Five Year-olds Get iPads: Hurrah?

The image of kindergartners touching iPad screens for letters of the alphabet makes concrete the promise of five year-olds reading soon. Another technological miracle.

“It’s a revolution in education,” says Auburn, Maine superintendent Tom Morrill.  Auburn schools, he predicts, can reach its goal of 90 percent of third grade students meeting the state standard in reading by 2013–“and this is the tool to do it.”

Watch the five year-olds with iPads and listen to the superintendent and kindergarten teacher talk about the “phenomenal” device that is “truly redefining how we’re going to teach and learn.”

That a Maine district with 3600 students (less than 300 in kindergarten) could capture national attention (on April 22, searching Google registered 77,000 results) with the $200,000 purchase of iPads for kindergartners and teachers at a time of cutting school budgets suggests something beyond the deep faith Americans have in new technologies. It points clearly to a strong belief about what should happen in kindergartens.

Early childhood education has experienced value-driven ideological cycles in preschools, kindergarten, and primary grades since the late-19th century alternating between programs that are child-centered (i.e., play,exploration, discovery) and academic learning (i.e., basic reading and math skills). Even though in 2011 there are many child-centered (and hybrid) kindergartens and preschools that include age-appropriate academic knowledge and skills, in the past three decades, kindergartens and preschools including Head Start (established in the mid-1960s) have shifted toward academic boot camps for the primary grades. How come?

Since the 1980s, federal and state reformers adopted a business-inspired reform model pressing for academic rigor in schooling. States overhauled their high school graduation requirements, raised curriculum standards, expanded testing, published school-by-school scores,  established accountability rules, and expanded parental choice to steer schools toward producing graduates matched to a labor market anchored in a knowledge-based economy. With No Child Left behind (2002) standards, testing, and accountability went on steroids.

Since NCLB, The sole focus on academically preparing high school students for college and the labor market has filtered down into middle schools (got to take Algebra!) and elementary grades with increased homework and testing. And, finally, slammed into kindergarten and preschool. Now kindergartners have homework. Five year-olds are tested for recognition of letters, colors, and counting numbers. Just as high school is now supposed to prepare graduates for college, preschools and kindergartens are supposed to prepare children for the rigors of reading, math, science, and testing in elementary school.  That is the academic press that has trickled down to preschoolers and helps to explain the embrace by Auburn (MA) superintendent and school board of iPads in kindergarten.

Many early childhood educators, researchers, and parents criticize this emphasis on academics for young children as both unwise and harmful. Deep concern over the amount of time young children spend watching and interacting with TV, computer, and cell phone screens (see jgcc_alwaysconnected)  rather than interacting with parents, siblings, and peers adults.  Child-centered educational organizations (The anti-technology Alliance for Childhood and National Association for the Education of Young Children with moderate positions on technology–see PSDAP-2) are critical of the academic press in preschools. They want children to experience real life, not a virtual one.

In contemporary child-centered schools free play, exploration, and teacher-directed activities combine in  learning about the seasons, national holidays, daily events–all with attention toward developing personal responsibility and work habits in preparation for elementary school. Phonics, numbers, colors, and other academic skills are integrated into these activities.  Telling stories, show-and-tell, free play, dancing, singing, drawing, group conversation, using concrete materials, choosing what activity to do–all activities enhance the social and emotional development of the whole child.

Yet there is also evidence that much math and reading can be learned by both preschoolers and kindergartners through direct instruction and new technologies. See  here, Preschool_Math_in_TCM,  and here.

In coming to understand how and why academics are currently dominant in public school early childhood programs, the swings of the ideological cycle between child-centered and academic content point to the perennial value-based question: what should young children do and learn in preschool and kindergarten. Which is why iPads for five year-olds in Auburn, Maine provoked a storm of attention and, again, uncorked ideological divisions among adherents of child-centered and academic content inkindergartens. In such instances, facts help not a bit in finding an answer.

Except for the central importance of the teacher. None of the cycling back and forth over the past century between child-centered and academic orientations (including hybrids) erases one fact: well-prepared teachers knowledgeable about child development and skilled in engaging young children in interactive activities have in the past and continue today to blend exploration, discovery, self-regulation, and learning basic skills into a seamless, worthwhile experience for young children.

10 Comments

Filed under technology use

10 responses to “Five Year-olds Get iPads: Hurrah?

  1. Bob Calder

    One of the remarks I saw on Finnish schools said they don’t start school until age 7. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, what we have is something different from what we think we have.

    • larrycuban

      A nice point, Bob. I did look up when Finnish kids begin school and it is at age 7 (see: http://www.nfer.ac.uk/nfer/index.cfm?9B1C0068-C29E-AD4D-0AEC-8B4F43F54A28). Simply having that fact got me thinking. Thanks.

    • Pete

      The starting age is deceptive because some societies do better at homeschooling their children outside of and before formal education starts. It’s not difficult to replicate what goes on in kindergarten academically. That is, I taught my child to read by myself. Before formal reading started he already had the basic phonetic awareness and knew quite a few site words. Is this happening in Finland? Probably. The Finnish government provides quite a bit of family support and even gives families children’s books.

  2. Auburn’s town council just intructed the school committee to cut $2.5 million from the school budget. iPads are likely to go.

    • larrycuban

      Jussayinme,
      Thanks for the update. Here’s my prediction. The superintendent (who I read is about to retire) will find money to keep iPads for next year–after that, I don’t know. Why do I make the prediction? Were the school board and superintendent to cut the devices in the face of Council demands, they would be humiliated after gigantic state and national media coverage. Chances are they knew that Council would demand cuts and the money will be found in the budget or will be supplemented by private funds. Let me know what happens.

  3. Pete

    I am deeply concerned that folks are uncritically accepting ipads without looking at alternative tablets nor focusing on the quality of the apps that may be used. I am not impressed with the ipad apps out there now but I am hopeful that goods ones will eventually be developed. For now the ipad is not a good tool for schools to use, as it has too many bugs to be worked out. Hopefully someone will create a tablet catered to the elementary school environment and corresponding apps to go along with them. WE ARE NOT THERE YET so don’t waste your money on these Apple products.

  4. An update on this process in Auburn. Last night the school committee listened “for nearly two hours (as) person after person condemned the decision” to give iPads to kindergarteners. In addition, on the Auburn (Maine) Citizens for a Responsible Education Facebook page, the vote was 329 in favor of iPads and 6,722 opposed. It looks to me as if, given sufficient information and time to process it, local folks will see the wisdom or lack thereof of different proposals that are made by administrators trying to make self-important noise.

    • larrycuban

      Those are interesting numbers, Jussayinme. Let’s see what the school committee does, given the comments at the meeting.

  5. Pingback: Edutainment Ratios & Device Wars « The Fargo XO / Sugar Project

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