Technology and school change: New lamps for old?


Douglas H. Clements
Sudha Swaminathan

State University of New York at Buffalo


Reprinted with permission from: Clements, D. H., & Swaminathan, S. (1995). Technology and school change: New lamps for old? Childhood Education, 71, 275-281.


Time to prepare this material was partially provided by National Science Foundation Research Grant NSF MDR-8954664, "An Investigation of the Development of Elementary Children's Geometric Thinking in Computer and Noncomputer Environments." Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


The advent of technology need not be a simple exchange of old for new. Varied are the changes or promises for changes that computers and other technological devices hold. Technology can change the way children think, what they learn, how they interact and how we assess them. However, the responsibility of deciding which changes to enact lies with us early childhood educators. We can use the new lamp as a new gadget to "teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way" Or we can rub ourselves raw extracting the best that the lamp can offer us.

Computers and Development: Changing Perspectives

Just a decade ago, only 25% of the licensed preschools had computers. Today almost every preschool has a computer and the ratio of computers to students has dropped from 1:125 in 1984 to 1:22 in 1990–a ratio that more closely approximates the recommended 1:12 . During this time, perspectives on the principle of developmental appropriateness have become more sophisticated and have been extended to include such dimensions as cultural paradigms and multiple intelligences . Similarly, research has moved beyond simple questions to consider the implications of these changing perspectives for the use of technology in early childhood education.

For example, no longer need we ask whether the use of technology is "appropriate." Very young children have shown comfort and confidence in using software that requires single-key presses. They can turn on the computer, insert and remove disks properly, follow pictorial directions, and use situational and visual cues to understand and reason about their activity . Typing on the keyboard does not seem to cause them any trouble; in fact, it seems to be a source of pride.

Thanks to the recent modifications in hardware, even children with physical and emotional disabilities can use the computer with ease. Besides enhancing their mobility and sense of control, computers can help improve their self-esteem. One totally mute 4-year-old with diagnoses of retardation and autism began to echo words for the first time while working at a computer .

Further, no longer is the unique value of technology as a learning device in question. For instance, by presenting concrete ideas in a symbolic medium, the computer can help bridge the two for young children. Research shows that what is "concrete" for children is not what is "physical," but what is meaningful . Computer representations are often more manageable, flexible, and extensible. One group of young children learned number concepts with a computer felt board environment. They constructed "bean-stick pictures" by selecting and arranging beans, sticks, and number symbols. Compared to a real bean-stick environment, this computer environment offered greater control to students . The computer manipulatives were just as meaningful and easier to use for learning.

Moving beyond such questions, recent research is exploring new and better ways to use technology in early childhood education. From this perspective, the computer is more than just a tool for doing what we have always done. It has changed the way we organize our thoughts. It has opened new and unforeseen avenues for learning. It has allowed children to interact with vast amounts of information from within their classroom. It has tied classrooms from across the world together in cooperative groups .

Of course, not always is the use of technology appropriate, and not always does it lead to a good learning experience. Like anything else, it can be used well or badly. It all depends on how we design the curriculum and the learning experiences that we provide our children.

Computers and the Curriculum

The computer can offer unique opportunities for learning through exploration, creative problem solving, and self-guided instruction. Realizing this potential demands a simultaneous focus on curriculum and technology innovations . Effectively integrating technology into the curriculum demands effort, time, commitment and sometimes even a change in one's beliefs. One teacher reflected, "As you work into using the computer in the classroom, you start questioning everything you have done in the past and wonder how you can adapt it to the computer. Then, you start questioning the whole concept of what you originally did" .

Questions on Curricular Revisions

Child-initiated or teacher-initiated? Children learn best when they feel a sense of ownership and control over what they are doing . However, teachers still need to be active in tailoring the software to children's past experience, interest, and ability . Further, to challenge children to reach beyond their current capabilities, teachers have to decide what should be easy and what should remain a struggle in the positive sense of the word .

The teacher's role also has to change in accordance to the changing need of the child. Initially, teachers may need to be more demonstrative, assisting children with problem-solving, setting goals, and planning. However, once they have gained confidence and expertise, teachers can recede to being observers and facilitators, ready to help when needed .

Free or guided projects? Drill and practice software, though leading to gains in certain rote skills, has not been as effective in improving the conceptual skills of children . Discovery-based software that encourages and allows ample room for free exploration is more valuable in this regard. However, in designing curriculum around this software, research has shown that children work best when designated open-ended projects rather than asked merely to "free explore" . They spend longer time and actively search for diverse ways to solve the task. The group who were allowed to free explore grew disinterested quite soon.

Content or knowledge? Rather than focusing only on specific content-knowledge, the technology-based curriculum can also aim at developing higher order thinking that will assist the child in any context. Children using problem-solving programs evinced greater gains in reading than those who worked with drill software designed specifically for reading skills .

Even within these problem-solving environments, unless the exercise makes sense to the children, its value and interest are questionable. Two third graders were trying to fill rectangular bins with arrangements of squares (Fig. 1). They were so keen on calculating their final score accurately, they voluntarily worked on different solution strategies. One girl used paper to count and sum up the covered area while the other mentally subtracted the "gaps" from the total area of the bin. These children were intrinsically motivated to do these arithmetic exercises since the quantities were real and tied meaningfully to their work.


Fig. 1. In the educational game Tumbling Tetrominoes™ , students try to cover a region with a random sequence of tetrominoes–arrangements of four squares. Their score is the number of squares they fit in the 10 by 12 rectangular bin.

Planning or flexibility? In the technology-based curriculum, planning is important, but so is flexibility. Computers offer many unexpected opportunities for learning. This could be something as procedural as realizing that the mouse wasn't plugged on, by itself a valuable problem-solving experience . Or it could be something more conceptual as Elisa who decided to write more since, "If you could print me 100 copies, I could sell them for 5 cents each.... And if the cover could be hard, I could sell them for $1 each and I could be rich!" .

On- or off-computer? An early fear was that computers would replace other early childhood activities. Research shows that computer activities yield the best results when coupled with suitable off-computer activities. For example, children who are exposed to developmental software alone show gains in intelligence, non-verbal skills, long-term memory and manual dexterity. Those who also work with supplemental activities, in comparison, gained in all of these areas and improved their scores in verbal, problem solving, and conceptual skills . Also, these children spent the least amount of time on computer. A control group which used drill and practice software spent three times as much on the computer but showed less than half of the gains that the on- and off- computer group did.

Given these capabilities of the computer, how has it affected children's learning?

Facilitating Language Development

There is no dearth of software for promoting reading and writing skills of young children. Drill and practice software can develop reading readiness skills of preschoolers and of young learners identified to be at risk. The gains from using such drill software are directly proportionate to the amount of time spent on it; a few sessions with simple software yields minimal results.

An alternative more closely aligned with the whole language approach is having children write and publish on the computer rather than merely practice writing skills. Word processors can help children write more as well as improve their basic language skills in the process of writing.

Even young children can competently revise their text when shown how to use the computer to edit their words. They improve their style using more descriptive phrases and also create better plots with climaxes and character descriptions . They improve their attitude towards writing .

Talking word-processors are especially popular with young children. Kindergartners discovered the value of "magic letters" or vowels while typing in alphabet letters and listening to the computer read them. Thus, entering 'B C D' did not produce a comprehensible word but switching the middle consonant to a vowel was read as "BAD"! Reading like this, the children began to discover what was written on their bathroom walls .

Word processing also encourages peer collaboration as well as self- and other-monitoring behaviors . Learning disabled children working with a partner had fewer errors than those working alone. The partners monitored and helped each other. The shared availability of the text on the screen enabled participation by both partners in creating and editing text.

Language interventions with special populations have shown similar results. Severely handicapped children who were trained on communication skills using a computer increased their receptive and expressive language more than those with regular classroom training . Most were incapable of using the computer intervention without supervision and support from a trainer, but they were able to sustain interest and respond to the format over 10 weeks.

Teachers play an important role in building a creative environment and scaffolding the children's efforts. For example, word processors can enhance a creative writing environment but do not by themselves establish it . Used within the context of a sound learning theory, the computer can be a valuable language arts tool.

Developing Mathematical and Higher-order Thinking

In mathematics too, the computer can be used to provide practice on arithmetic processes and to foster deeper conceptual thinking. Drill and practice software can help young children develop competence in counting and sorting . However, it is questionable if the exclusive use of such drill software would subscribe to the vision of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to be "mathematically literate" in a world where "mathematics is rapidly growing and is extensively being applied in diverse fields."

Using programs that allow the creation of pictures with geometric shapes, children have demonstrated growing knowledge and competence in working with concepts such as symmetry, patterns and spatial order. Tammy overlaid two overlapping triangles on one square and colored select parts of this figure to create a third triangle which did not exist in the program! Not only did Tammy exhibit an awareness of how she had made this, but she also showed a higher-order awareness of the challenge it would be to others .

Programming with Logo can also provide challenging learning experiences. In Logo, children give commands to direct an on-screen turtle to draw shapes. Primary-grade children have shown greater explicit awareness of the properties of shapes and the meaning of measurements after working with Logo .

For example, while drawing a face in Turtle Math™ , Nina decided to use just 200 turtle steps to draw her "mouth with a smile" (see Fig. 2). Off-computer she wrote a procedure where the sides of the rectangle were 40 and 20 and the sides of the equilateral triangle were 10. She realized that the total perimeter of these figures was 20 short of 200 and changed just one side of each triangle to 20. Running these procedures on the computer, she remarked that changing the length of one side "messed up" an equilateral triangle and consequently her smile. She had to decide whether to compromise on the geometric shape or the total perimeter. Her final "mouth" was a rectangle of 200 steps and her "smile" was an equilateral triangle of 60 steps.

Fig. 2. Geometric shapes created and put together by Nina to make this face in Turtle Math .

Other children may need teacher assistance to link their knowledge of mathematics to their computer work as well as Nina did. Teachers can ask children to reflect on their work; especially "surprises," when the computer does something other than what they want it to do. Such reflection can promote greater self-monitoring and may encourage them to find computer "bugs" themselves .

Logo sometimes can be difficult for young children to comprehend. However, when the environment is gradually and systematically introduced to the children and when the microworlds are age-appropriate, they do not evince any problems . In fact, these children transferred their knowledge to map-reading tasks and interpreting right and left rotation of objects.

Exploring such Logo environments can lead to a wide variety of logical and mathematical experiences. For instance, Daniel, aged 5, showed signs of comprehending and interpreting the links between a symbolic representation and its written procedures. His teacher had written procedures for a turtle robot to alternate its sounds at the press of the 'S' key. Interpreting this as the turtle's speech, Daniel wanted to have other procedures that he assigned various meanings. He eventually produced his own turtle vocabulary .

Besides logical/mathematical knowledge, Logo has proved to positively affect children's creativity. Following Logo experience, young children have shown improvement in their verbal and figural creativity off computer . Children with learning disabilities using Logo showed gains that were not directly related to their academics, but showed other mental and emotional progress . Similarly, Logo enhanced the self-esteem, creativity, planning and executing abilities of children with mild intellectual handicaps. They also worked independently but cooperatively.

Graphics programs like Kid Pix®2 encourage combinations of artistic and linguistic explorations. Suriyan, a 4-year-old, carefully chose the alphabet to form his name and then stamped the image of the sun to proudly declare, "I wrote my name in 2 ways!" In his mother-tongue, 'suriyan' means sun (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Writing and drawing in Kid Pix® 2 (copyright 1994, Broderbund Software. Reproduced with permission).

Using another graphics program with three primary colors, young children combined all three to create three secondary colors . Such complex combinatorial abilities are often thought out of reach of young children. The computer experience led the children to explorations that increased the boundaries of what they could do.

Interactional Patterns in the Classroom

Contrary to initial fears, computers do not isolate children. Rather, they serve as potential catalysts for social interaction. Children at the computer spent 9 times as much time talking to peers while on the computer than while doing puzzles . Researchers observe that 95% of children's talking during Logo is related to their work .

Children prefer to work with a friend rather than alone. New friendships have been fostered in the computer's presence. There is greater and more spontaneous peer teaching and helping .

Children's interactions at the computer are affected by the software they are using. For example, open-ended programs like Logo foster collaborative group characterized by patterns of goal-setting, planning, negotiation and resolution of conflicts. Drill and practice software, on the other hand, can encourage turn-taking but also engender a competitive spirit. Similarly, video-games with aggressive content can engender the same qualities in children, although the same game presented through a computer simulation has shown less anti-social behaviors .

Working on the computer has instigated collaborative work . In one third-grade classroom, the teacher gave the students the choice of working alone or with a partner. Half the class chose to work alone. Mid-way through their game, the children who were playing by themselves started to join others. Some even abandoned their own game to offer and take help from their peers. Similar positive results have also been seen with children with special needs. Highest proportion of socially contingent discourse was noticed on computer .

The nature of children's interactions appears to follow a developmental trend. Initially, their social exchange consists of an egocentric focus on turn-taking. Gradually, they become more peer-oriented, offering to help and to teach and finally, they are able to work collaboratively sans adult intervention .

Preschoolers may find it difficult to take the perspective of their partner and they may also have trouble balancing the cognitive demands of the task as well as manage the social relation. Such developmental limitations do not necessarily have to preclude collaborative work for the very young. Teachers can provide the additional support and help that they may need .

The physical arrangement of the computers in the classroom can enhance their social use . Placing two seats in front of the computer and one at the side for the teacher can encourage positive social interaction. Placing computers close to each other can facilitate the sharing of ideas among children. Computers that are centrally located in the classroom invite other children to pause and participate in the computer activity. Such an arrangement also helps keep teacher participation at an optimum level. They are nearby to provide supervision and assistance as needed, but are not constantly so close as to inhibit the children .

Changes in the Teacher's Role

How has the new lamp of technology illuminated the teacher's path? Besides helping the teacher provide the instructional opportunities mentioned earlier, the computer offers an unique medium to assess children. Observing the child at the computer provides teachers with a "window into a child's thinking process" . Research has also warned us teachers not to curtail observations after a few months. Sometimes beneficial effects appear only after a year. On-going observations also help us chart children's growth .

Differences in learning styles are more readily visible at the computer where children have the freedom to follow diverse paths towards the goal . This is particularly valuable with special children as the computer seems to reveal their hidden strengths. Differences in Logo programming have been found between African-American and Caucasian children. The visual nature of Logo purportedly was suited to the African-American children's thinking style .

Gender differences also emerge while programming. In one study, a posttest-only assessment seemed to indicate that boys performed better. However, assessment of the children's interactions revealed that the boys took greater risks and thereby reached the goal, whereas the girls were more keen on accuracy and hence meticulously planned and reflected on every step . Again, the implication for teaching is consistent, long-term observation.

Yet another opportunity offered us by technology is to become pioneers ourselves. Because we know our children best, we can best create the program that will help them. Frustrated by the lack of good software, Tom Snyder started using the computer to support his classroom simulations of history. Mike Gralish, a first-grade teacher, used several computer devices and programs to link the base 10 blocks and the number system for his children. Today, both these gentleman are leading educational innovators .

To accomplish this and to keep up with the growing changes in technology, teachers need inservice. Research has established that less than ten hours of training can have a negative impact . Others have emphasized the importance of hands-on experience and warned against brief exposure to a variety of programs, rather than an indepth knowledge of one .

Perhaps the best advice–and the most difficult–is the following.

Good teachers will not necessarily be those who know the most conceptual or factual information in a field, but rather those who can continually incorporate new information in creative ways.

New Lamps for Old?

One can use technology to teach the same old stuff in the same way. Integrated computer activities can increase achievement. Children who use practice software about 10 minutes a day increase their scores on achievement tests. However,

if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dullest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a Skinner box…. I believe with Dewey, Montessori, and Piaget that children learn by doing and by thinking about what they do. And so the fundamental ingredients of educational innovation must be better things to do and better ways to think about oneself doing these things .

We believe, with Papert, that computers can be a rich source of these ingredients. We believe that having children use computers in new ways–to solve problems, compose, draw, and write Logo programs–can be a catalyst for positive school change.


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