Reading, Writing, and Good Digital Citizenship: A Future Tense Event Highlights the Promise of Tech in Elementary Education

A group of children play on an interactive computer screen.


Kids love video games. And iPads. And even Twitter. But what can they learn from high-tech tools—and, perhaps more importantly, can the ways they use technology give us insight as to how they learn?

Those were the guiding questions at “Getting Schooled by a Third-Grader,” a Future Tense event on technology in early education held this afternoon at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. During the introduction, New America Foundation fellow Lisa Guernsey, author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Child, noted that we frequently think of educational technology as the realm of middle or high school. But research currently suggests that children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years spend an average of 120 minutes a day with screens. Meanwhile, teachers—and companies producing educational software and games—are increasingly bringing technology into the classroom to appeal to kids who enter kindergarten already familiar with iPads, smartphones, and Microsoft Kinect.

Guernsey was joined by the Joel Levin, a private school teacher from New York City who is creating educational versions of the blockbuster game Minecraft; Alice Wilder, co-creator and head of research and education for Super Why! on PBS; and Annie Murphy Paul, another New America fellow and author of Origins and the forthcoming Brilliant. Scott Traylor, founder of 360Kid, joined us via a prerecorded Skype interview.

It’s easy to think of educational technology as just another route to the status quo: drilling facts into kids. However, the experts at “Getting Schooled by a Third Grader” said that when it’s done right, educational technology is a different beast altogether. By the end of elementary school, according to Guernsey, many kids are “deadened” by education and have lost their intrinsic love of learning. Engaging technology may help inoculate kids against this troubling outcome. None of our speakers believe that computers alone can—let alone should—impart knowledge. Teachers must be there as guides. But they are all excited by its potential.

In many classrooms, for instance, teachers are using the game Minecraft, in which players “mine” materials from their environment and then “craft” objects. It can be a natural complement for some subjects. For instance, a child learning about Ancient Greece can construct his own Acropolis. But Joel Levin values the game for other reasons. Chief among them: It encourages a great deal of creativity and activates the same part of the imagination as Legos. Furthermore, kids can play together in a social experience, serving as a practice field for online interaction. Being taught the difference between positive and negative interactions can help students learn about “digital citizenship,” he said. For instance, when one kid knocks down something another built, the entire class can have a discussion about how virtual actions can hurt real feelings—laying groundwork for avoiding cyberbullying situations down the road. Minecraft can also serve as a pretext for discussing issues of privacy—what sorts of information they should share online and what they shouldn’t.

In his Skype interview, Traylor praised the way virtual worlds and video games encourage kids to engage in lots of reading and writing—for fun, no less. But while almost any video game can teach a child something, he warned, they are “not all created equal.” Some game developers are much more informed about learning than others. Wilder echoed this perspective, too. In her work with the popular kids’ shows Blues’ Clues and Super Why!, she said, she works with kids and with education experts to figure out the best approaches. Involving children in every step of the testing process is vital. But sometimes, video game developers with good intentions base their decisions solely on their experiences with their own kids, without taking pedagogical research into account.

And when it comes to teaching, said Annie Murphy Paul, technology has helped upend some long-held truisms. For instance: Educators have believed for some time that kids want learning to be easy. However, we know from watching how they engage with technology that they actually prefer to experience a certain amount of difficulty. Video games and software can customize the challenges to an individual student, hitting that sweet spot between too easy and too hard, “right at the edge of their abilities.” Another advantage to using games for learning is that they provide instant feedback and set clear goals for users.

Anyone who has played a video game knows that traps can lurk behind any graphic, and that’s true in the ed-tech space as well. Paul cautioned against “chocolate-covered broccoli”: boring education wrapped up in technology. And Traylor and Paul both expressed reservations about the use of gamification and badges that turn learning into a sort of competition. We want kids to be excited about learning for its—and their—own sake.

Even with all this enthusiasm about games and virtual worlds, though, books still have a place in the classroom. In a video produced by Hear Me, an organization that encourages the grown-up world to listen to youth voices, one child said, “I think reading books is better because sometimes … picturing it in your mind is more fun.”

Watch the entire 90-minute event on the New America website. Also on Slate:

An ‘Educational’ Video Game Has Taken Over My House: Minecraft inspires creativity and problem-solving. But my daughters are obsessed,” by Lisa Guernsey.

Can Video Games Unite Generations in Learning? What makers of technology for early education can learn from Sesame Street,” by Alan Gershenfeld and Michael Levine.

Kindergarten in the Computer: ‘Online education’ for elementary schoolers doesn’t mean kids will sit alone in front of the screen all day,” by Katherine Mangu-Ward

In this video from Hear Me, kids share their thoughts on technology:

Finally, a montage shows all the ways kids interact with their screens: