Harmful to Children?
The Alliance for Childhood Report

Brian Harvey
Computer Science Division
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 9420-1776 USA


The idea of educational computing is under attack. One notable example is the Alliance for Childhood, which issued a sweeping but carefully researched condemnation a year ago. They cite physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and moral hazards. Is Logo an exception? In some ways it is, but in other ways Logo is subject to the same criticisms as any other use of computers in schools.

Keywords: hazards of educational computing, Alliance for Childhood

1. Introduction

In the early days of Logo research, the idea that kids in school could have regular access to powerful computers was visionary; today it's commonplace. During the past 20 years we've fought intellectual battles with many competing approaches to educational computing. Perhaps the earliest of these battles was against the drill-and-practice approach; other early battles were against other programming languages (BASIC, Pascal). Later battles were about the nature of Logo itself: Is the power of a full programming language important, or is turtle geometry all that matters?

As technology has improved, some of these old battles have changed their character. The simple-minded arithmetic drill programs of the 1980s have evolved into ``intelligent tutoring'' systems that can analyse a learner's specific mistakes to develop a cognitive model of that particular student's misunderstanding, or can provide ``scaffolding'' that supports a learner's efforts with hints that start out doing most of the work but gradually fade away as the learner masters the desired skills. At root these programs are still ``the computer programming the child,'' but the arguments are no longer so one-sided.

Still, all of these debates start from the assumption that educational computing, in some form, is good for children. This assumption has rarely been challenged in any intellectually compelling way, but recently such challenges have begun. I'll discuss one particular example: In August, 2000, a group called the Alliance for Childhood issued a ``Call for Action'' proposing a moratorium on new computer purchases by schools, accompanied by a 100-page scholarly report: Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. Here are their recommendations:

  • A refocusing in education, at home and school, on the essentials of a healthy childhood: strong bonds with caring adults; time for spontaneous, creative play; a curriculum rich in music and the other arts; reading books aloud; storytelling and poetry; rhythm and movement; cooking, building things, and other handcrafts; and gardening and other hands-on experiences of nature and the physical world.

  • A broad public dialogue on how emphasizing computers is affecting the real needs of children, especially children in low-income families.

  • A comprehensive report by the U.S. Surgeon General on the full extent of physical, emotional, and other developmental hazards computers pose to children.

  • Full disclosure by information-technology companies about the physical hazards to children of using their products.

  • A halt to the commercial hyping of harmful or useless technology for children.

  • A new emphasis on ethics, responsibility, and critical thinking in teaching older students about the personal and social effects of technology.

  • An immediate moratorium on the further introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education, except for special cases of students with disabilities. Such a time-out is necessary to create the climate for the above recommendations to take place.
  • Logo activists are unlikely to embrace this report completely, but it should not be dismissed as simplistic; there may be important lessons for us in it. My purpose is to raise questions for discussion, not to answer them.

    2. What's Wrong with Computers?

    The report describes many hazards of computer use by young children, organized in four categories.

    Physical hazards include wrist and neck injury, eyestrain, obesity (to the extent that computer use replaces physical activity in a child's lifestyle), and the possibility of toxic emissions and radiation. (The report presents evidence that these risks may be greater for young children than for older computer users.) These concerns apply to Logo as much as they do to any other form of educational computing, but the very widespread use of computer games is arguably a greater danger than classroom computing. Computer games may replace physical activity; classroom computing typically replaces other non-ergonomic classroom practices. Still, concern about these hazards might call into question the vision of the computer-intensive school in which every subject is studied online, with a computer for every child. (The report specifically mentions laptops as an ergonomic problem, because when using a laptop either the screen is too low or the keyboard is too high.)

    Emotional and social hazards include social isolation, weakened bonds with teachers, lack of self-discipline and self-motivation, emotional detachment from community, and commercial exploitation. In this area, it seems to me that Logo does have something to say. The Alliance is envisioning a style of work in which each child sits in front of a computer, in isolation from classmates, searching the Web for someone else's answer to the teacher's question. That's not a Logo classroom! Our students collaborate on creative projects. On the other hand, in The Connected Family Papert does suggest that the availability of information on the Web may make it easier for kids to avoid school entirely, using computers to facilitate homeschooling.

    Intellectual hazards include lack of creativity, stunted imagination, poor language and literacy skills, attention deficit, too little patience, plagiarism, and distraction from meaning. This is the most surprising category; educational computing enthusiasts generally list intellectual gains as the area in which we excel. This is also the area in which the Alliance points specifically to Logo as problematic, because we push kids too quickly into advanced stages of cognitive processing. This point requires a careful answer. Logo does, however, seem exempt from some of the other criticisms in this category; unlike the currently popular Web-search approach, we ask kids to be creative, so we shouldn't be stunting their imagination. On the other hand, the point about distraction from meaning does raise questions for the recent emphasis on multimedia in Logo projects. Do we run the risk of unintentionally teaching children to value form over content?

    Moral hazards include exposure to online violence, pornography, bigotry, an emphasis on information devoid of ethical content, lack of purpose, and irresponsibility in applying knowledge. This category is primarily related to the World Wide Web, and I think these concerns are quite real for Web-based learning. But Logo is a shining example of using computers in quite the opposite way. Should we remove the Web browsers from our school computer labs?

    Finally, the Alliance repeats a longstanding concern that teachers have had about the cost of computer-based learning: the computers themselves, maintenance, teacher training, and software are expensive. Some of us have argued that the expense is not really so great, but school budgets are often not so great either; it's not unreasonable to ask where computers should fit into budget priorities. The extreme examples, in which one hears of schools with leaky roofs, no new textbooks in 40 years, and rooms full of shiny computers, do make one wonder if we aren't sometimes overenthusiastic in our advocacy. The Alliance report dramatically illustrates this point by comparing then-President Clinton's budget proposal for school computing ($8 billion per year, forever) with their own proposal to spend that money on removing lead paint from schools and homes (estimated one-time cost of $50 billion). The Alliance also wants to spend more money on the obvious needs of schools: smaller classes, higher teacher salaries, new buildings, and so on.

    Parents and policymakers often assume that poor children without access to a computer at home will suffer academically. They push for highly computerized classrooms as the best chance to cross the ``digital divide'' and help poor children compete academically with those who have home computers.

    We know that computers pose hazards to children and can distract adults from children's real needs. But the most disadvantaged children may be at particular risk of educational failure if we insist that they interact with computers for much of the school day. Often, what they most desperately need is more personal, caring attention from teachers, school counselors, and other adults who will take the time to work with their strengths and weaknesses and to convey patient confidence in the child's ability. The research evidence for the wisdom of such special attention is overwhelming.

    So the real danger for disadvantaged children, as one technology expert has suggested, is just the opposite of what many parents fear: ``In the end, it is the poor who will be chained to the computer; the rich will get teachers.''

    Fool's Gold, page 48

    The Alliance does support the use of computers in secondary schools but still with a critical (in the sense of thoughtful, not in the sense of antagonistic) attitude toward the technology:


    Guidelines for a More Democratic Future

    1. In early childhood and at least through elementary school, concentrate on developing the child's own inner powers, not exploiting external machine powers.

    2. Infuse the study of ethics and responsibility into every technology training program offered in school.

    3. For high school students, consider making the study of the fundamentals of how computers work part of the core curriculum.

    4. Make the history of technology as a social and political force a part of every high school student's schooling.

    Fool's Gold, page 73

    3. Cognitive Skills and Mechanical Thinking

    The womb is a living metaphor for the nurturing, developmentally responsive environment--at home, at school, and in the community--that best serves the full range of children's needs. Mechanistic models of education, in contrast, are guided by the dead metaphor of computer engineering. They see the child's mind as a machine that can and should be powered up and programmed into adult levels of operation as quickly as possible. The fallacy of this premature focus on cognitive skills... is now evident.

    Fool's Gold, page 6

    Seymour Papert... has been particularly influential in promoting the use of computers by young children. But such an emphasis seems designed for training children to think in ways that appear more mechanistic than childlike. For example, Papert himself, referring to Logo... has said

    I have invented ways to take educational advantage of the opportunities to master the art of deliberately thinking like a computer... [so] the learner becomes able to articulate what mechanical thinking is and what it is not.

    But can young children really differentiate between their own human thinking and the powerful operations of a machine? Is it even fair to impose such a task on them?

    Fool's Gold, pages 19-20

    This is a fair question. Claims of teaching deep mathematical ideas to young children were at the heart of early writing about Logo. Papert came to the Logo project with a background of work with Jean Piaget, so he was aware of Piaget's idea that certain kinds of formal reasoning were unavailable to young children. Papert's idea wasn't quite to accelerate those stage transitions, but rather to finesse them by embodying abstract mathematical ideas in concrete form--namely, computer programs and their graphical results.

    Indeed, the specific mathematical content of Logo was central to our early arguments with proponents of other programming languages. We said that the use of recursion in Logo was important partly because it introduced the idea of mathematical induction in concrete form; we said that turtle graphics was important partly because we could describe its behaviour mathematically, as in the Total Turtle Trip Theorem.

    These days, Logo enthusiasts don't talk about mathematics, or about formal reasoning, as much as we did then. Instead, much of our talk is about physical artefacts (``constructionism''). We do still hope that Lego-Logo users abstract away from their projects some general ideas, such as friction and gear ratios. But current Logo work doesn't seem to push so hard against Piagetian limits.

    Also, it's clear from the phenomenal success of computer video games that young children can think more abstractly in that context than they do in school.

    On the other hand, if we're not trying to teach advanced cognitive skills, why use Logo? Why not prepare those multimedia geography reports in PowerPoint? It's clear that we do still care about giving kids the power of a programming language. Logo today is in a more ambiguous position, with one foot in the world of powerful mathematical ideas and the other foot in the mainstream computer-education world of multimedia and the World Wide Web.

    The Alliance for Childhood is questioning the Logo emphasis on metacognition, asking children to think explicitly about thinking. This is a good research question; what are the actual benefits, and harms if any, from thinking about thinking? Do children who program computers develop an implicit model of human thinking as being like the way a computer carries out its program? (I think that this is what the Alliance fears.) Certainly the ability to think like a computer is helpful in debugging. But other school practices also promote mechanical thinking. For example, ``reading comprehension'' tests encourage kids to use pattern matching techniques to find the answers to questions without actually reading and understanding the text. The recent anti-new-math counterrevolution explicitly puts rote learning of arithmetic algorithms before understanding their meaning. That's very different from the situation in Logo work, in which we encourage kids to find meaning in the working-out of mechanical and computational processes. Which of these is more of a threat to children's intellectual development?

    Researchers have documented how much young children learn intuitively through their bodies, and how this lays a critical foundation for later conscious comprehension of the world. The child's first experience of geometric relationships and physics, for example, is literally a visceral one. As she moves herself through space, she actually begins to `learn' unconsciously in her body about relationships, shape, size, weight, distance, and movement--the basis for later abstract, conscious comprehension.

    Fool's Gold, page 9

    This couldn't be improved upon as a description of the intellectual basis for turtle graphics! We can't be accused of ignoring the importance of body learning. Here the question is entirely one of timing: How long should we wait before introducing children to the turtle as a bridge from body learning to abstraction?

    4. The Essential Human Touch

    Proponents of computers in schools argue that they shift the classroom focus to the student instead of the teacher, whose traditional role they describe as the ineffective ``sage on the stage.'' In the high-tech classroom, they suggest, the teacher becomes ``guide on the side,'' encouraging students to take charge of constructing their own education. The result is supposed to be ``student-centered'' education. But the ubiquitous pictures in the news media of both students and teachers concentrating intently on a computer screen--instead of each other--clearly illustrates a new sage dominating center stage. The actual shift is to computer-centered, not student-centered, education.

    Fool's Gold, page 29

    At every stage... studies indicate that strong emotional rapport with responsible adults--the human touch--provides support that is critical in helping children master the appropriate developmental challenges.

    Fool's Gold, page 7

    The isolated child staring into a computer screen is a long-standing stereotype. But Logo teachers and researchers don't work that way. We cite Lev Vygotsky on the social nature of learning and the importance of social relations in the classroom. We work with the kids, and they work with each other. We encourage informal peer interaction so that kids help each other debug.

    Or do we? That's certainly the best Logo practice, but I don't know whether it's typical. Like any form of progressive education, good Logo practice places heavy demands on the teacher. When Logo use is restricted to the most committed and self-selected teachers, we can expect good social interactions. But when Logo finds its way into a national curriculum, as has happened occasionally in Europe, what is the style of work in typical classrooms? Since it hasn't happened in the USA, I don't know the answer. I have seen Logo curricula in standard lesson-plan form, with behavioural objectives.

    It's worth noting that there are other approaches to classroom computing that make social interaction a more central focus than Logo. For example, Tom Snyder Productions is a company that specializes in software for the one-computer classroom. In their activities, kids spend most of their time working in groups, with the computer appealed to occasionally as a mediator, a judge, or a source of information. Their software can't be used by one child in isolation. By contrast, you can use Logo on your own.

    It's also worth investigating the implications of computer-mediated social activity, such as Internet pen pal projects. These can give kids an exposure to cultural differences that they wouldn't ordinarily meet. But computer-mediated communication has weaknesses compared to old-fashioned talking, such as the notorious tendency to anger and rudeness (``flaming'') in e-mail and newsgroups.

    Moderation and balance may be the answer. The computer as a social medium might be harmful if it tends to replace ordinary face-to-face interaction, but might not be harmful as a supplement.

    The elementary-age child fine-tunes these motor skills, as his senses, organs, muscles, and bones continue to mature. His thinking skills, of course, are also advancing. But his whole being is naturally tuned to learn through the window of feelings, as he makes correspondingly dramatic gains in emotional and social development. This is a time for storytelling, music, creative movement, song, drama, making things with the hands, practical and fine arts of every kind--in short, every educational technology that touches children's hearts. They capture children's imagination, waken their interest in learning, and serve their ever-expanding sense of the world around them. Only around puberty does the child's dominant mode for learning finally shift toward the conscious intellect, as abstract considerations of logic and cause-and-effect reasoning gradually begin to hold sway in his mind.

    Fool's Gold, page 7

    This picture of the child as storyteller and artist cuts both ways, as it applies to Logo. It definitely supports Logo as compared with other models of computer learning, and in particular it supports the shift from mathematics to storytelling in recent animated Logo implementations such as Microworlds. On the other hand, telling a story in any computer-based medium does require some shift in the child's attention from the story itself to the technical challenge of teaching the computer how to tell the story.

    It's also worth remarking that the Alliance is concentrating on the early elementary school years. ``Around puberty'' can mean as early as age 10, which is when many children are introduced to Logo. (They do say elsewhere in the report that full cognitive development takes about 20 years, though, and that emotional connection with adults is still important for teenagers.)

    5. The World Wide Web and the Locus of Control

    The current interest in ``Web-based education'' and ubiquitous Internet access for every student, from the age of five up, assumes that a lack of access to information has been a major problem in elementary schools. Actually, experts on math and science education have argued just the opposite. They have concluded, in part based on analyses of the disappointing performance of American students in international comparisons, that American children have been subjected to far too broad and too shallow a sweep of scientific information. A deeper, less sweeping but more personally engaging approach--exactly what hands-on classes embody--would serve our children better, science educators have argued.

    Fool's Gold, page 58

    The emphasis on connecting every child to the Internet raises a host of issues related to exposing children to a flood of commercial messages promoting everything from candy and electronic toys to pornography, violence, drugs, and race hatred...

    The Website of MaMaMedia.com, for example, promotes itself as presenting ``playful learning'' activities aimed at children 12 and under, based on extensive research at Harvard and M.I.T. The co-founder of M.I.T.'s prestigious Media Lab is listed as chairman of MaMaMedia's advisory board. The site also features the names of its commercial sponsors--which include the producers of high-sugar drinks and foods and video games. The site links children to one advertiser's new release, ``X-Men Mutant Academy,'' which will allow young children to ``Brawl your way around the world, one opponent at a time.'' It also links children to the Websites of a long list of candy companies. On one link children are able to download a screensaver of Hershey's Miniatures ``stacking up before your eyes,'' or ``Flying Reese's Peanut Butter Cups,'' thereby setting up their own background ad for a chocolate break.

    Fool's Gold, pages 31-32

    What is our stance toward the World Wide Web? When I've taught Logo to middle schoolers recently, I've found it hard to hold their attention on Logo; instead they want to play games on the Web. The ones who are interested in programming want to learn about web-authoring tools such as Shockwave, rather than Logo. Partly as a result of these experiences, I hate the Web. But other Logoites have embraced the Web, adding Web-authoring capability to Logo products.

    The Alliance for Childhood tells several horrifying stories about the commercialisation of school computing. The one I've cited above isn't the worst; I chose it because MaMaMedia is a product of the Logo community, founded by Idit Harel with Seymour Papert as a participant and endorser. The worst stories are about companies that offer free equipment to schools provided that the schools require students to watch the advertising that these companies supply.

    The Alliance also mentions the much-publicized issue of pornography on the net. Some attacks on Internet pornography have been so sensationalistic, and based on such ill-researched data, that it is easy to dismiss any mention of pornography as sensation-mongering. But the Alliance puts pornography in perspective, as just one more example of the misinformation and the appeal to irrationality on the Web, less ubiquitous and ultimately less important than the commercial content.

    Logoites often compare our process orientation with the product orientation of schooling in general and other approaches to computer learning in particular. But if we are infatuated with the World Wide Web, we put ourselves in the opposite camp. Even the emphasis on multimedia in recent Logo implementations can be seen as an emphasis on form over content, a less obvious but essentially similar version of other educators' preference for PowerPoint presentations over handwritten reports. Searching the Web for source material puts the focus on finding out facts rather than understanding them; pasting Web pages verbatim into student reports is the high-tech version of copying paragraphs verbatim from the encyclopedia. By contrast, requiring children to summarize, compare, and interpret multiple sources of information emphasizes understanding over mere information retrieval.

    Let me note in passing that there are better ways to use the Internet than Web browsing. Learners who use newsgroups and e-mail are participants in a conversation rather than consumers of professionally produced content. (Using Logo for Web authoring, too, is better than Web browsing.) One way to understand this question is in terms of locus of control; Web browsing is best understood as a (subtle, disguised) form of letting the computer program the kid.

    6. References

    Alliance for Childhood (2000) Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood

    Papert S (1996) The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap Longstreet Press, Atlanta.