Early Childhood Education

Curriculum, Technology


People talk of a “technology curriculum” for young children in at least three ways. First, some refer to instruction in “design technology”—an approach involving teaching children as young as kindergartners about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concepts as they design and build things. A second interpretation is that of a technology-enhanced curriculum in any subject matter area or combination of areas. A third interpretation refers to a set of ideas or materials for instruction about electronic or other technologies, such as teaching children about digital photography, video, or computers. The three meanings vary in their educational goals and approaches, with each making contributions to early childhood education.

“Design technology” can refer to a broad range of curricula that vary from arts and crafts to industrial design. Within the field of early childhood education, design technology describes an interdisciplinary educational approach in which young children engage in design as a process of solving problems. Children’s projects provide initial experiences with science and engineering ideas and devices such as wheels, axles, levers pulleys, gears, and forms of energy to create motion. Similarly, children learn ideas and skills from mathematics, literature, and social studies, as well as process skills such as collaboration, trial and error, and evaluation. Youngest children work on the simplest design skills, understanding different media and applying beginning mechanical ideas. For example, kinder-gartners may be challenged to design and create a bed for a teddy bear or doll.

Design technology is based on the assumptions that such experiences integrate different subject areas, problem solving and higher-order thinking processes; show the application of science and mathematics; teach teamwork; provide an intuitive basis for higher-level mathematics, science, and engineering concepts; and provide a valuable alternative instructional route, especially for children who do not respond well to traditional approaches to academics. As further examples, kindergartners may observe the shape of a cereal box when flattened out and then use what they have learned to design boxes to hold other objects. Not all kindergarten designs have to be “working” models. Some are verbal or pictorial representations of how it “could work.” Primary-grade children might explore and design mechanical “function machines,” which embody simple multiplication and algebraic relationships—for example, a simple system of gears in which one gear turns around two times each time another gear is turned once. Enhancement of creativity is a main advantage of this approach. Other important specific goals including providing girls with the kind of “tinkering” that enhances spatial, geometric, and mechanical abilities missing in many girls’ school and home environments.

The other two interpretations emphasize computer-based technologies. Of course, as the description of design technologies should make clear, technologies have developed for thousands of years. Before computers there were technologies of brushes, paints, pencils, and paper, and before this, children interacted with, and represented, their natural world in different ways. Educators must recognize that every technology may contribute to or attenuate children’s development depending on its affordances and applications. We argue that there is little foundation for an a priori decision to expose children only to the technologies of any single era. Similarly, design of materials for early education has hundreds of years of history, but computer-based technologies, emerging in the 1980s, focused the field of instructional design, developed in the 1950s, on extensive curriculum development.

Turning, then, to the second interpretation, technology-enhanced curricula exist in many forms for most subject matter areas. They include technology supplements and complete curriculum including software, print material, and manipulatives. Research literature on these curricula is surprisingly extensive (see Clements and Sarama, 2003). In brief, many technology-enhanced curricula use computers to help children learn to read or write; to acquire knowledge and insight into science, mathematics, and other areas through design; and to support children’s expression and development of creativity. They have to be used appropriately to realize the achievements, of course, an ecological issue to which we will return.

Computer-enhanced curricula can also have a positive effect on language development and literacy. For example, computer use can facilitate increases in social interaction and use of language, from preschool through the primary grades. Children who use prereading and reading software about ten minutes per day show increases in verbal and language skills, word recognition, phonological awareness, phonics skills, and reading achievement. When used well, computer-based writing also can be successfully integrated into a process-oriented writing program as early as first grade. Even younger students can use computers to explore written language. Computers can facilitate the development of a new view of writing and a new social organization (cooperative learning) that supports young children’s writing. In general, children using word processors write more, have fewer fine motor control problems, worry less about making mistakes, and make fewer mechanical errors. Combined with telecommunications, technology also can connect classrooms from across the world together in cooperative writing groups (Clements and Sarama, 2003). As with literacy skills, children can use computer-enhanced curricula to learn mathematics (see Curriculum, Mathematics). Computer technology can provide practice-oriented arithmetic processes and foster problem solving and deeper conceptual thinking, including a valuable type of “cognitive play”—playing with mathematics. Children as young as preschool age can learn such skills as sorting and counting. Curricula that use software games and computer manipulatives also extend children’s mathematical explorations and learning. They can allow children to save and retrieve work, and thus work on projects over a long period. They might offer a more flexible and manageable manipulative. Moreover, they can connect concrete and symbolic representations, such as showing base-ten blocks dynamically linked to numerals. Computers can record and replay children’s actions, encouraging children’s reflection. In a similar vein, computers can help bring geometry to explicit awareness by asking children to consciously choose what mathematical operations (turn, flip, scale) to apply.

Technology-enhanced curricula can make a special contribution to early intervention programs and classrooms designed for children with special needs. Whether providing instruction or adaptive devices, technology offers critical benefits to children with disabilities. Software may have unique advantages including being patient and non-judgmental, providing undivided attention, proceeding at the child’s pace, providing targeted, individualized instruction, and providing immediate reinforcement. These advantages lead to significant improvements for children with special needs. Augmentative adaptive devices can facilitate communication, movement, and control of the environment. Computer technology can also help teachers work with and track children’s progress on IEPs. Children in comprehensive, technology-enhanced programs make progress in all developmental areas, including social-emotional, fine motor, gross motor, communication, cognition, and self-help skills (Hasselbring, 2000 #1955; Hutinger, 2000 #1945; Tinker, 2001 #2195; see http://www.med.unc.edu/ahs/clds/index.html for additional resources).

Several innovative technology-enhanced curricula have demonstrated positive effects in large-scale studies involving diverse populations of children engaging in early literacy, reading, and mathematics curricula (see Interagency Education Research Initiative [IERI]). Studies investigating the potential impact of the computer on the social ecology of the classroom indicate that computers enhance, rather than inhibit, existing patterns of positive social participation and interaction. Wise use of computers provides a learning environment that promotes high levels of motivation, discipline, independence, and perseverance. Computers may represent an environment in which both cognitive and social interactions simultaneously are encouraged, each to the benefit of the other. This is if they are well used; if they underused or used without knowledge and skill, they will not have such benefits (Cuban, 2001 #2085).

The third and final interpretation of a “technology curriculum” is instruction about electronic technologies. Since their birth in the early 1980s, such “technology literacy” curricula teach about the parts of various technologies, from computers to digital cameras; the functions and affordances of these technologies; and their social uses and abuses. Children are interested in such questions, and developing such knowledge is a useful goal. However, few present curricula deal solely with these issues. Instead, they are addressed in context of using technologies to support learning.

Thus, all three interpretations can be valuable. Technology-enhanced curricula are the most important, with wide-ranging potential. Technology literacy programs can be integrated into other curricula in a small but important way. An important exception is that focused media literacy education for parents and children can result in young children becoming less vulnerable to the negative aspects of all media and able to make wise choices. Finally, design technologies can make a contribution, as a single, but useful, pedagogical approach to STEM education.

An ecological framework implies that there are many influences on the effects of technology curricula. These may be part of the curriculum, such as features of software, or external to it, such as consideration of child-teacher and child- child interactions. Further, the child’s home and cultural environment affect the technologies that are available and how they are used (New, 1999). For example, there remains a “digital divide” in which children from lower-resource communities have less access to computers and the Internet than those from higher-income communities (e.g., Haugland, 1994).

Research suggests that the strongest ecological influence is the teacher. Teachers require substantial professional development to use technology-enhanced curricula well. Some research indicates a harmful effect on children’s technological competencies when their teachers have no, or less than ten hours of, professional development, while a positive effect has been found when teachers have more than ten hours. Therefore, single, simple workshops are not recommended.

Research on technology curricula has many implications for the content of professional development (Wang and Ching, 2003). For example, left to their own devices, young children may adopt desirable or undesirable patterns of interaction. Without teacher direction or formal instruction, five- to seven-year-old boys may adopt a turn-taking, competitive approach similar to that used with videogames. With initial guidance, however, young children can learn to collaborate and work independently. Other ecological factors, such as the ratio of computers to children, may also influence social behaviors. With a 22:1 ratio of children to computers, aggressive behavior occurs. In contrast, with a ratio of 12:1 or less, there is substantially less negative behavior. Thus, a 10:1 or better ratio should encourage computer use, cooperation, and equal access to girls and boys.

Equally important is the computer software used. This most directly affects child achievement gains. Educators should insist on complete research evaluations of any media (see Haugland and Wright, 1997, and journals such as Children’s Technology Review, http://www.childrenssoftware.com/). In addition, the type of computer software influences the types of cooperative interactions in which children engage. Children working in open-ended environments like Logo computer programming are more likely to engage in self-directed work and resolve conflicts successfully. In contrast, those working mainly with drill-and-practice software may give only limited verbal explanations for their work. Those working in cooperative computer-assisted instruction environments display more teaching interactions.

In summary, technology curricula include quite distinct approaches and materials. Each can play a role in providing high-quality early education. Whether creating things to meet a design need or using technology-based curricula, research is available to help educators made informed decisions to enhance the learning of young children about and through technology. See also Augmentative and Alternative Communication; Development, Language; Disabilities, Young Children with.

Further Readings: Clements, D., and J. Sarama (2002). Teaching with computers in early childhood education: Strategies and professional development. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 23, 215-226; Clements, D. H., and J. Sarama (2003). Strip mining for gold: Research and policy in educational technology—A response to “Fool’s Gold,” Educational Technology Review 11, pp. 7-69; Haugland, S. W. (1994). Computer accessibility: Who’s using the computer in early childhood classrooms. Computers and young children. Day Care and Early Education 22(2), 45-46; Haugland, S. W., and J. L. Wright (1997). Young children and technology: A world of discovery. Boston: Allyn and Bacon; New, R. (1999). Playing fair and square: Issues in equity in early childhood mathematics, science, and technology. In George D. Nelson, ed. Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, pp. 138-156; Reiser, R. A. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: Part II: A history of instructional design ETR&D 49(2), 57-67; Yelland, N. J. (1998). Making sense of gender issues in mathematics and technology. In N. J. Yelland, ed. Gender in early childhood. London: Routledge, pp. 249-273; Wang, X. C., and C. C. Ching (2003). Social construction of computer experience in a first-grade classroom: Social processes and mediating artifacts. Early Education and Development 14(3), 335-361; Wright, J. L., and D. D. Shade, eds. Young children: Active learners in a technological age. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, pp. 77-91.

Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama