Monday, June 29, 2009

Developmentally appropriate

The term "developmentally appropriate technology" refers to the notion that children develop, with different physical and intellectual needs and abilities at different ages. Children are not mini-me's, with the same cognitive faculties as an adult minus experience, facts, memories, etc. Their bodies are going through specific changes, and so are their brains -- they see and experience the world in different ways, and have different learning needs. So everything education-related, including technology, needs to be geared to -- appropriate to -- the child's age. The idea of "developmentally appropriate technology" is related to other "developmentally appropriate practices" in education.

I think one of the most important criticisms of technology in the classroom is that, in many cases, the technology that students are expected to work with is just not appropriate for their level of physical and cognitive development. Some criticisms of educational technology, like poor software, physical dangers, online dangers, and poor integration/application can be addressed through better modeling, scaffolding, monitoring, etc. The criticism that the cost/benefit ratio of new technology doesn't justify the education establishment's infatuation with it is another big criticism, and worth a separate posting. But the idea that a computer in the hands of a, say, 6-year-old is a bad idea, because a 6-year-old not only does not have the cognitive capacity to get the most out of the machine, but that it might actually hurt the child's development is a substantial criticism.

This is a theme in the technology critiques referenced in previous posts. For example, Fool's Gold argues that the "sheer power" of computers "seems more likely to repress the development of important intellectual capacities than to enhance it." (p. 33) Jane Healy writes in Failure to Connect that "computer use, being primarily a two-dimensional symbolic activity, may simply not be developmentally appropriate before the age of seven or eight."(p. 135) The brain-science logic behind this argument, according to Healy, is that the brain "undergoes certain 'critical' or 'sensitive periods in both childhood and adolescence when learning environments exert special kinds of effects and when certain types of activities and stimulation are most appropriate and necessary to maximize mental potential... If we waste or subvert these developmental windows, the losses may be irrecoverable." (p. 27) Important and necessary opportunities for imaginative play, concrete learning, physical activity, and social and emotional interaction with children and adults will be missed while the child is busy at the keyboard. There would seem to be a steep opportunity cost paid by thrusting computers onto students too early, or in the wrong way. (For a quick summary and great pullquotes of Healy's book, see this book review of Failure to Connect).

(Aside: The Waldorf approach to education, which informs Fool's Gold, Tech Tonic, and Oppenheimer, generally frowns on the heavy use of computers before high school. By high school age, teens are cognitively ready for the heavy amount of abstract reasoning, and will quickly pick up the basic computing skills they need for post-high school. The above-reference books agree that computer use in high schools is appropriate, as long as the technology curriculum includes an exploration of how computers work (along the lines of a shop class) and technology's role in society, in addition to learning computer operation and maintenance. Setzer and Monke (2001), also building on Waldorf ideas, in their article An Alternative View on Why, When and How Computers Should Be Used in Education are at the extreme end of the spectrum of technology use in schools, arguing that "they should not be used by children in any form before approximately age 15." Setzer and Monke lay out an ideal technology curriculum, which is of interest.)

But between the primary years (say, up to seven years old / 2nd grade) and high school (say, starting at age 14), that is, from Grades 3 through 8, there is a broad period of growth and transition in the child, with changing cognitive abilities and readiness for new types of learning.

I have not been able to find a technology curriculum that explicitly references a model of child development. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) provides examples of its National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS) for students that are tiered in grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8) in its 2007 Profiles for Technology Literate Students. For ISTE, a kindergartner might "identify, research, and collect data on an environmental issue using digital resources and propose a developmentally appropriate solution." Such an example recognizes that the kindergartner is a mini-me, constrained only by his or her knowledge. For ISTE, "developmentally appropriate" means -- well the way they use it I don't know -- a solution that kindergartners could implement? That uses vocabulary a kindergartner understands? But it does not suggest that a kindergartner sees the world in different ways than older students, that he or she needs to strengthen certain faculties through tactile engagement and physical activity and active, imaginative play that older students maybe no longer need, or need as much.

Anyway, this is my quest now -- to find a technology curriculum that includes a "developmentally appropriate" dimension that is based on a model of child development that recognizes distinctive stages of development and matches technology use to those stages.

To be continued...


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