachers are taking on the challenge of learning how to incorporate technology into the classroom on their own initiative," the report says, "they are in the minority and typically have access to a strong social network of support."

The council lays out five goals to help teachers be part of the picture: help teachers plan and collaborate; train teachers how to integrate digital and screen media into their teaching practices; tap into public media as a resource; ensure that a technology infrastructure is built to support standards development, curricula distribution, and teaching; and bolster research and development.

I might add a sixth: Help teachers help parents. As a mother to two young girls, and as a reporter who has interviewed dozens of moms, dads and grandparents over the years, I can attest to the desire for guidance in sorting through marketers' claims and alarmist headlines on any number of new technologies.

But what matters most is that the report puts high-quality, collaborative, research-based teaching first and then constructs a vision for technology use that supports that teaching. (For more on technology in service of teaching, see the archived video of a Washington, DC event I co-hosted last year.) Given the current emphasis among education reformers on effective teachers, given the continuing research on children's potential for learning in their early years, given the understandable desire of today's teachers to receive more professional support, and given the explosion of technology aimed at young children, this report has arrived at a critical time. The council rightly calls the support of digital-age early educators a "giant step" toward preparing the next generation. Are we ready to take it?