Children and Computers: a learning opportunity


Author: Abhay Bindumadhav Joshi

Date: 1 September 2008



  1. Mindstorms by Seymour Papert, Professor at MIT.
  2. Various articles on the Internet about Children and Computers.



People typically ask three questions regarding the association of schools and computers:

  1. Can we afford computers in schools?
  2. Should we use computers in schools?
  3. What is the best use of computers in schools?


With the easy availability of inexpensive personal computers, the economics implied in the first question no longer requires any discussion.


The widespread presence of technology in day-to-day life makes the second question a moot one. Purists who reject technology altogether are in minority.


The real question that begs an answer is the third one. If we assume that the goal is to benefit children and their education, there is indeed a lot of confusion about how to answer this question. A quick survey shows that computers are mostly being used in schools to create “computer literacy” – by providing facts about computers, and by teaching popular applications like word processors and spreadsheets.


The following essay creates the background for the discussion of an altogether new way of using computers in school education. The essay points out certain deficiencies in the traditional school system, especially pertaining to learning Math and Physics.


We will discuss the idea of using programming as “a medium for learning” in a follow-up article.

How do we learn?

Piagetian philosophy:

Jean Piaget was a Swiss educator who believed that children learn on their own, and are capable of building intellectual structures. We all know that children learn a lot from age 1 to 3, and it mostly happens independently of any “deliberate teaching”. Most adults would agree that what they retain as “intrinsic knowledge” is not what was forced on them in schools, but what they chose to appropriate.


How do children learn? They apparently utilize the cultural elements available to them as models for learning. Children who get early access to gears, mirrors, magnetic toys, or even molding clay, etc, which are capable of going beyond their basic “toy” purpose and becoming models for further thinking, are seen to develop better insights into Physics and Math.


Piaget also believed that children’s learning sometimes travels from ‘wrong’ theories to ‘correct’ ones. So adults must allow these ‘wrong’ theories, because they are an essential step towards the correct ones. For example, many children think that trees are responsible for winds. Their image of wind is associated with a moving object (like a hand fan) creating a breeze. Naturally they feel giant trees are capable of generating winds by moving their branches. Quite clearly, this “wrong” theory doesn’t block them from acquiring the correct one later on.

Cultural objects and computers:

As we saw above, for Piagetian learning to happen, the culture/environment must provide rich material for the children to draw from. Children need objects to identify with, which are also culturally well-accepted. These objects should allow intellectual model-building. The development or the lack of it in certain areas is attributable to this environment.


It is thus obvious that a computer-rich culture will have a massive impact on the way children will learn, no matter what educators do to prevent it. It thus makes sense to try to create a positive influence of this new culture in education rather than fearing it and trying to shun it. What critics fear as “the holding power” of computers can actually be harnessed as an “educational tool” that embeds ideas of Math, Physics, and other “fearsome” subjects. Instead of blaming video games for a child’s poor performance, ways need to be invented in which video games are harnessed to enable learning.


Computers have redefined many boundaries. For example, writing is a skill that was thought to be an adult skill. But with a word processor at his disposal, a child can write – which is essentially an act of first writing a draft and revising it a number of times until the writer’s thoughts appear in concrete form. With paper and pencil this luxury of revising was available only to the non-casual writer.

Worrisome Symptoms

Mathophobia – the fear of learning:

It is a widely accepted observation that people are afraid of subjects like Math, Physics, and Grammar. Mathophobia is a common problem in which people create an impression that Math is something to be afraid of. Most adults take a step away when there is discussion of Math or puzzles. In fact this fear extends to learning in general.


Children sense the dishonesty of adults around them who force them to do Math by giving them a variety of reasons (like its utility in business or to become a scientist) and who themselves spend little time on Math. This fundamentally proves to the children that school math is not meaningful, fun, or even very useful.


But in reality Mathematics and Physics (and grammar and so on) are vastly beautiful, intellectually satisfying, and even very useful topics. Unfortunately, a large number of children grow up without ever appreciating this fact, because they are rarely exposed to it.

Service-orientation, no originality:

As a nation, we are highly dependent on jobs: offered to us by our government or large corporations (often global). Entrepreneurial thinking – the desire and the ability to create products, or even bring about innovation in methods and tools to become competitive in their jobs, is missing in our college graduates.

Where is the problem?

The aptitudes theory:

There are theories that people have certain aptitudes. Some people have math aptitude, and others don’t. Some have language aptitude, and others don’t. This cultural dichotomy easily removes motivation to learn, and in fact creates an easy escape from having to learn.


For gifted people (who certainly show an in-born talent for certain activities), this theory may certainly be true. But for the rest of us, such aptitude theories are not exclusive, i.e., a child’s affinity for a particular area doesn’t mean he has no aptitude for other areas. So, it is very likely that we grow up to be “good” or “deficient” due to cultural biases and environmental factors. Kids who get an environment, in which people love math, puzzles, etc, usually grow up to like math.


But this exclusivity is commonly adopted while interpreting this theory of aptitudes, and it often leads to Mathophobia, described above.

Focus on facts and skills:

Schools are good at delivering knowledge in the form of facts (propositional) and skills (procedural). Schools find it convenient to focus primarily on these two, because: 1) they are easy to deliver, and 2) they are easy to ascertain (to measure).


The third aspect of knowledge involves understanding, or “getting to know”. It’s like getting to know a person, or a principle.


The fourth, and probably the most important, aspect is to learn “how to learn”. Given that learning doesn’t stop after schooling, and indeed it intensifies after schooling, means that the ability to learn is the best gift schools can give children.


But sadly, most schools do a poor job of delivering on the third and fourth aspects, due to two reasons: 1) They are buried under the pressure to cover the “syllabus”, 2) They have to evaluate students’ level of learning, and 3) They do not have the appropriate tools and models to achieve their goals (this point will be explained shortly).

Outdated educational curricula:

The first, practical – although primitive – solution has a tendency to take deep roots. This effect is called the QWERTY effect. The QWERTY phenomenon applies to school curricula. Stuff that was deemed useful in pre-computer days, and stuff that was possible to teach with pencil and paper (like graphs, analytic geometry) were put in. Also stuff that was easy to grade (right or wrong) was put in – this is the “facts” and “skills” type of learning.

Dissociated learning:

Learning that children cannot relate to their personal experience, or see a connection with any sensible purpose, or that they cannot appropriate as their own, is called dissociated learning. Most children find their school learning removed from their personal experiences, and even their sense of usefulness. So their strategy is to “learn” simply by turning the brains off and memorizing the stuff until exam time.


Dissociated learning happens for 1) truly irrelevant stuff (see QWERTY effect), and 2) stuff that children are unable to connect with due incorrect or inadequate models of learning.

Inappropriate objects as models for learning:

To turn “dissociated learning” into one that children can relate to and appropriate as their own, they need access to objects that allow model building. If learning to dance were done through paper and pencil, in which, children had to map dance steps by marking squares on a graph paper, their inclination to learn to dance is likely to suffer severely. Instead, a direct and early access to the dance floor itself will have quite a different result. Similarly, doing hundreds of additions and subtractions (and other mindless math activities) can easily lead to loss of interest in Math. They then choose to hide behind the theory of aptitudes.


Children need interesting and accessible objects which they can use as models to facilitate their learning. The fact is that, most schools rely primarily on paper and pencil as the models of intellectual model building, and either choose curricula that suit these models or fail miserably to convey any conceptual understanding and sense of ownership through these objects.


The Montessori system deals with this problem by offering a room full of interesting toys and objects that children are allowed to choose from and play with.

Characteristics of a Solution:

  1. The aptitudes theory really points to an underlying cultural issue, which can only be fixed by demonstrating that all children have the ability to learn and enjoy subjects like math, physics, and grammar.


  1. In addition to, or perhaps with less stress on, facts and skills, school education needs to be enabled to deliver on “understanding and appropriation of concepts” and “learning how to learn”.


  1. “Outdated educational curricula” is a problem that is possible to fix only at the Syllabus Committee level.


  1. The problem of dissociated learning needs to be solved by creating connection with a sensible purpose and their personal experiences. This can be achieved by providing appropriate objects as models for learning.


As will be shown in a separate follow-up article, our proposed solution (of using “programming” as a medium for learning) helps with #1 (interesting objects can set the “deficient” children on a path of learning), #2 (concepts and ability to learn), and #4 (with powerful and interesting objects).

Schools and computers – the traditional picture:

If we survey use of computers that benefits children, the following trends emerge:


  1. Computer literacy: this involves teaching children how .to operate the computer (using Windows), how to use the Internet (using the browser and Google), and how to format documents (using Word and Power Point).


This is a good way to get started with computers, but usually children can learn these things on their own.


  1. Vocational training: this involves teaching specific uses targeted at certain types of jobs such as, DTP, data entry, animation, or even programming (Java, C++, etc).


This approach is probably suitable for children after they reach high school age, but certainly not before that.


  1. Left to themselves, of course, children do other things: playing music and movies, playing video games, etc.


This exemplifies how the culture and environment do have impact on the way children learn. The impact of these activities on their learning is quite certain, but the quality of the impact is impossible to measure.


  1. E-learning: this is basically the teacher replaced by the computer to teach topics such as arithmetic, grammar, and so on. The scope is usually restricted to school curriculum.


The educational software presents facts and information, takes the child through paces, provides exercises of appropriate level of difficulty, and so on. The early versions of e-learning software force-fed the “school curricula” through enticing graphics. But recently, there are better ones that provide simulations and exploratory environments to induce deeper learning than possible in schools.