At a recent conference, I met a woman who was ecstatic about the new Auburn, Maine program which is providing all Kindergartners with iPads. At first, I thought she was joking. While the goal sounds positive – to better teach these children so they will more easily and readily learn their letters in a district where approximately 40% of third graders have not achieved literacy standards – after watching some news reports and reading some articles about the program, I found myself quite troubled.
In a local TV news report, an official enthusiastic about the plan gushed, “Kindergartners who had struggled all year to learn their ABCs are now breezing through the alphabet.” Another said that it’s “absolutely something we must do.” Angus King, the former Maine governor who launched Maine’s laptop program, praised the idea recently in the Huffington Post, saying the idea of iPads in Kindergarten wowed him. “Anything that holds the attention of pupils will help in the learning process… If your students are engaged, you can teach them anything…. If they're bored and looking out the window, you can be Socrates and you're not going to teach them anything. These devices are engaging.” And although we all may be hopeful that new technologies can deliver solutions to current problems, is this widespread and unexamined faith truly warranted?
While I have admired Angus King, it’s disturbing to think that the answer to bored kindergartners is iPads. As I've written previously, it's a travesty that we ever bore our students. Bored five-year-olds should be an oxymoron. Such is the combination of the curiosity of kindergartners and a long-standing tradition of fun, vital, vibrant, and playful kindergarten classrooms, that one actually has to make an effort to bore them.
Many kindergartners are indeed struggling to learn their letters and read, but this is because many of them are not yet - developmently speaking - ready to read. There is much evidence that pushing them to read before they are ready is actually harmful, leads to lower achievement and later learning problems. While some children (and I was one of them) are ready to read in kindergarten, others (like my son and many of his friends from school) are not. Deciding to teach every kindergartner to learn the alphabet and read is setting many up for failure, boredom, diminished self-worth, attention difficulties, and rejection of schooling and perhaps even learning.
Instead of rushing to use technology with five-year-olds, we must first seek to understand why so many children are struggling to read at a standard proficiency by grade three. Is it a failure of technology, a failure of teaching and schools, a side effect of other variables (perhaps too many computer games and too much TV watching), a combination of these, or something else entirely?
For generations, we’ve learned to read without computers. Our literacy rates were quite high in the 1950s, when children didn’t learn to read until first grade and there were no iPads. To turn to new technologies to address a wider, systemic problem may be completely missing the mark.
Anyone paying attention to teenagers in the developed world these days knows that they are, by and large, addicted to their technologies. They are simultaneously on Facebook, texting, watching YouTube videos, listening to iPods, and doing their homework. They cannot seem to control their impulse to respond to every vibration, chirp, or ringtone on their smart phones, even for such modest periods of time as a 10-minute car ride. Many are so absorbed in their technologies that they struggle with interpersonal conversation, and will not even respond when greeted or prompted. Do we want to “addict” our children to such technologies at an even younger age?
There is no question that computers are a tremendous and powerful vehicle for learning, but I do not believe that kindergarten is the right time for their classroom use. Kindergarten should remain a time to cultivate children’s goodness, nurture their innate curiosity, and feed their passion for learning and creating. It’s a perfect time to sow the seeds of cooperation, encourage social participation and to discover the fundamentals of a good life: finding joy in learning; being part of a group while growing as an individual; being kind and generous; and exploring the outdoors through our senses by digging, climbing, tending gardens, building treehouses and huts, sledding down hills (and climbing back up), and just quietly observing the world around them.
One official in the news report mentioned above pointed to finger-painting as one of the computer apps available to the Auburn children. Isn’t finger-painting – one of those joyful, creative, tactical experiences of childhood – meant to be done with gooey, smooth, bright paints using all ten fingers on moistened, glistening paper? What on earth is the point of a finger-painting app for kindergartners?
The cost to provide the iPad 2 to 285 students and teachers has been estimated at $200,000. In the Bangor Daily News we learn that the iPads will be used for 30 minutes twice each week or about 40 hours for the school year. Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money for 40 hours on a iPad. Is this a good use of very limited school funds?
Auburn, Maine is just the beginning. Plans are afoot to provide iPads to kindergartners in a number of other states as well. We need a better plan for our children than this. With $200,000, the Auburn school district could have hired four new teachers, perhaps introducing humane education into the curriculum so that students could learn how to become solutionaries for a better world. That might make a real difference for our children and the world. And, while we're at it, maybe even a little finger paint.