From ABC to ICT

The UK government's obsession with 'digital literacy' in schools shows a misreading of child development.

Helene Guldberg

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Topics Politics

Will computers be the teachers of tomorrow? The UK government set up a taskforce of IT and education experts in early February 2002, to examine how young people in schools and colleges might benefit from Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) (1).

It looks like, in the absence of any real vision for education and with serious teacher shortages, the government is using ICT as a panacea for education’s ills. At the BETT educational technology show in London in January 2002, UK education secretary Estelle Morris set out the government’s vision of the ‘school of the future’ – where teaching and learning will be ‘revolutionised’ by new technologies. According to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), ‘ICT will be the driving force behind the transformation of the teaching and learning environment’.

How can technology be the ‘driving force’ for change? That can surely only come from those responsible for education strategy. Using ICT in schools more effectively may be a means of implementing educational strategies, but it is not an end in itself (2). Yet in the report Transforming the Way We Learn: a vision of the future of ICT in schools, Estelle Morris argues that ICT-based skills, such as digital and visual literacy, will be ‘as important to individual success and fulfilment as literacy and numeracy have been in the past’ (3).

ICT can definitely be a useful tool in teaching and for streamlining administrative tasks – but learning ICT skills cannot be compared to becoming literate and numerate. Unlike ‘digital literacy’ (or any of the other newfound literacies popular among educationalists today), the spoken word, followed by literacy and numeracy, has been shown to have a transformative effect on children’s thinking.

In Thought and Language, published in 1962, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky explored the dramatic change that occurs in humans between two and four years of age, with the emergence of language. Qualitatively new patterns of behaviour emerge and old ones disappear. This, he argued, results from the development of language (4).

Vygotsky was able to make sense of something that had baffled psychologists for years – the predominance of a type of speech in children that serves little or no communicative function. In the 1920s, Jean Piaget, one of the most influential child development psychologists, carried out extensive research into the verbalisations of children between three and seven years of age, discovering that much of young children’s ‘speech’ is never addressed to a listener. He labelled this childish talk ‘egocentric speech’, claiming that it served no function, merely indicating children’s intellectual immaturity. In particular, it demonstrated their inability to see things from another person’s point of view (known among psychologists as not having a ‘theory of mind’ (5)).

Vygotsky questioned Piaget’s conclusions – pointing out that ‘egocentric speech’ serves an important internal function. It is the precursor to the powerful role that language plays as a regulator of mental activities. It doesn’t disappear as a child gets older, but gradually becomes internalised into private inner speech – or, in other words, thought. Watching children trying to solve cognitive tasks, Vygotsky found that when faced with a challenging situation children’s actions are accompanied by speech. He concluded that ‘the meeting between speech and thinking is a major event in the development of the individual; in fact, it is this connection that raises human thinking to extraordinary heights’ (6).

In her seminal book Children’s Minds, child psychologist Margaret Donaldson examined the effects of schooling on children’s thinking. She argued that schooling relies on the development of new modes of thinking that do not make ‘human sense’, and the process of moving beyond the bound of human sense does not happen spontaneously – it is, in a sense, unnatural (7).

Before they start attending school most children are competent communicators, but they have not developed an awareness of language. A pre-school child does not interpret words in isolation – he interprets situations. He is more concerned with making sense of what is being talked about than with the literal meaning of the words themselves.

Although children come to school with skills as communicators and thinkers, the education system requires them to turn language and thought in upon themselves – lifting speech and thought to a different level. Children must learn to direct their thought processes in a thoughtful manner; must learn to reflect on the literal meaning of what is said, as well as what is meant; and must become capable of manipulating abstract symbols.

In a narrow sense, literacy aids children’s communication skills and numeracy aids their understanding of and ability to manipulate numbers. But above all that, literacy and numeracy have a transformative effect on children’s thinking, developing their reflective skills and the emergence of abstract thought. As Margaret Donaldson writes: ‘Thus it turns out that those very features of the written word which encourage awareness of language may also encourage awareness of one’s own thinking and be relevant to the development of intellectual self-control, with incalculable consequences for the kinds of thinking which are characteristic of logic, mathematics and the sciences.’ (8)

‘Digital literacy’ is a very different story. A child who left school with no basic literacy or numeracy skills would be severely disadvantaged. A child who left school with no ICT skills might miss out on certain jobs and on the use of computers – but he would be able to catch up quickly if given the chance.

In contrast to the involved and transformative process of making a child literate, the use of ICT is intuitive. Even my three-year-old nephew Stefan can turn a computer on, move in and out of computer programmes, including his parents’ email programme, and send messages. He cannot write a message that makes any sense – but he knows which field the text should go in, how to move the cursor between fields, and that you fill the field with symbols by tapping the keyboard. He has learned this by watching his older brothers, by a lot of trial-and-error, and, no doubt, through intuition.

But Stefan, or any other child his age, could never learn to read, write, divide and multiply through intuitive learning – because the manipulation of abstract symbols, whether the written word or numbers, does not make ‘human sense’. Interface design, by contrast, should ensure that software makes human sense with as little need for training as possible. Indeed, the more ICT training is required, the more that should be seen as a failure of the interface design.

Literacy and numeracy are of an entirely different order to the so-called computer-driven literacies. They are fundamental to a child’s development, whereas computer skills are merely useful. Of course there is a role for ICT in education. But rather than preaching about ICT’s ‘revolutionary’ potential and presenting technology as a solution to all of education’s problems, the government would do better to provide the basic infrastructure for ICT in schools, and look at the specific ways that new technologies can help in the classroom.

If used creatively, new technologies can help to educate children in novel and engaging ways. And new technologies could free up teachers’ time – cutting paperwork, simplifying administrative tasks and streamlining assessment (through the use of tools that enable testing to be done automatically, for example) – allowing them to spend more time teaching and motivating pupils.

Some teachers worry that ICT in the classroom could undermine their role. But changing how teachers communicate with pupils doesn’t have to mean robbing them of their crucial role as educators, as Sandy Starr has pointed out on spiked: ‘Notwithstanding the technical challenges…it is conceivable that better technology will one day enable the teacher-student relationship to flourish online in ways we cannot yet imagine.’ (9)

ICT could aid collaboration between teachers – allowing for the creation, storing and sharing of lesson plans and ‘best practices’ – thereby reducing teacher burdens and going some way towards actually raising educational standards.

Some ICT champions claim that teachers’ ‘lack of understanding and skills’ are a barrier to schools’ uptake of new technologies. There are no doubt some Luddites in the education sphere, as there are in most professions. But there are still technical barriers and resource constraints that limit the use of ICT in schools. By developing infrastructure – including faster internet connection and better hardware and software – surely teachers will be better placed to confidently use the new technologies? In fact, Mirandanet, the online network of teaching professionals, found that most teachers see the inadequacy of resources and paltry support networks as the biggest barriers to proper use of ICT in class (10).

We should welcome the £700million that the government has spent on ICT in schools. But the government should stop ramming ICT down teachers’ throats. The target-driven nature of the government’s education strategy – taken to extremes in relation to ICT – can only infuriate teachers further. When the National Curriculum stipulates that ICT must be used in all subjects for pupils aged seven onwards, this can only stifle the development of more creative uses for the new technologies (11).

ICT in schools is a good thing, but it’s not a panacea for the problems in education. Waxing lyrical about the ‘revolutionary’ potential of ICT could be counterproductive, by encouraging teacher cynicism and undermining teachers’ ability to make the most of the new technologies. And there are far more important educational priorities than making sure children can use a computer.

Helene Guldberg is a contributor to The Internet: Brave New World? (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002). Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

spiked-seminars: The lessons of ICT and education, by Toby Marshall and Chris Yapp

(1) Exploring opportunities through e-learning, 10 Downing Street website, 1 February 2002

(2) See ICTeachers – a revolution in schooling?, by Toby Marshall; and Computers and teachers: a lesson, by Joanna Williams

(3) See an executive summary of ‘Transforming the Way We Learn: a vision of the future of ICT in schools’ (.pdf version of the whole report)

(4) Thought and Language, Lev Vygotsky, MIT, 1986. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or
Amazon (USA)

(5) Theory of mind – whether an individual is capable of attributing mental status to others

(6) Ape, Primitive Man and Child, Lev Vygotsky, 1991, p140. Buy this from Amazon (USA)

(7) Children’s Minds, Margaret Donaldson, HarperCollins, 1978. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(8) Children’s Minds, Margaret Donaldson, HarperCollins, 1978, p95. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(9) Nihilism online?, by Sandy Starr

(10) See the MirandaNet Community

(11) Use of information and communication technology across the curriculum, National Curriculum online

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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