Look what they've done to my brain, ma

Very young children who use computers are being exposed to a kind of training that may change the way their brains work and impair their ability to learn.
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My first taste of children's multimedia software came five years ago at a friend's lunch party. Eager to show off their new PC and collection of educational CD-roms, their two young daughters clicked their way expertly around the software. We were captivated, laughing and gasping as the screen sprang to life with text, sound, animation, even video. It seemed almost magical, and the fact that it was educational was the icing on the cake. Within four months we'd invested in a PC and software of our own.

Ours is not an uncommon response, according to Jane Healy, a US teacher and educational psychologist who has spent hundreds of hours in classrooms and homes watching children using computers. Parents and teachers are often beguiled by the heady mix of fun-packed, fast-paced graphics, and the tantalising promise that it will help children to learn.

But Healy, a long-time enthusiast of educational computing, is now one of its most vehement critics, voicing her concerns in her ground-breaking book, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds for Better and Worse.

"There's no question that one's initial reaction to much children's software is bedazzlement," she says. "It takes a while to realise that the remarkable tricks are mostly being played by the computer, not by the child. Just because children - particularly young ones - are performing tasks that look technologically sophisticated does not mean they are learning anything important. Moreover the activity takes time and attention away from other types of learning."

Does this mean we have all been duped? Is the thousands I've spent on equipping my kids with computers simply a waste of money?

Basically, yes, it seems. "There is an unreasonable and unfounded fascination and belief in this technology's educational power at home and school, yet US research overwhelmingly says that we have wasted a great deal of money on computers," says Healy. "We have rushed into this too quickly, and we have believed too strongly in what the industry has told us."

In a country which, like the UK, has come to regard IT as one of the sacred cows of education, this is virtually heresy. Both here and across the Atlantic, government and schools have spent millions equipping schools with the latest technology in the belief that it will help children learn. This is tragic, says Healy; schools are spending scarce resources on computer equipment that will be outdated in two or three years' time.

"They're siphoning funds from much-needed programmes for teacher training, remedial classes, and early years teaching, which have all been proven effective. Yet the majority of educational computer use to date has been poorly managed and badly executed."

Strong words, but why is Healy now so sceptical? The bedrock of her argument is that educational software simply doesn't do what it says it will do - educate. Although in the US, for example, 80 per cent of people buying a home computer cite children's education as the main reason, computer "learning" for children is far less brain-building than simple activities such as spontaneous play and board games, she says.

Much "educational" software is crowded with extraneous and time-consuming effects that accomplish little beyond distracting children and distancing them from real learning, she asserts, most of which could be accomplished as well or better using ordinary tools such as pen and paper.

According to the UK research she cites, parents tend greatly to overestimate the power of computers to help their children, with most allowing unlimited and unsupervised access even though children tend to use the computer mainly for messing around, with little creative or academic outcome.

More worryingly, much "educational" software stimulates poor habits of mind, encouraging children to click impulsively or use trial-and-error to guess answers, and offering too many easy rewards. And those under seven are more vulnerable than most, Healy argues; with computer software now aimed at those as young as nine months, we're exposing tiny children to activities that are at best worthless, at worst potentially damaging.

"If computer time subtracts from talking, socialising, playing, imagining, or learning to focus the mind internally, the lost ground may be hard or impossible to regain," she says. "As we increasingly expose our children to the seductions and potential benefits of artificial worlds, we should keep in mind the brain's fundamental need to grow and integrate itself through active, meaningful involvement." There has been very little research into the effects of computers on small children's minds; we're exposing them to a form of brain-training that we don't yet understand.

Even more sinister, perhaps, this brain-training may not only distract from important developmental tasks, but also change the way children's minds work and learn. The low-level thinking skills that are employed by much software, coupled with distracting graphics and special effects, may foster stimulus-bound behaviour, which can result in over-reliance on television and computer games at the expense of the imagination. This in turn may lead to problems of poor motivation and concentration, even symptoms of learning disability.

It's not surprising, says Healy, that so many parents and teachers are now complaining about children's short attention span.

"Encouraging children to `learn' by flitting about in a colourful multimedia world is a recipe for a disorganised and undisciplined mind. Today's students are increasingly difficult to teach. Their learning habits have been shaped by fast-paced media that reduce attention, listening and problem-solving skills as they habituate the brain to rapid-fire visual input."

I try to console myself with the thought that my children clearly love the computer. Surely, if nothing else, it's motivational?

Healy believes just the opposite. "Just because children like something does not mean it is either good for them or educational. Working hard, surmounting challenges, and ultimately succeeding is what builds real motivation. Any gadget that turns this exciting and difficult process into an easy game is dishonest, and cheats the child out of the joy of personal mastery."

I'm interested to see how all this goes down in the UK, currently in the full throes of the Government's National Grid for Learning initiative to update technology in schools. Rather surprisingly, Neil McLean, director for schools at Becta (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency), which has the responsibility of ensuring that technology supports the Department for Education and Employment's drive to raise educational standards, agrees with many of Healy's misgivings.

"People have almost thought of computers as a mystical thing, that you can just stick kids in front of them and they will learn, but a lot of educational software is trivial, and not really designed with educational criteria in mind. If you put children on it you are wasting their time - they are better off playing outside."

But he believes it is not the computers that are at fault. "It's what you do with them. There is some really good software that stimulates your imagination, rather than keeping you trapped to the keyboard clicking away like a moron." It all comes down to adult input and meaningful activities, he says: "After all, kids can use paints and crayons for worthless activities such as colouring in, but you don't ban them. It's all about guiding and structuring the learning."

Jacquie Disney, director of PIN, a support group for parents giving advice on children's learning and computers, is equally sceptical of the value of much software. "We've all been seduced by the allure of IT," she says.

"The enormous levels of marketing give the impression that software teaches, but very few pieces of software teach anything. Many parents have been duped into thinking that by buying a computer for their child they will improve their performance and future employability, but children pick up computer skills very quickly, and using educational software at home makes minimal difference."

Like Healy, Disney thinks it is really important that computer use is limited and doesn't distract children from doing other things. They should still be playing outside, going to the library, reading, asking questions. "It's the same old story," she points out, "about keeping a balance."

But it's not all bad news. As Disney points out, computers can assist learning in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Word-processing, for instance, encourages children to experiment with words, to express themselves, to refine, edit and correct their work.

"It is an enormously powerful tool if you know how to use it, but many parents and teachers don't understand that to get the most from any piece of software they have to have an input. It's a bit like having a car if you don't know how to drive."

And, for all her misgivings, Healy herself has not lost all her original enthusiasm. "I am still extremely excited about what computers will be able to do for us, but you must have an adult structuring and interpreting the results. We mustn't throw the baby out with the bath water - it would be tragic if people became disillusioned because computers don't immediately live up to their first promise, because we're just now beginning to see some applications that can really do things better, and in different ways."

`Failure to Connect' by Jane M Healy will be available from Simon & Schuster from 20 June, price pounds 16.99

You can contact PIN on 0891 633644


Jane Healy's advice on how to pick good educational software for your children

Determine what you want to accomplish, considering your child's age

Try to preview the program. Don't believe the claims on the package

Choose software with varying degrees of difficulty

Ask yourself what kind of graphics and sound material you want influencing your child's taste and aesthetic sensibilities

Consider whether the content is simply a thin veneer of information pasted over a shoot-'em-up or icon-clicking game

Check whether it encourages original thinking - or leaves anything to the child's imagination

See if both male and female characters are portrayed as problem-solvers

Investigate whether there are support materials and non-computer activities to provide meaning and follow-up

Ask whether it is trying to sell your child something