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Advancements in technology are changing the world as we know it. But at what cost? Carys Jennings investigates…

Children are now bombarded from infancy with a diet of fast moving sounds and images produced by gadgets.

In restaurants, shopping centres, cafes and homes our youngest are being pacified with digital dummies – (a term coined by myself).

It is of great concern that perhaps the glorification of technology is overriding those early skills that lay the imperative foundations for future learning.

‘Technology enhanced learning’, ‘computer literate’ and ‘software savvy’ are common speak within the teaching profession.

Today’s children are labelled ‘digital natives’ having grown up with technological advances and know no different.

Given the time spent by our current generation engaging in screen activities, it does beg the question: “Is there a link between the apparent decline in literacy standards and the surge of computer use in classrooms and leisure pursuits?”

Education policies and curriculae highlight the importance of including technologies regularly within lessons. With this in mind, there is perhaps an overreliance on screen-based activities as opposed to the experiential and social tasks that secure the building blocks of early literacy and communication.

Ensuring quality language development during early childhood is essential; embedding the spoken word and a broad vocabulary creates neuronal pathways in the brain, forging new connections from the experiences an individual has participated in.

Oracy and socialisation develop through listening, mimicking, repetition and recall initially.

The exchange between adult and child through ‘intentional pedagogy’ (a term coined by Iram Siraj) extends the talk from description to sustained shared thinking, making the learning audible, about a topic, occurence or interesting object.

If children are constantly engaged in screen activities these interactions are few and far between; observing children during their play or exploration gives rise to any number of linguistic interactions and in turn, increases the child’s wellbeing.

Knowing when and how to join in is a skill unique to social encounters that cannot be replicated to the same extent by technology.

Mindfulness, a technique that encourages thinking and focussing at a deepened level, drifting from the concrete to abstract, is gaining creedence in academic and educational circles.

Lazar, Broderick and Metz and Hollenbeck among others highlight the potential benefits by using mindfulness as a learning tool – these include a heightened self-efficacy, increased personal and interpersonal skills and a better working memory and performance.

In a digitally charged world of fast moving, bright images children need a degree of calm and quiet, time to contemplate and reflect.

Classrooms are often overloaded with ‘visual noise’, stimulus that is meant to support their learning but in fact, often interferres with their thought processes.

Schonert-Reichl & Lowler (2010) investigated the possible effects of mindfulness on children’s wellbeing and social & emotional competence, whilst Houston, Turner and Page (2007) used Langer’s work of ‘mindful learning’ to research second language learning and instruction.

The studies found that social interaction was a crucial factor to the sucess of many aspects of development, one of those being language and communication.

Developing children’s language requires interaction, a to-ing and fro-ing of speech and creating environmets that support and stimulate communication in a developmentaly appropriate manner; employing methods to focus and deepen thoughts enabling children to embed their newfound skills or vocabulary – giving them meaning.

But literacy is more than words and learning the rules of language; socially accepted behaviour and articulation of feelings and thoughts develops from role models practicing their preachings.

Children develop sensitivities to the spoken word, appropriateness and processing by observing the cues and clues modelled by the ‘more able others’ or adults around them.

Computer screens can show clips of characters gesturing or reflecting various behaviours, however the subtleties of discussion are not present.

Often, the signals sent through expression and gesture, eye focus and intonation of voice all play a critical role in children’s understanding and language acquisition.

Non-verbal communication can heighten the experience beyond sound or the printed word to include emotive content.

Cognitive psychologists and theories of psycho linguistics highlight the complexities of learning to communicate and speak fluently; imitation (Pavlov), trial and error and recency (Thorndike), emergence (Chomsky) and Piaget’s cognitive theories have varying ideas as to how language is learned.

The truth being we are not certain, as the process is complex and we are only now begining to unlock and develop our understanding by means of PET or MRI brain imagery.

By reducing the use of screen-based activities and embracing a social interactional model as proposed by Vygotsky, Laevers and more recently Siraj, we are ensuring pupils have the best possible opportunity of developing their early reading and writing.

However, caution must be taken not to forge ahead to these aspects before the child is armed and ready with a sound basis of talk and communication; as failiure early on can have far-ranging implications for the individuals’ enjoyment of, and confidence in, literacy at a later stage.

Alexander (2006) advocates ‘classroom talk’, which includes discussion and dialogue, in the development of oracy.

Certain skills prevail that support children’s early reading when ready, namely, ‘tuning in’ to speech, discriminating between sounds and prediction.

Very few computer based actvities allow children to engage in talk and sophisticated discussion as they are sedentary and silent activities.

Technology can, and does support some forms of learning, and children should be exposed to advances – but at what cost?

They are ehancements not replacements, much research shows that nothing can replicate quality interaction of highly skilled practitioners and their impact on children’s standards, development and yearning to learn.

Poor oracy does have a direct effect on children’s ability to read and write, knowing this fact is surely a motivator to ensure that children are given ample opportunity to chat, talk, discuss, debate, question and describe as opposed to an overloaded digital diet of searching, dragging and dropping, activating, tagging and hyperlinking.

Let’s avoid the mute and press the reset button in order to ensure a balanced diet of digital and dialogue.

Five ways to avoid ‘square eyes syndrome’ – get creative!

  1. Avoid Googling, get thinking – encourage the children to use their imagination or share what they know in innovative ways eg. Produce a poster;
  2. Where is best? – avoid using the carpet area and IWB for the introduction/ plenary – go outside, in the hall, under a blanket…make it exciting!
  3. Is there a better way? – be intentional not lazy, use technology as an enhancement not the norm;
  4. Play music without animations and pictures – as a stimulus or thinking tool it focusses and calms or enthuses, depending on the style;
  5. We have five senses – try to find other stimuli to explore and investigate eg. What feeling is Christmas? (happy/ excited); What colour is Christmas? (red/ gold); What kind of lines represent Christmas? (wavy/ spiky); Create a paired painting representing Christmas.
  • Carys Jennings is an early years’ lecturer at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David.