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PCs May Be Teaching Kids the Wrong Lessons

April 24, 1995

Sarah Kahn sees it as the battle of the screens.

In the family room of her New Canaan, Conn., home, three of her children flit from the television set to the Game Boy to the PC and back again. ``I say, `Turn that TV off.′ They go right to the next screen,″ says Dr. Kahn, a gastroenterologist. ``The PC has the same pull as the TV.″

Many parents think it’s great when their kids flip on the computer, figuring that computers are educational and, at the least, less passive than television. But here’s the bad news: Most educational software isn’t, alas, all that educational, and it can have many of the same ill effects as the boob tube.

Certainly PCs have great potential for promoting learning and creativity. Kids with short attention spans or those in need of remedial help can benefit from the lively graphics, sound and novelty of drill programs. Even if a program isn’t perfect, when children and parents play it together the kids get some benefit. And, after all, learning how to use a computer is good preparation for the future.

But PCs can also promote passivity, dull creativity and limit socialization in children, taking away from more important kinds of play, educational experts say. In some circles, fears are growing that a new generation bred in the ``pop″ PC world will suffer the same effects as the so-called TV generation, with some kids emerging unable to reason well or communicate effectively.

``PCs, for the most part, are a debased form of play. It isn’t the kind of imaginative play that young kids will indulge in if allowed to use their own resources,″ says Marie Winn, who in 1977 wrote ``The Plug-In Drug,″ a book on the impact of television on children.

Some education experts say they believe fully 75 percent of the hundreds of software titles aimed at children don’t teach much at all. Kids aren’t ``learning″ as much as drilling by pointing and clicking. The ideas come from the software rather than the children, who respond by rote rather than by using their own thought processes.

Part of the problem is that even noncomputerized drill work is sharply at odds with ``whole language,″ a popular educational approach that teaches children academic skills through an integrated curriculum.

But even some kids are critical. Eleven-year-old Jessica Djilani fooled around with drill programs at home in Scarsdale, N.Y., but found herself ``just sitting there like a vegetable. It’s like watching TV. You feel disgusting,″ she says.

Pat Aufderheide, associate professor of communications at American University, limits TV time for her six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter and is astonished by how ``engaged and interested″ they are in computer games. After her son told her, ``This is almost like TV,″ she realized how addicted he had become and began limiting his PC time, too.

Software makers call their wares ``drill for skill,″ but some doubters prefer ``drill and kill″ because so many of the titles adopt shoot-’em-up game techniques. This simplistic approach requires little direct help from mom and dad.

But that’s the point, critics say. ``Publishers want something that’s easy to run, will catch the child’s fancy and doesn’t require parental assistance _ because that’s what will sell,″ says June Wright, a professor of early childhood education at Eastern Connecticut State University. Adds Joseph Parness, a developer of multimedia titles for Jostens Learning Co., ``The majority of `educational’ titles continue to prove to be nothing more than whimsical `edutainment’ products that have evolved into the fast foods of learning.″

Reader Rabbit, an enormously popular series, is a frequent target of critics. Published by Learning Co., it has sold more than two million copies since it was first released in 1984, and last year it led the half-billion-dollar-a-year education market. In one of the programs, Reader Rabbit’s Interactive Reading Journey, a cartoon hare guides preschoolers and older kids through a series of games, sounding out words and hopping through books as children point and click.

All this looks educational, and many children love it. So do parents. Cheryl Truett of Canton, Ohio, says her six-year-old daughter, Shannon, a kindergartner, spends hours on Reader Rabbit and has taught herself to read. Mrs. Truett also finds the PC’s electronic baby-sitting role convenient. It gives her time to do housework when Shannon is home in the mornings.

But a recent study of 49 children in Missouri found that those who used Reader Rabbit and similar drill programs for six months at their preschool had a 50 percent drop in creativity, as measured by a standardized test, with no statistically significant gains in learning how to read.

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