childhood learning



To what extent should children’s education reflect the changing environment that surrounds them? It seems an obvious question, right? A quick read through the relevant Wikipedia page shows that real education is an ongoing learning process favoring the development of consciousness, reasoning, and intelligence, and once suitably equipped, we all do the best we can with our lives (which obviously means living a cultured life).

Why do we educate our children in the first place? Basically, so that they are able to live life to the fullest within our society. Therefore, shouldn’t the way we educate them reflect the changes in society? I believe so, and that the biggest mistake a parent can make is to educate their children in a bubble.

Yesterday, I had to give a talk on technology and education, and in an effort to structure my thoughts, drew up the following points about how technology should fit into our children’s education.

Technology will continue to play an ever-bigger role in our everyday lives, and it makes no sense to try to resist this trend, which is also reflected in education. You might as well pull your children out of school if you’re not going to embrace the role that technology is going to play in their development.

There is no “right” age to introduce children to technology. It should be a natural process, the result of progressive contact with the reality of the environment they are growing up in. When should a child have access to a smartphone? As soon as he or she stops trying to put it in their mouths. All use of technology is positive.

The idea that children born into the digital age are somehow better prepared to deal with technology is a fallacy. There is no such thing as a digital native. If children are introduced to technology from an early age they are more likely to be able to incorporate it into their daily lives. Children do not inherently know more about technology than their parents.

The common sense required to use technology comes with experience, which means that parents have a huge head start over their children. The idea that children are somehow digital natives and that parents are clueless and should therefore play no role in helping teach their offspring about technology is highly irresponsible, and simply creates digital orphans.

Children who are not taught about how to use technology will simply use it for keeping in touch with their friends or listening to music. This emphasizes that it is important to arouse children’s curiosity, to teach them to work things out; all of which requires an active parental role. The “noble savage” idea that we learn things on our own is mistaken and irresponsible.

Parents need to be stimulating their children about the use of technology. Computers and smartphones are not baby sitters or digital comforters: parents need to know what their children are looking at online, in the same way as they show an interest in their school studies, or what they get up to with their friends, and provide the guidance required for each environment.

Parental filters are a bad idea. They simply create a false sense of security. On the one hand, parents tend to think they have done their “bit” and no longer supervise internet use. At the same time, children who have been “protected” in this way are likely to feel greater curiosity about what is out there, but who will have not been prepared in any way for what they find.

As we know from our own experience, we tend to be attracted to anything our parents tell us is forbidden. Obviously, not all content on the internet is appropriate for young children, and access should be controlled. But trying to do so through filters will not work: it makes more sense for parents to play an active role in supervising what their children see online. We have hopefully moved on from the days we told children that they were found under a gooseberry bush or brought by stork from Paris.

The important thing about technology is not so much how we use it, but whether we understand it. Using a computer or an app is easy: in fact it has never been easier to use technology, but that doesn’t mean we have to know how a computer works. It’s the same with physics: we can understand that an object falls to the ground when we drop it, understanding why is a different matter. Technology and computer sciences are now at the same level as physics, biology, and mathematics.

We don’t teach children physics so they can become physicists, but so that they can understand that they live in a world governed by the rules of physics. I the same way, we should teach computer sciences to children because they are going to be surrounded by programmable objects all their lives. Technology cannot be an extracurricular activity. Sending your kids to schools that focus on developing these skills reflects how seriously you take this question.

Education has changed enormously: memory-based learning has gradually given way to teaching methods that teach children to source information and assess it themselves, to contrast what they read with other views, and to work with other children and to be more interactive with their environment. If your children’s school doesn’t take this approach, then you may have sent them to the wrong place.

Using games is one of the best ways to teach your children about technology, in the same way that other educational toys, such as Meccano, Lego, or puzzles can be. Playing with your children to illuminate LEDs, to make a robot or program it will not only strengthen family ties but help them develop the skills they will need in life. These are not activities that can be left to the responsibility of our children’s schoolteachers.

Supervision is essential: in the same way that children shouldn’t be allowed to play all day, they need to learn that they have to turn their computers or smartphones off at a certain time, and that they have to actually talk to other family members. Children certainly shouldn’t be permitted to use their smartphones at the dinner table, for example; while the idea that they are going to be traumatized if we ask them to disconnect during certain periods is obviously utter nonsense.

Remember: children learn from what they see their parents doing. Technology is enormously stimulating and provides instant gratification, meaning that it needs to be supervised, just like any other. There are any number of games that can help develop certain skills, but that doesn’t mean that children should be playing them for hours at a time. Common sense is the order of the day.

The world is constantly evolving. Parents need to adapt their children’s supervision to changes in the way society uses technology. It’s not enough to buy a couple of games and to leave them to sort things out themselves. Bringing up a child is a long process and requires a huge amount of input from parents over many years.

There are risks everywhere, including online, but we shouldn’t think that we can somehow “protect” our children by isolating them. No, Wikipedia is not filled with mistakes and lies, there isn’t a hacker round every corder, and the internet is not making us stupid. Don’t worry; it’s all going to be okay.

If you deliberately decide to exclude yourself from technological progress you will be depriving your children of the opportunities that our increasingly technological future can offer. Our children’s education begins with our own. We cannot say “oh, my kids know more than I do,” however proud you might be of their technological prowess.

Their brains are still not fully formed and they will find it easier to absorb new information, but common sense and experience should give you the edge, assuming you haven’t decided to renounce all responsibility. Some skills, such as managing information, filters, and access to sources, along with verification and searching are essential to your children’s future.

If you believe that something is true because you saw it on the internet, or you’re content with the first Google result you find, then you’re still not ready to transmit the fundamental values your children are going to need in life. You need to get on the program. Now.