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Should Kids in Primary Grades Use Computers?

Does using computers in the primary grades stifle young children's natural inclination to experiment and explore and hamper the development of independent thought? Will hardware turn primary classrooms from environments that nuture young minds to labs that merely mesmerize them? Learn what our experts think! Included: An expert's response to the tech naysayers.

This month, we asked Education World Tech Team members to respond to a question: Do you think K-3 students should use computers in school?

We expected a vigorous debate. What we got was a resounding yes!


"Yes," said Lori Sanborn, technology specialist at Rancho Las Positas Elementary School, in Livermore, California. "K-3 students should be using computers. A computer is a tool-- just as a ruler, calculator, or pencil is-- and students need to learn to use today's tools. Time and money are precious commodities in education, and computers and software are costly. If used correctly, however, they can support and empower students, provide excitement in learning, enhance the desire to discover, and open the minds of our students to all kinds of possibilities."

"Yes," said Pamela Livingston, director of information technology at Chestnut Hill Academy, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "Computers offer K-3 students opportunities to go beyond the four walls of their classrooms in unique ways. They can take a virtual field trip to China, pose questions to their favorite authors and get instant responses, and exchange information with children at a tribal Indian school through videoconferencing, e-mail, and a video exchange. No one can afford to take all his or her students to Africa. But computers let them go there, learn about it, and experience it in a way no other medium can."

"Yes," said Beth Gregor, elementary technology coordinator at Pleasantdale Elementary School, a K-4 school in La Grange, Illinois. "Students of all ages need to be on the computer. It is a real-life skill that will carry them throughout their entire lives. The more familiar I can make computers for my kindergarteners, the easier time they will have using computers as they get older. Computers also allow special education students to shine. When the computer reads aloud or depicts graphically what a student needs to do, it allows those who are slow readers or have other reading issues to do the same things at the same time as other students. I believe all students can succeed on the computer."

"Yes," said Pat Bihon, enrichment/technology specialist at Lincoln Roosevelt School, in Succasunna, New Jersey. "K-3 students should be using computers in school because many of the students already have computers at home and they need to learn how to utilize the technology as a tool instead of a toy. Many children are very familiar with the games on a computer, but they're not aware that it can be used to help with their learning and schoolwork."

"Yes," said Katy Wonnacott, who teaches technology at Signal Hill School, in Belleville, Illinois. "Children learn in a variety of ways. Technology provides a variety of learning styles and input. It's another tool in a teacher's arsenal. The earlier a child has access to a computer, the better."

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"Yes," said Stew Pruslin, third-grade teacher and technology specialist at J. T. Hood School, in North Reading, Massachusetts. "The more familiar students get with computers, the better. Because more and more students are getting a lot of computer experience at home, perhaps less time needs to be spent in school just familiarizing them with computers, but they can develop word-processing and desktop publishing skills and gain experience with content software."

"Yes," said Libby Adams, computer resource teacher at Troost Academy, in Kansas City, Missouri. "Teaching in an urban school district like ours can be very challenging, and the use of computers levels the learning field for all students. Students gain confidence because they feel they are in charge of their learning when they work on their computers. We emphasize that they're not playing but 'working to learn to be smarter.' It's amazing that often students who act out most in the classroom become the most proficient in the computer lab."

"Yes," said Mary Kreul, who teaches second grade at Richards Elementary School, in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. "K-3 students can use technology very successfully if their teachers make appropriate choices as to how and when the technology is used. Teachers should ask themselves whether the technology is being used

  • to do a learning activity in a new and creative way or to do a learning activity that is possible only with the help of technology.
  • as a tool for learning and not as technology for technology's sake.
  • in a way that allows all students to complete the task successfully, independently, and in the time allotted.
  • in a way that accommodates students' varied developmental levels and needs.
  • for a task that is curriculum-based and meets educational standards.

If the answer to all those questions is yes, then technology is a good choice for the learning activity."


The Tech Team members who responded to our question are classroom veterans who have used, or witnessed the use of, computer technology in the primary grades. Why are they in such disagreement with recent books and articles warning teachers about the harm that can result from such use?

Tech team member Patrick Greene, a professor of education at Florida Gulf Coast University, shared his ideas with Education World.

"Contrary to the thoughts of Jane Healy in her book Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds, and of Cordes and Miller in their report Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and Childhood, the use of computers for K-3 kids does show up in a positive light in educational research," Greene said. "Both those publications explore an either-or scenario, which is a false choice.

"Healy thinks that budget dollars can be spent better on main educational goals," Greene continued. "This attitude seems to suggest that computers do not do a good job of addressing main educational goals. The realization one comes to is that Healy has discovered that many computers sit idle in classrooms or are used for activities that do not address main educational goals. This is a result of a lack of resources, both time and money, spent on training teachers to use the computers that are placed in their rooms. Therefore, a restatement of Healy's contentions might be 'If you don't train the teachers, the expensive machinery won't get used to good effect.' Well, duh!"

The Cordes and Miller report explores the haggard, unsupportive landscape of K-3 teachers who use technology. The idea presented is that in the process of using computers, teachers hold back the milk of human kindness from their charges, Greene added. "This promulgates the idea that computers are cold, dead machines and using them in school is a cold, dead, non-nurturing, and unsupportive practice. There is no evidence presented that using computers and nurturing are mutually exclusive practices. Perhaps nurturing was not evident in the classrooms examined but, of course, it doesn't have to be that way. It should be assumed that correct use of technology in K-3 education would boost the nurturing and supportive characteristics of K-3 education and not delete them.

"Like many naysayers, these authors are trying to promote their own ideas about K-3 education by denigrating the use of technology," Green contended. "In my view, the truth is a little more complex than that presented in these publications. Budget dollars could be used to great effect to achieve main educational goals if the technology budget, and the use of technology in the classroom, is integrated intelligently into K-3 classrooms. This necessitates a huge investment in money, time, and support to train teachers, something many school districts are failing at miserably. Nurturing and child-centered support could also be enhanced by intelligent application of classroom computers."

Tomorrow, in "21 Great Computer Resources for the Primary Grades," our Tech Team members share their recommendations for the best computer activities and programs to use with students in the early grades.

The Education World Tech Team includes 40 dedicated and knowledgeable educational-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. Stay tuned in the months ahead as members of the Tech Team share their thoughts on a wide variety of topics.

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Article by Linda Starr
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Links Updated 12/03/2004