Reggio Emilia inspired preschool programs provide a framework for a best practice implementation of
New Technologies within the early childhood setting.
(written in 17 APR 08, for subject New Technologies in Education and Training) – Prior to iPads and iPods, though still relevant
In Early Childhood Education (ECE), there has been contention whether the inclusion of computer use is harmful or beneficial. The discourse on the inclusion of computers in ECE has been raging for over two decades, with both sides having vocal advocates.
The most intense recent clash resulted from the report Fool’s Gold, by the Alliance for Children, who argued that the risks associated with computers in ECE far out number the benefits. They argued that by introducing these adult-focused machines, we are rushing childhood, and risking children’s physical, social, and intellectual development. Children will lose their sense of wonder, they claimed, and will lose patience for hard work, and possibly suffer from repetitive stress injuries, seizures and obesity (2000). Clements and Sarama (2003), countered these claims in their report Strip Mining for Gold, in which they criticised the Alliance for Children’s limited references to published findings to support their claims, and in turn referenced research showing that technology can be used as a catalyst for social interaction and relationships (Clements and Sarama, 2003). Other supporters have stated that due to computer use, children have demonstrated higher levels of spoken interaction and communication, and are more cooperative and willing to take turns (Clements, 1994, Haugland & Wright, 1997, cited in Glaubke, 2007).
McCarrick and Li (2007), investigated the impact of preschoolers’ computer use on their language, motivation, social and cognitive development, within the framework of theorists Piaget, Erikson and Vygostsky, using only existing empirical studies from 1985 – 2004. Their conclusion implied that computers are not having a catalyst effect on children’s learning – they do however provide another avenue for learning which young children find a positive and highly motivating experience, which results in them staying on task for extended periods of time.
Papert, 1980 (cited in Hartle, 2006), stated over two decades ago “The question now is not whether preschool children should use technology, but rather how young children use technology.” Despite this, the Victorian governing bodies concerned with ECE (formerly the Department of Human Services, and most recently the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development – DEECD), still have not published a formal curriculum framework concerning ICT. The DEECD ICT directives for Prep stipulate only the basic expectation that “students become familiar with the main components of a computer and develop their hand-eye coordination by using a mouse to control the cursor/pointer on the screen. Students [must be able to] enter and manipulate data to create simple information products” (VELS, 2007), which provides very little direction for EC Educators.
The position statement by Early Childhood Australia in 1999, argued that ICT is “a central part of young children’s lives” (cited in Downes et al., 2001)– a trend which has significantly strengthened in the 9 years since, with technological advancements and increased consumer acceptance further entrenching ICT in young children’s daily lives, a belief shared by the American National Association for Education of the Young Child (NAEYC, 1996).
Edwards (2005), agreed that keeping computers separate from children’s development within ECE settings is “arguably akin to denying the role it plays in their… experiences outside the educational setting” (p25). As Prenksy (2001), explained, children are now “native speakers of the digital language”, interacting daily with computers, video games, the Internet, network-connected multi-media players and so-forth. This pre-ECE setting exposure, driven by the rapid, pervasive encroachment of entertainment and automation technology into the home, is pushing the boundaries of ‘technology education’ requirements beyond simply developing an understanding of how to ‘drive’ a computer. Educators now face the challenge of integrating technology into their setting in a manner which enhances the children’s experiences, capitalising upon their inherent ‘native’ understanding of the language of technology, and becoming comfortable with using ICT as a tool, rather than providing a specific ICT programme. Although many academics would not agree with treating technology as a tool, viewing this definition as too limiting, or feeling that this view may “render invisible all the consequences of using such tools” (Wells, 2008), the author is satisfied with this definition, which is supported by much of the available literature.
There is also research that suggests the introduction of technology in the early years can affect gender inequity in ICT-related careers. Although there is no discernable difference in amount of computer use or abilities during the preschool years (Glaubke, 2007), as highlighted by Dennis (2008), in her DSO discussion group post, there is a difference between how girls and boys play computer games, which is also supported by Calvert, et al. (2005a, cited in Glaubke, 2007), who pointed out that these differences seem to relate to “content preferences, with boys preferring violent and competitive games more than do girls.” Swedish research suggests that being mindful of these differences, and introducing games and activities which appeal to both boys and girls in ECE, may help address the current social trend in Sweden away from ICT-related studies and careers by girls (Sheridan and Samuelsson, 2003).
The integration of computers and other technologies into the preschool setting needs to be reflective of developmentally appropriate. Snider et al, (2006), stated that “developmentally appropriate use of technology enhances children’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development”, whereas inappropriate use can lead to developmental issues (p4). “Like crayons, blocks, or any other learning resource we provide young children, computers are neither good nor bad. The effect of computers depends upon how they are utilised: it depends upon the wisdom of adults to make wise choices regarding appropriate experiences for young children” (Haugland, 1992).
Stephen and Plowman (2003), expressed that rather than deploying the computer “as another ‘centre’ in the room or… for drill and practice”, as is often the case in preschool settings, teachers should be looking for ways to integrate computers into their programme, in much the same manner as reference materials, artwork, construction or craft-making activities, which are not designed to ‘teach how to build a four-storey structure out of blocks’, but rather to manipulate and explore spatial relationships, cause-and-effect, and so on.
To this end, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has developed technology standards for teachers and students of various ages/stages. For children aged 4-8 years the categories include;
1. Creativity and Innovation
2. Communication and Collaboration
3. Research and Information Fluency
4. Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
5. Digital Citizenship
6. Technology Operations and Concepts
These standards fit well with The Reggio Emilia approach, where the primary concern is equipping children with the critical thinking, and communicating skills necessary to become self-directed, participatory global citizens. Using Reggio as a framework by its very nature avoids the pitfalls of ‘drill-and-practice’ software packages, with computers in isolation. The Reggio Emilia philosophy builds upon the belief “that children are capable of inquiry, propelled by their potential curiosity, and their need to construct their own knowledge” (Mitchell, 2007). Helm & Katz (2000), explained that in a Reggio-inspired program, children are encouraged to be investigators of the world around them, and as such, use the tools within their environment to assist them to build their knowledge and feed their curiosity (cited in Mitchell, 2003). Their environment is now a technological environment.
Downes et al., (2001) stated back in 2001 that “today, open ended and digital resources that promote communication, interaction, discovery, and problem solving abound”(p.141). Their article referred specifically to developmentally appropriate software, although this view could just as easily address the variety of new technologies aimed at children that are hitting the market.
Standalone computers were originally designed for adults and can be seen as ergonomically unsound for young children, generally relying on text-based interaction with the system. Developmentally appropriate software, however, has come a long way in the last twenty years, having moved from point-and-click, drill-and-practice software, to multimedia authoring packages such as KidPix®, Hyperstudio, and Kidsperation, which rely much more on visual literacy – using symbol recognition to interface with the program.
Beyond computer software, there is an abundance of literature purporting the virtues and developmental appropriateness of “Electronic Blocks”, which due to their “ease of use and power of engagement,” are “a compelling tool for the introduction of meaningful technology” in the ECE (Wyeth and Purchase, 2003), although costs may be prohibitive.
Programmable building blocks and other “digital manipulatives”, such as communicating beads, and even robotics kits such as LEGO Mindstorms offer children new kinds of experiences, and expose them to new concepts and ways of thinking (Bers et al., 2002). By “embedding computation power in traditional children’s toys, … children can learn about dynamic processes and .. [‘systems’ concepts], such as feedback and emergence that were previously considered too advanced for them” (Resnick. 1998: Resnick. Berg. & Eisenberg. 2000, cited in Bers et al., 2002).
A relative newcomer to the ECE ICT arsenal is the tablet (or the tablet PC, which integrates a tablet / touchscreen with a laptop computer). Although this form of technology is not new, high costs have previously prevented tablets from infiltrating the ECE environment. Tablet technology is “more closely aligned with traditional paper and pencil media” (Couse and Chen, 2008), allowing children to trace and draw on a pressure-sensitive surface, whilst all pen / stylus movements are digitised and represented on the screen.
Couse and Chen’s (2008), study showed that “children between the ages of 3 and 6 years were able to quickly learn to use the Tablet computer as a medium for representing their ideas and learning.” As they observed, “developmentally appropriate technology that enables children to be in control can provide an additional way for children to represent their thinking”, which addresses the Reggio Emilia emphasis on children communicating their ideas through drawing quite well, providing a wonderful addition to collecting documentation and evidence of children’s learning. Couse and Chen (2008), also found that children’s independence grew as a function of their continued tablet use, resulting in less demand for instruction and assistance from adults, and they were “seldom frustrated and persisted in their work” (p.3455).
Today, digital still and video cameras are found in many preschools, although most of the available research literature focuses on how teachers can utilise digital cameras within their program, for example, Snap it up! Using Digital Photography in Early Childhood by (Good, 2005), and I know how much this child has learned. I have proof! Employing digital technologies for documentation processes in kindergarten (Boardman, 2007).
Trepanier-Street et al, (2001) reflected in their journal article Using Technology in Reggio-Inspired Long-Term Projects, upon the successful implementation and utilisation of ICT in their 4-to-6 year-old setting. The writers discuss how documentation forms a critical part of the Reggio approach, utilised by the educator to record, track and report upon activities, and by the students to review prior stages of work relating to the project subject, to provide context and assist with deciding upon the next set of tasks and activities for the project.
Whist the means to record video, audio and still photographs have been available for many years, the popularisation of consumer-grade digital devices has provided a relatively cost-effective mechanism to bring a multi-media documentation approach to the classroom. Through the use of digital video, the multitude of body language, expression, tone, pitch, context, intonation expressed by children can be captured, where in the past these would have been experienced by the educator, but certainly not recorded. This documentation, which due to its digital nature, can be re-organised and presented in various other ways, also forms an essential part of the communication with parents (Trepanier-Street et al., 2001).
Many educators are taking this one step further by providing the means for students to document and collaborate upon their projects through their own digital still, DV and DV production efforts (Ching et al., 2006). Students capture images and video to convey their thoughts or represent their ideas and feelings, where without these means they would otherwise struggle given their lack of written language. Kim Walters (Walters and Early Childhood Australia., 2006), found that children as young as 3 were quite capable of using these technologies, and children were engaged in their learning in pleasurable and enthusiastic ways.
Utilising these resources as a platform for discussion, collaboration and project-work creates best-practice environments, when implemented by an adequately trained teacher, as computers and other technologies become as ingrained and integrated within the preschooler’s self-discovery methodologies as any other tool available within their learning environment. Technology-specific skills are developed along the way, as a by-product of their investigations and representations of their critical thinking, rather than through a technology-focussed static learning centre. Technology should match the need, but should not actually drive the program (Meadows et al., 2005).
No-one can deny that technology is here to stay, and when utilised in a developmentally appropriate manner, ICT can help address challenges such as gender inequality and the digital divide. Introduction of technology into the preschool program can be seen as the first step in bridging the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Suresh (2007) points out that “early users of technology… seem to develop a particular mindset that affords them different and more innovative ways to express themselves”, so educators and policy-makers must find ways to introduce ICT within the constraints of their setting.
Treating technology as just another tool to engage children in creative, expressive learning activities, collaborative projects and record keeping can assist with all aspects of the early-years program, if integrated innovatively, but in many settings the primary obstacle is teacher confidence and computer literacy.
During their training, teachers learn how children learn, and how to develop strategies to meet many varied learning challenges, but unless they seek to develop their own ICT skills, they are not compelled to learn about technology and its role within the classroom (Sheridan and Samuelsson, 2003). Without positive, ongoing exposure to computers and other technologies, most teachers will not develop positive attitudes towards ICT, and thus will not be equipped to develop the creative, innovative, complex approaches to integration within their learning environment.
Through exposure to positive, integrated ICT environments, and with access to ongoing support, coaching and development, teachers are more likely to develop the confidence necessary to drive these positive attitudes. In-services, executive support, technical support, and access to mentors who have successfully integrated ICT into their environments are obvious, yet strangely rare, provisions which must be made to help educators recognise, accept, and develop their own approaches to infusing a best practice ICT strategy into their pedagogy.
In conclusion, research is telling us that although new technologies are not necessarily the catalyst for learning, there is a need for new technologies to be integrated into our ECE, as for many children this setting may provide their first hands-on exposure to the technology which will ever-increasingly surround them. In the author’s work context, children’s prior to school experience is varied, as the majority who have been exposed to computers are limited to drill and practice ‘educational software’, games such as Age of Empires, and internet usage for ABC Kids online games.
As was identified in the group discussions for the unit on New Technologies, funding and teaching training are major on going factors contributing to how appropriately new technologies are implemented into the program. Many preschools in Victoria are run by parent committees within a preset budget, with additional funding coming from applications for grants, but as yet there are no grants specifically linked to ICT. Using a Reggio-inspired program provides a useful framework to encourage us to take a constructionist approach in facilitating the implementation of ICT in our preschools, whereby existing tools and applications included with the operating system can be used quite effectively, especially given the funding constraints.
In the authors context, where funding is a key inhibitor to implementing a broad range of ‘new technologies’, this research has provided many ideas for using low-cost ‘new’ and existing technologies. In a preschool or school of high quality, computers and other technologies should be considered just another set of resources, and to ensure a best practice approach, professional development focussing on teachers’ general views about technology and its role in learning is critical.
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