Children and Technology: A Rapidly Changing Relationship

As a child in school, the technology that was available to assist me in my learning included books, paper, pencils (and later, pens) and a slide-rule that I never really mastered that was intended to make complex mathematical computations easier. In my drafting classes, I had a set of tools that included a compass, protractor, curve and a couple of triangles. Those were all the tools there were.

In the couple of generations between then and now, the changes in technology available to children have been profound. Students now use complex electronic equipment from as early as the first grade. Calculators, various communication devices and computers have become ubiquitous in the elementary school educational process. Kids are able to do a lot of things they were not able to do at their ages in the past. It seems quite miraculous until one considers the possible trade-offs that are likely being inadvertently bargained out of existence in this technological boom.

What it Was:

Electronics did not enter into my learning experience because they had not been developed yet. The most sophisticated electronic device I knew of was a small AM portable radio. I had one of these as did most of my friends. It was entirely for recreation and had absolutely no application to learning or school.

Long division was an effort as were other seemingly complex mathematical operations. Working with fractions, factoring trinomials, computing geometric areas and volumes and memorizing “times” tables were all part and parcel of standard public school education. Modern devices of the time like slide-rules were worn on our belts and were used to do mathematical problems by those who learned to use them. To this day, I am quite sure that only advanced math students in high school or engineering students in college really ever knew how to use those things.

When we asked why we needed to learn geometry and algebra (for we saw no possible useful application for any of it) we were told that we were learning how to use our brains – how to think.

To this day, I often find myself taking for granted how frequently helpful my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of both geometry and algebra has been in my day-to-day life!

We wrote a lot in school and studied lists of words each night to build our vocabularies and improve our spelling skills. Most often, we wrote in pencil so that things could be easily erased and corrected. (We were not permitted to use a pen until the fifth grade.)

When it came to communication, we talked. Cans connected by a line of taught string made a ‘phone’ for kids to talk to each other from ten feet away and electronic communication consisted of rare access to the one heavy black telephone shared by the entire family in the hallway of our apartment.

When we needed to find out about something we did not know, we went to a set of books our mothers had purchased, one volume at a time, at the local supermarket. It was called an Encyclopedia.

Al Gore had not yet invented the internet.

Flash Forward to What it Is:

Portable AM radios? They have gone the way of the dinosaur. IPods and other digital music players have replaced them. The hand-held calculator replaced that old slide rule a long time ago and software programs are now used to create the drawings we once spend hours struggling to draw perfectly manually.

By the time many children are in the first grade (6 years old), their little fingers and eyes have adapted to computer keyboards. These can be used, of course, for either recreational or educational purposes but the skills developed by the one can be readily applied to the other. The differences are becoming increasingly had to distinguish.

The basic computer will do many things that a student once had to do ‘manually’ or by using their own minds. Checking spelling is one clear example. Why bother learning how to spell things correctly when our reliable friend Spell Check will find the errors and suggest needed corrections?

A friend who teaches the third grade in a local public school told me about a recent conversation with one of his students about math. The student had taken out a pocket calculator to use during a test. The teacher asked her to put it away. She said, “Why can’t I use it? I always have one with me and so do my parents. No one has to do math the way you want us to do it on paper.”

My friend was flummoxed for a moment as he realized that while the child was breaking the rule in class, she had a legitimate point. He considered standard arguments like, “What would you do if you needed to figure this out and did not have a calculator with you?” or “What if the battery was dead or the calculator was broken?”

When today’s children need to find out about something on their own, they do what most adults do. They open their internet browser, go to Google or another search engine, enter the thing they want to find out about and … BAM! There it is. No muss, no fuss, no paging through a 24 volume encyclopedia.

The old heavy black dial telephone is now in a museum. Children as young as 8 and 9 years old are carrying cell phones that parents often intend to be ‘just for emergencies.’ Kids learn how to text each other quickly and many do so often.

While not everyone believes that technology is a requirement of a good education, it has become more common than not in curricula at all levels.

A Mixed Blessing:

Today’s children have electronic tools available to them that were not there for earlier generations of students to use. In a way that flamboyantly displays the sheer adaptability of youngsters, they have become, as a generation, quite facile at using these devices.

On the plus side of the ledger, children have access to and are able to process more information. Their technical skills appear to we older people to be quite remarkable. No doubt, they will find many adaptive applications as these children grow up and move on through life.

On the other side, there may be some short-circuiting of their reasoning and problem-solving abilities as the technology identifies and solves many problems for them. Their own internal skill sets (spelling, doing complex calculations, knowing how to use reference materials, etc.) may be compromised. There is certainly a risk that the more comfortable children get with technology, the more likely they are to come to depend on it. This is, of course, not just true for children.


In most situations, parents and teachers still have the power to control what technology the children have access to and, to a lesser extent, how the children use it. There is some risk in giving a child a computer, for example, without providing teaching and guidance about how to use it correctly.

For a child to become ‘too’ dependent on devices that do the work for them is probably not a good idea. The human brain benefits from growing in ways that are not directly linked to the successful operation of an electronic device.

More technology does not guarantee a better or more useful education.

There has been and will always be an appropriate and necessary role for technology in the educational process but that role is best monitored and managed by the adults who are responsible for providing each child with the best possible education and the best possible life.

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