Wednesday, May 25, 2016

On Technology and Natural Learning

My daughter programming in Scratch (

A friend with an inquisitive, unschooled four-year-old asked me recently how I manage the incessant questions from such curious little ones. Do I keep a running list of these questions? Do I try to answer each one in turn? My response? Google. 

With a world of answers literally at our fingertips, answering questions and expanding knowledge have never been quicker or easier. When I think about the many questions I must have had as a child, I know that a lot of them went unanswered or were answered so long after the question was asked that they became irrelevant. Today, my children can ask a question, have it answered thoroughly in real-time, and often find that the question sparks additional interest or inquiry, leading to a trip to the library or museum or some other avenue for further exploration. Technology is an important tool of our modern culture and we should take full advantage of all it offers for education, information, communication, collaboration, documentation, and entertainment.

As Boston College psychology professor and self-directed learning advocate, Peter Gray, writes in his book, Free to Learn, and on his blog"The computer is, without question, the single most important tool of modern society. Our limiting kids' computer time would be like hunter-gatherer adults limiting their kids' bow-and-arrow time. Children come into the world designed to look around and figure out what they need to know in order to make it in the culture into which they are born." 

What about the kids who would sit and watch tv or play video games all day? In most cases, children who over-use technology or use it inappropriately do not have access to other stimulating resources or opportunities, and are using technology as an escape from an overly-scheduled, adult-driven, school-centered life. As Gray states: "At school and in other adult-dominated contexts they may be treated as idiots who need constant direction, but in the game they are in charge and can solve difficult problems and exhibit extraordinary skills." If children (indeed all of us) are given true freedom to learn, in non-coercive settings, surrounded by stimulating resources and access to friends doing all sorts of interesting things, they will not abuse technology or use it as an escape, and it will become the important learning complement it has the power to be. 

Now, Gray makes the point that hunter-gatherer parents keep the poison arrows out-of-reach of their children. In the same way, I believe that parents should limit certain technology, video games, or media that we deem inappropriate or potentially dangerous. We all need to determine our own "poison arrows." If a child is playing video games all day, every day--or, frankly, doing ANYTHING all day, every day--it might be worth a bit of scrutiny.

So what does technology and natural learning look like for our family? Mostly, we use technology (such as smartphones, iPods, iPads, and computers) to answer questions, gather information, communicate with others, explore interests, build Excel models and program in Scratch, listen to songs, audiobooks, and stories (especially Sparkle Stories), enjoy educational applications, and watch occasional movies or shows. We don't have a television or cable in our home, so in some ways our technology media is self-limiting, but with Netflix, iTunes, and YouTube we can enjoy and learn from media without the commercialism. (Here is a link to some great online learning resources.)

The key is to embrace technology as one of many important tools for natural learning, help our children recognize its power and use it appropriately, keep "poison arrows" out of reach, and allow technology to help answer questions and expand knowledge of this vast and ever-changing world.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kerry,

    I love your blog and am curious - do you identify as a radical unschooler and if so or if not, could you talk a little about the difference between unschooling and radical unachooling and why you chose the particular path you chose? We are a screen free home still but I am wondering how I will one day transition to learning with technology. During Thes early years, I've been a fan of natural learning in the three dimensional world.