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When is Technology Developmentally Appropriate for Young Children? – Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I shared two ideas that are critical to evaluating whether learning technologies are valuable for young children. First, it’s necessary to clearly define the student learning goals, such as exploration. Second, it’s important to ensure children are presented with problems that are worth solving and that require meaningful and critical thinking on the part of the child. Given the importance of student engagement with meaningful problems and scenarios, parents and teachers need to carefully consider the quality of the problems being presented to young children in software and apps. Not all problems require meaningful thinking from students; and without meaningful thinking, young children won’t be learning from the technology.

Understand that All Problems are Not Created Equal

In effective early childhood classrooms, students engage with and use manipulatives and other tools to explore, play, and solve specific problems. The standards of effectiveness for technology use with young children are no different. Technology is valuable and appropriate if students engage with the digital tools to investigate, play and accomplish developmentally appropriate tasks and solve specific problems.

Some apps and games simply present questions to be answered or facts to be remembered—these are essentially simple memory games that test rote memorization. More interactive programs have problems that require sense-making or critical thinking to be solved, and these help deepen the understanding of a subject. Just as parents would not be satisfied with a preschool teacher who exclusively used flash cards, parents should also recognize when an early childhood app is only focused on knowledge, and not deeper understanding.

Because there are so many software programs and apps to choose from, as parents and teachers, we now have to become far more discerning about the nature of the problems that students are being asked to solve. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all of the choices, and think, “Well, it’s math software, so I’m sure it’s fine. After all, how different can math programs be?” While in fact, they can be very different.

There is a wide range of software programs to choose from, many of which are “edutainment” titles that are usually less “education” and more “entertainment.” I personally use one quick, simple test for initially judging how truly educational any app is: If you can take the majority of the questions asked in the program and replace them with questions about states and their capitals, then it’s more entertainment than education.

For example, if a math app has mostly questions that are flash card facts such as “5 + 7 = ?,” then that question could easily be replaced with, “What’s the capital of California?” It’s important to know your facts, but such questions focus on specific knowledge, rather than understanding how addition works, and why. These questions don’t allow young children to make sense of numbers and explore relationships to develop true fluency and number sense with larger numbers. Even though students may enjoy the game, they aren’t becoming better thinkers or problem solvers. In a worst-case scenario, young children could come to believe that math is just a bunch of flash card facts to remember.  Mathematics is far more than that.

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