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Failure to Connect

How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- and What We Can Do About It

About The Book

* When should children start using computers?
* How should schools incorporate computer use into their curriculum?
* Which types of computer software programs should be avoided?
* Are children who don't have computers in class and at home doomed to fall behind their peers?
Few parents and educators stop to consider that computers, used incorrectly, may do far more harm than good to a child's growing brain and social/emotional development. In this comprehensive and practical guide to kids and computers, Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., author of the groundbreaking bestseller Endangered Minds, examines the advantages and drawbacks of computer use for kids at home and school, exploring its effects on their health, mental development, and creativity.
In addition, this timely and ey-opening book presents:
* Concrete examples of how to develop a technology plan and use computers successfully with children of different age groups as supplements to classroom curricula, as research tools, or in family projects
* Resources for reliable reviews of child-oriented software
* Questions parents should ask when their children are using computers in school
* Advice on how to manage computer use at home


Chapter One: Blundering Into the Future: Hype and Hope

"Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living."

Nicholas Negroponte

"Computers? The more the better. I want my kids to be prepared for the real world out there."

Suburban father, Atlanta, Georgia

"Technology! I feel as if we're being swept down this enormous river -- we don't know where we're going, or why, but we're caught in the current. I think we should stop and take a look before it's too late."

Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Long Island, New York

Technology shapes the growing mind. The younger the mind, the more malleable it is. The younger the technology, the more unproven it is. We enthusiastically expose our youngsters to new digital teachers and playmates, but we also express concern about the development of their brains, bodies, and spirits. Shouldn't we consider carefully the potential -- and irrevocable -- effects of this new electronic interface with childhood?

Today's children are the subjects of a vast and optimistic experiment. It is well financed and enthusiastically supported by major corporations, the public at large, and government officials around the world. If it is successful, our youngsters' minds and lives will be enriched, society will benefit, and education will be permanently changed for the better. But there is no proof -- or even convincing evidence -- that it will work.

The experiment, of course, involves getting kids "on computers" at school and at home in hopes that technology will improve the quality of learning and prepare our young for the future. But will it? Are the new technologies a magic bullet aimed straight at success and power? Or are we simply grasping at a technocentric "quick fix" for a multitude of problems we have failed to address?

In preparing to write this book I spent hundreds of hours in classrooms, labs, and homes, watching kids using new technologies, picking the brains of leaders in the field, and researching both off- and on-line. As a longtime enthusiast for and user of educational computing, I found this journey sometimes shocking, often disheartening, and occasionally inspiring. While some very exciting and potentially valuable things are happening between children and computers, we are currently spending far too much money with too little thought. It is past time to pause, reflect, and ask some probing questions.

This book will present a firsthand survey of the educational computing scene, raising core issues that should be addressed before we commit to computer- assisted education. We will consider technology use in light of brain development, stages and styles of learning, emotional-social development, and successful educational practice in school and at home. We will examine questions such as:

  • When and how should children start using computers, and should they have them at home?
  • How can parents and teachers support children's learning with technology?
  • What kind of software applications and educational technology uses are best at different ages?
  • Which ones may be harmful, and why?
  • How do we balance education and entertainment?
  • How should we deal with health concerns related to computer use?
  • Will computers make human beings smarter -- or will they erode important forms of thought? How will interacting with artificial brains influence our ideas about what constitutes "intelligence"?
  • What effect will technologies have on children's creativity and their emotional, personal, and social development?
  • Will, or should, emerging technologies change our concept of education?
  • If schools are adopting computer technology, which priorities are most important?

And...the most important question of all: How can we best help the young prepare for a changing and unpredictable future?

Belief vs. Fact

"In sum, if computers make a difference, it has yet to show up in achievement."

Samuel G. Sava, Executive Director, National Association of Elementary School Principals, in a 1997 speech

"The research is set up in a way to find benefits that aren't really there. Most knowledgeable people agree that most of the research isn't valid....Essentially, it's just worthless."

Edward Miller, Former Editor, Harvard Education Letter

Exaggerated Hopes and Unmet Promises

Why do we so desperately need to believe in computers? After surveying current attitudes for the nonprofit organization Learning in the Real World, William Ruckeyser told me, "The nearest thing I can draw a parallel to is a theological discussion. There's so much an element of faith here that demanding evidence is almost a sign of heresy." Witness the federal government's initiative to wire all schools for telecommunications by the year 2000, under the simplistic assumption that connecting kids to "information" will somehow make them more able to read and use it intelligently. Meanwhile, library and sometimes even school budgets are cut across the nation.

Eighty percent of people who plan to buy a personal computer soon will cite children's education as the main reason. Ninety percent of voters in the United States are convinced that schools with computers can do a better job of education, and 61 percent would support a federal tax increase to speed the introduction of technology into the schools. In 1995 the American Association of School Administrators published the results of a survey that asked parents, teachers, leaders from various fields, and members of the general public what skills would be important for students graduating in the twenty-first century. "Computer skills and media technology" ranked third in a list of sixteen possibilities, outvoted only by "basic skills" (reading, writing, and math) and "good work habits." Computer skills were deemed more important than "values" (e.g., honesty, tolerance) by every group but the leaders. "Good citizenship" and "curiosity and love of learning" were considerably farther down the list, and such topics as "knowledge of history and geography" and "classic works (e.g., Shakespeare, Plato)" were near the bottom (highly valued by only 29 and 21 percent of business leaders, respectively).

An atmosphere of hysteria surrounds the rush to connect even preschoolers to electronic brains. Of the ten bestselling children's CD-ROM titles sold in 1996, four are marketed for children beginning at age three. Computer programs are advertised for children as young as eighteen months. In the United States, computer users under the age of six owned an average of six software titles in 1996, a number increasing every year. Parents and educators in Europe and Japan are astonished as well as amused by this push toward electronic precocity.

It is less amusing to realize that research to be cited throughout this book demonstrates how computer "learning" for young children is far less brain-building than even such simple activities as spontaneous play or playing board games with an adult or older child. "Connecting" alone has yet to demonstrate academic value, and some of the most popular "educational" software may even be damaging to creativity, attention, and motivation. In 1995, a seminar of knowledgeable academics concluded that computers have no place at all in the lives of young children. In 1997, Samuel Sava, head of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, told school leaders that computers have done little to improve student achievement and questioned the nation's spending up to $20 billion a year to fill schools with computers.

Even for older children and teens, research has yet to confirm substantial benefits from most computer-related learning products at school or at home. Analyzing home computer use, Julian Sefton-Green and David Buckingham from the University of London found "not much to be excited about." They learned that parents tended to greatly overestimate the power of computer hardware to help their youngsters' learning and "secure their educational future." A major problem was that few knew how to support their child's use of the technology and allowed children unlimited and unsupervised computer use. Most were not worried about kids having open access to the Internet. The one thing parents did fear was too much time with computer games; some of the youngsters had incorporated schemes by which they could quickly punch some keys to substitute a page of text when a parent walked through the room.

Although Sefton-Green and Buckingham began the study expecting to find highly imaginative and stimulating computer use, they discovered that youngsters used the computer mainly for solitary "messing around," with little creative or academic outcome. "The sheer availability of home computers did not itself make children use them for educational purposes," they conclude. Moreover, "It has been assumed that the computer will simply facilitate children's 'natural' imagination by somehow bypassing the need for them to develop technical skills....Yet if anything we have found the reverse to be true....Indeed, we suspect that the idea of a 'naturally' computer-literate child is more of a social construct than an empirical reality." These authors conclude that children and teens need close adult mentoring and well-defined educational projects to make their technology use constructive.

Needed: Accountability and Common Sense

In an era when mechanistic and scientific remedies are sought more often than humanistic or personal ones, such faith that technology can accomplish what mere mortals have failed to do is not surprising. Currently, school districts are lining up to spend scarce education dollars on equipment that stands a good chance of being outdated in two or three years. These funds, as well as the considerable space needed for the computers, are often drawn from more developmentally important areas such as physical education, art, music, drama, traditional library resources, and textbook purchases. Much of the glitzy new machinery is either misused or underused once it arrives at school; not only do machines sit idle because of lack of technical support or teacher preparation, but poor implementation of software turns learning time into trivial game-playing.

We lack both substantive research and guidelines on how to use new technology in the most constructive way for children -- or, in fact, for learners of any age. Pressing issues of developmental readiness for computer use have barely been explored. What is right for a fourteen-year-old may not be right -- and may be outright damaging -- for a four-year-old. Questions about emotional, social, personal, and health hazards have barely been asked, much less answered.

The few studies showing positive results for educational technology have been largely funded by computer corporations or conducted by educators who are (or would like to become) consultants for the technology business. Even glowing anecdotal reports from classrooms often turn out to have been written by "teacher-techies" who are bucking for jobs in the industry. In the next chapter we will review the major studies, but the fact is that we still await objective validation of benefits from educational computing.

Nevertheless, beyond naive excitement there are still exciting prospects. Not all learning is easily measured, and the majority of educational computer use to date has been poorly managed and badly executed. Throughout this book you will find both positive and negative examples. I believe success is possible, but it is not automatic, inexpensive, or attained without a great deal of thought and effort.

If you are a parent, a teacher, or a citizen interested in the upcoming generation, you need to consider these questions seriously. This technology is expensive not only in terms of money but also in the use of developmental time -- that precious interval when brain, body, and spirit are still at their most formative stages. We need a critical and objective analysis and clear, practical guidelines for classroom and home.

From Techno-Pusher to Critic: A Journey of Puzzlement

My own experience with educational computing is typical of those of many educators who have reluctantly moved from bedazzled advocacy to troubled skepticism. It is also instructive in several respects, not the least of which is shaking up some simplistic pedagogical assumptions.

Certainly, it has been a long and interesting odyssey since my initial honeymoon with machine intelligence back in 1979. Fired with enthusiasm from using computers in graduate work, I wangled funding to buy the first Apple computer for the elementary school of which I was then principal. For an educational psychologist eternally fascinated by questions about why and how children learn, the potential of this left-hemisphere extension (some might say contraction) of the human brain was irresistible. Soon a dedicated tenderfoot programmer in Applesoft Basic, I was even willing to forgive the machine's choleric disposition and struggled excitedly on while it superciliously spat out its favorite phrase: "syntax error." (Those were the days when a "user-friendly" machine would have been spurned by aspiring "digerati.") I was eager to observe firsthand the computer's potential with kids, so I selected a half-dozen of our best fourth-grade math students for an "enrichment" mini-course.

Since accessible educational software had yet to be invented, our project was to learn how to write a simple program. "Learn" is the operative word here, for teacher and students were about equally innocent. Nevertheless, to my great pride (which, as you know, always goes before a fall!) we finally managed after ten class sessions to make the computer display a simple multiplication problem and ask for a reply; the user would then type in an answer and receive either a congratulatory message ("Good job!") or a prompt ("Try again.").

I was ecstatic and, I'm afraid, a bit obnoxious in touting the potential of this amazing gadget. The students appeared to enjoy the exercise, or possibly they welcomed a change from their classroom routines, but I believed they were learning important skills of logic and sequencing ("if/then" statements, for example), if not a great deal of math. In fact, I immodestly concluded that this was probably close to a perfect lesson with teacher and students exploring and learning together -- while having a lot of fun. I was well on my way as a born-again techie.

Years later, with only some of my original enthusiasm dimmed, I returned to the same district as a visitor observing technology use and sat down in the high-school computer lab to do some word processing. By chance, the young lady at the machine next to me was one of those original fourth-graders, now a charming junior, who greeted me cheerfully.

"Well, Charmayne!" I beamed. "What an amazing coincidence! Here we are together in the computer lab, and I'm sure you remember that your very first computer experience was with me!"

Charmayne smiled, politely, but blankly. "I'm sorry, Dr. Healy, I don't remember that at all," she said.

One of my best lessons? As my pedagogical ego withered, she added, "But I do remember my fifth-grade computer teacher."

The death blow had been struck. What had this person done that I failed to do?

"His dandruff was so bad that every time he shook his head it fell all over the keyboard!"

Moral: Kids are always learning, but they're not always learning what we think they're learning -- even with the help of technology! It is all too easy to become so seduced by the glitz and novelty of this wondrous equipment that we make optimistic assumptions about what it is doing for their brains. Experience suggests we should temper our enchantment with a critical look at whether anything educational is really being accomplished.

Playing With Powerful Ideas

It wasn't long before I discovered Seymour Papert's seminal book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, first published in 1980. In it he describes his innovative programming language, LOGO, through which even five-year-olds might discover fundamental principles of mathematics while learning to write simple computer programs. A true advocate of "constructivism" in education, Papert holds that all learners absorb and remember best when they themselves "construct" or figure out the underlying principles of the lesson rather than having the teacher "spoon-feed" it to them. Needless to say, considerable disagreement surrounds this "learner- centered" approach to education, which stands in direct contrast to more traditional methods. In the next chapter we will return to this point, since "constructivism" has become a fulcrum of controversy in educational politics. For now, here's the basic principle of LOGO: The student develops his own learning by exploring and programming a computer. Also called "turtle geometry," LOGO invites the child/programmer to input commands to a small turtle icon on the screen, which then "walks" a certain number of steps either in a straight line or at an angle, drawing a line as it goes. For example, in programming the turtle to draw a square, the child will ultimately figure out that he must walk straight for a certain distance, turn 90 degrees, then repeat the action three more times. The programs have subsequently been updated and expanded, although research has never consistently substantiated the expected educational gains. (We will consider possible reasons as we view some current LOGO applications in Chapter 8.)

Back in the early 1980s, however, Mindstorms got me so excited about dynamic new electronic teaching that I began running around the country searching for schools to observe, wrote a grant request, and obtained funding to buy two more computers for our school (I think we may now have been up to Apple IIEs), to pay a part-time teacher willing to learn to be a computer consultant, and to purchase a floor "turtle" for the kindergarten. The latter, a space-age-looking object which only vaguely resembled any real-life amphibian, beeped, walked and turned on typed command from the child at the keyboard, theoretically making the experience more accessible for the young programmers.

The outcome? Although we tried to build into the study reliable pre- and post-tests of math and visual-spatial reasoning, we were not very confident of the tests, and we did not find any statistically significant improvements even at the end of three years -- results typifying the problems and outcomes associated with measuring intellectual gains from computer use. Nevertheless, I was convinced we were doing something good for children's minds, and especially for the girls, who may tend to avoid activities of this sort in favor of more pencil-and-paper work, to the probable detriment of their future mathematical reasoning. Plus, parents were ecstatic, believing their children now had a significant jump on others from more unenlightened schools that did not yet possess the new technology.

Now, however, I must ask myself: Did the outcomes justify the expense (very modest, in terms of today's equipment needs) in time and money? Was it necessary, or even wise, to start in kindergarten?

Important questions, indeed.

Last spring, on another return visit to this district, I found myself observing a lively class of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds writing programs for LegoLOGO, an advanced offshoot of Papert's system in which youngsters write computer programs to make Lego constructions such as trucks or other vehicles move around the floor. I approached a particularly competent-seeming pair of girls who were totally absorbed in the challenge of trying to get their robot car to turn at a certain angle, then back up and rotate sixty degrees.

"Yes!" shouted one, as success was achieved.

Glowing with a certain amount of inner pride, I assumed I was observing the expertise of two of the "graduates" of my kindergarten program, which had been continued and updated since I left the district.

"How long have you been in this school?" I asked the obvious leader of the team.

To my considerable chagrin she replied, "I just started this year."

"But you must have had a lot of computer experience in your last school," I ventured.

"Actually, no. We didn't have any computer."

"But you must have been really confused when you got here and everyone had been using them since kindergarten," I protested.

"Well," she hesitated. "It took me a couple of months, but then I really caught on -- and now it seems so easy."

Questioning Assumptions

Not long after that incident, I interviewed three professors whose courses include extensive use of computer technology at three different Ivy League schools. I asked each of them how important it was for students to come in with computer expertise, and what would happen to a student who had never used a computer before arriving at college. All agreed they primarily wanted students who could read, communicate, and think; computer use was far down the list of priorities. Moreover, here are the three estimates of how long it would take for a complete neophyte to get up to speed once on campus: (a) one month; (b) one semester; (c) one week (in a course required of all freshmen, regardless of past experience).

These experiences, and others, caused me to question many of my own assumptions. Just because children -- particularly young ones -- are performing tasks that look technologically sophisticated does not mean they are learning anything important. Moreover, the activity inevitably takes time and attention away from other types of learning. Today's software is far more powerful, far more compelling, and, as you will discover in later chapters, far more dangerous than anything we conceived of back in the early days. 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. By providing the proper kind of experience at different ages, we help shape not only the intelligence of brains, but also children's "habits of mind" for a lifetime. If we waste or subvert these developmental windows, the losses may be irrecoverable. I hope we will ultimately learn to harness electronic media to assist learning without compromising other important aspects of development. At present, however, we are still figuring out how to do this, and it is a mistake to make guinea pigs out of children who have better ways to spend their time.

Challenging Change

Rather than mindlessly accepting "change" as important and necessary for our children, we should begin by pausing and reflecting on the long-range personal and cultural implications of our new technologies. Neil Postman, who can always be counted on to raise probing questions about any form of mechanization, is profoundly skeptical of the American search for a "technological fix." He also objects to the overwhelming desire to fit our children for "success" in the marketplace. Schooling, he maintains, should not be so much about making a living as about making a life. His book Technopoly presents a strong case that change, per se, does not necessarily represent an advance.

"Stated in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relationships that make human life worth living." In addition to considering what technology can do, he suggests, we should also examine what it may undo."

At 10:30 one mellow Saturday night in October, 1996, I happened to be out walking on the upper east side of Manhattan. Few people were strolling at that hour, but I noticed one brightly lit store which contained a veritable bustle of activity. It was one of those all-hour work centers where computers, copying machines, FAX, and other timesaving appurtenances of modern office life are available for short-term use. There crowded at least two dozen sharp-looking twenty- or thirtysomethings, energetically going about their business as if it were 10:00 A.M. on a Monday morning.

As a parent and a grandparent, I find such experiences unsettling. Most of us love these electronic conveniences -- but at 10:30 on Saturday night? Is this what we now call living? Is this the purpose for which we are educating our children -- so they can work, work, work, until the work itself substitutes for life and becomes the central purpose of their days? Are we programming our children, and thereby turning them into analogues of the machines they so efficiently utilize?

Cello Lessons or Video Games?

Surveying expert opinion on the question of how computers will ultimately affect our children's lives yields a provocative range of ideas. Patricia Greenfield, a cultural psychologist at UCLA who specializes in analyzing tool use and art forms, points out that as a culture we increasingly esteem technological intelligence and devalue the social and emotional. Thus we expose our children to computer games, programmed learning software, and computer camps, all of which have children working with external symbols (pictures on a screen) rather than with internal ones (language, mental images). Although parents tend to be skeptical about video games, many overcome their concerns with the hope that their children are learning mental skills somehow valuable for the future. (Greenfield, in fact, terms these games the "training wheels for the computer age.") Many educators find this emphasis troubling. Linda Pogue, of York University in Toronto, observes, "This machine is so cognitive, we're forgetting the affective [emotional and social development]. I find children and university students too much in their heads -- they're not experiencing life, they're thinking about life."

Software magnate Bill Gates paints a much rosier picture: "I think this is a wonderful time to be alive. There have never been so many opportunities to do things that were impossible before. It's also the best time ever to start new companies, advance sciences such as medicine that improve quality of life, and stay in touch with friends and relatives." Gates adds, however, "It's important that both the good and bad points of the technological advances be discussed broadly so that society as a whole, rather than just technologists, can guide their direction."

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Playing the Future, represents a new cadre of thinkers who are pushing hard on old value systems. He sees traditional educational priorities based on linear thought (as in written text, planning ahead, writing or reading music, or cause-and-effect reasoning), dying off in favor of the holistic flow of living in the moment. He thinks today's youngsters, whom he terms "screenagers," represent an evolutionary leap in human consciousness because they aren't bound by old-fashioned ideas of order but rather thrive in the state of chaos found on the Internet.

Physicist Fritjof Capra disagrees. He sees the information technologies as totalitarian, demanding ever more of our time and priorities, distorting people's relationships to the world and to each other, and eliminating alternative views of reality. Capra, a committed skeptic regarding children's computer use, believes we are far too worried about our youngsters' store of information; we should be more concerned with the kind of thinking, caring, aesthetically sensitive humans they are becoming. "Increasingly, all forms of culture are being subordinated to technology, and technological innovation, rather than the increase in human well-being, has become synonymous with progress," he asserts.

"We need a large technical class that is well trained to do work that is mind-numbingly boring," stated Eric Roberts of Stanford University's computer science program in commenting on an escalating demand for computer science majors with programming skills. While many programmers disagree, Roberts's remarks should at least make us pause to consider the future prospects of children propelled into toddler-to-teen technology.

As I watch solitary youngsters sitting at home mesmerized by their latest video game or software, I am reminded of Bill McKibben's observations in The Age of Missing Information, as he laments our children's separation from nature and real-life lessons such as patience and limits learned from interacting with the physical world. The global consciousness of an information society, he worries, is separating us from local, regional, and personal consciousness in which our actions have direct and observable effects on other living things. McKibben contends there is as much important "information" and a great deal more depth inherent in studying natural phenomena in real (snail-paced!) time than in cruising nature videos. For a child, reflectively examining a leaf or a pebble would be far more valuable than any published CD-ROM.

Philosophical arguments aside, what we really need to think about is how to prepare our children for life in an information-loaded but depersonalized landscape. Is it by connecting them to computers, or by spending comparable time on giving them an early grounding in humanity? As one thoughtful scientist and father mused, "Should I spend the money on cello lessons or video games?" Not enough people are asking these questions. I keep recalling Thoreau's warning that if we aren't careful, we could all become "tools of our tools."

Technology and Power

Throughout history, new technologies have altered the existing social order, economy, and power structure. "Technology" is any tool or medium that helps people accomplish tasks or produce products more efficiently, and computers are only the latest in a long line of innovations -- going back to axes and fire -- that have changed the way humans interact with the world and each other. Computers, like all technologies that introduce new information or alter the format of information, are changing the balance of power in schools. Increasingly, the "techies," rather than the educators, hold the power to make educational decisions.

"When these computers first came out, they were simple enough that any of us could deal with them. Now hardware and software have gotten so complicated, as they've added all this new gadgetry -- most of which we don't even need -- you have to have an 'expert' just to keep it running. I'm really disillusioned. The whole field is being taken over by techno-nerds -- they know basically nothing about education but they're starting to run the show instead of the teachers," one teacher remarked bitterly.

"The whole movement has been driven by techies, the 'priests and priestesses,' from the beginning of mainframes, and now it's getting worse because everyone on campus is networked," agrees Al Rudnitsky, a technology enthusiast teaching a popular course on "Information, Technology, and Learning" at Smith College. "We can't manipulate our own equipment because we might mess up the whole system. Most troubling," he feels, "is that most teachers have no underlying conception of what they ought to be doing with these things. They are overwhelmed by their regular duties; they don't have enough time to prepare first-rate instructional programs for a whole new medium."

Educators are worried that education is becoming an adjunct to the technology business, a sort of training school for the high-tech world. We parents want to see our children succeed, but the foundations for true success -- even future technology "guru" status -- rest on skills that will not become obsolete with the changing of a microprocessor. Most successful technology innovators did not grow up with computers, but rather with rich, internal imaginations. Many were divergent thinkers who failed to flourish in the traditional world of school.

In ensuing chapters we will see how the adult-child balance of power may also change as a function of computerized learning. For now, let's introduce a final theme, which concerns the changes in mental skills that will inevitably accompany the increased use of so-called digital tools along with the erosion of abilities that could result from using too much of today's inferior software.

Changing Technology, Changing Brains

"Reading books is boring and it takes too long. Searching the Web is faster and more fun because we can get sound recordings, like of a dolphin's sounds, or a video of the discovery of the bow of the Titanic."

Eleven-year-old student, Glenview, Illinois

In addition to altering society, new technologies also have a disconcerting habit of changing the mental skills and even the brain organization of people using them. Historically, one of the most profound examples of this neurological reorganization accompanied the advent of language, which furthered the size and power of left-hemisphere systems for logical, analytical thought. More recently, scientists have observed that even differences between pictorial languages (one form of Japanese writing, for example) and alphabetic scripts of European languages cause physical alterations during brain development. Fast-paced, nonlinguistic, and visually distracting television may literally have changed children's minds, making sustained attention to verbal input, such as reading or listening, far less appealing than faster-paced visual stimuli. (This thesis is explored in depth in my book Endangered Minds.) One of my most pressing curiosities in writing this book has been how computer use will change the developing brain, and how we can maximize its positive effects without neglecting aptitudes we value, such as reading, reflection, original thought, or internally driven motivation and sustained analysis.


"It 's so cool to be an animator, and you can really mess with people's

David J. Masher, Animator for "Carmen Sandiego"

In almost every conversation I have with either parents or educators about technology, this phrase arises: "But it's only a tool." This dismissal is, of course, a comforting demystification. Tools are subordinate to humans, like crayons or hammers. Surely, nothing to worry about so far as our kids' minds are concerned.

I disagree. Whatever your attitude toward computer technology, neither this machine itself, nor the software it uses, is only a tool. First, studies demonstrate that people react to and treat computers, no matter what their software, as more "human" than machine. Second, the minute we add software, we are subject to the objectives, knowledge base, interests, and the biases -- recognized or not -- of the programmers.

Even utilitarian, tool-like software, such as word-processing programs and computer-aided design, imposes subtle attitudes. For example, students using word-processing software instead of pencil and paper tend to be motivated to write more but may regard the printout as finished before it is carefully edited because the first draft already looks so neat. Teachers are confronting the need to reevaluate their customary criteria in grading papers when masses of information can be downloaded, complete with graphics, spruced up with elaborate formats and typefaces, and presented as the result of "research." The very availability of spell-check programs and calculators calls into question how much time to spend teaching "basic skills" such as spelling and arithmetic, as well as how actually to go about it. (More about all this later.) Drawing or designing by computer likewise changes the task demands -- and the mental skills required -- from doing the same work by hand, and may even alter our definitions of creativity.

Many of us who have struggled with "upgraded" versions of a familiar software package may agree with Clifford Stoll, a disillusioned pioneer of the Internet, who comments, "The computer requires almost no physical interaction or dexterity, beyond the ability to type...and demands rote memorization of nonobvious rules. You subjugate your own thinking patterns to those of the computer. Using this 'tool' alters our thinking processes." Pointing out that the handwritten note is qualitatively different from an e-mail greeting, Stoll also worries that by learning to depend on a computer when confronted with a problem, we will limit our ability to recognize other solutions, and ultimately degrade our own thinking powers.

Others, of course, are convinced the computer enhances our mental powers by enabling us to farm out low-level skills and mechanical operations and focus on the "big picture" reasoning which only humans can (thus far) do. Computerized interventions have repeatedly shown their value in helping the learning disabled and physically handicapped bypass difficulties and exercise their true intelligence. Yet as computer power and our dependence on it expands, this "tool" may be sliding ever so quietly into the driver's seat.


Unfortunately, the state of most software "tools" for either entertainment or learning is disappointing at best and abysmal at worst. George Burns, director of computer use at the highly regarded Bank Street College of Education in New York City, is one of numerous thoughtful educators who believe that approximately 90 percent of current "educational" software is not worth buying. Currently, most is programmed by "techies" ("market droids" in the words of one Apple executive I spoke to) who have little if any knowledge -- or interest -- in child development or educational philosophy. Many are described in the trade as "classic computer nerds" who take their work very seriously but primarily enjoy seeing if they can make a program do something -- for the pure excitement of making it work. Thus much "educational" software is crowded with extraneous and time-consuming effects that accomplish little beyond distracting children and distancing them from real learning. Moreover, many programmers are more interested in technical than human interfaces and are forced by speed-of-light production scheduling to subvert personal and social concerns to almost inhuman working hours. "Speed is God. And time is the devil," one computer executive stated recently as he exhorted his employees toward ever higher-speed product development.

Are these the values we want influencing and teaching our children? More responsible companies are employing educational consultants, but as has happened in television, their counsel may not be heeded when "bottom-line" issues are at stake. The market moves quickly, and when it does, most software firms will worry less about educational goals than amusing special effects.

In the next chapter we will look closely at some examples and consider how software decisions both reflect and influence our ideas about how children should be taught. I hope we will put to rest the notion that a computer is only a tool.

The Plan of This Book

To probe the effects of any technology on young people's minds, we should first understand the fundamental processes of mental growth and brain maturation. I have approached the topics in the following pages from my perspective as a developmental and educational psychologist, presenting important background information about ages and stages of cognitive development and what adults can do to optimize their children's mental growth. Thus, this book incorporates a practical guide on how to help children develop their minds right alongside the when, where, how, and why of using -- or not using -- technology to assist in the process.

I must also mention that, although I have been invited by several software developers to consult on products, I have no business association with or particular allegiance to anyone in the computer industry.

The book is divided into three parts. In the next two chapters we will visit the current scene in schools, homes, and home schools, review the basics of educational computing, and offer guidelines for technology choices. Part Two will treat with personal issues in technology use: physical health, intellectual and brain development, and the social, emotional, and other personal aspects of children and teens using computers. Part Three describes practical applications that illustrate appropriate and inappropriate ways to use new learning technologies with different age groups. Finally, I will tackle some observations about the future, which will inevitably present our young people with challenges not yet envisioned. With thought, planning, and our own good sense, we should be able to develop young minds that are able to deal not only with these challenges, but also with anything else that the digital revolution has up its hard drive.

Copyright © 1998 by Jane M. Healy

About The Author

Brent Bingham/

Jane M. Healy, Ph.D. is a teacher and educational psychologist who has worked with young people of all ages, from pre-school to graduate school. She has been a classroom teacher, reading and learning specialist, school administrator, and clinician. She is currently a lecturer and consultant, and the author of three books about how children do (and don’t) learn, Your Child’s Growing Mind, Endangered Minds, and Failure to Connect. She and her work have been featured in national media such as CNN and NPR. She has twice been named “Educator of the Year” by Delta Kappa Gamma, the professional honor society of women educators.  Jane and her husband claim they have learned most of what they know from raising three sons and enjoying six grandchildren.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 15, 1999)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684855394

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Raves and Reviews

Dr. Dorothy Rich Founder and President, the Home and School Institute, and author of MegaSkills: Building Children's Achievement for the Information Age Jane Healy knows what she is talking about. I strongly urge all educators, as well as parents, to read this new book now...before it's too late.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention Failure to Connect sounds a wake-up call for teachers and parents who believe that computers alone will solve our educational problems. The bottom line: Adult attention rather than gigabytes is what makes children grow.

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