The doctor was running behind (of course), so I flipped through one of the family magazines as I waited in her office. Almost immediately I was taken aback by an advertisement.
In this image, a mother sat with a baby in her lap, both looking (over)enthusiastically at a computer screen as flashcard-like images of apples and dogs and the Eiffel Tower danced across the screen. In bold letters, the advertisement made even bolder claims, promising a computer program that would make your (otherwise dreadfully average) child a genius.
As I’ve ruminated on the motivation and subtext of such an advertisement and the program it promotes, I have come to wonder if many of us have a terrible misunderstanding of true intelligence.
As we look at a list of skills a child should master at a certain benchmark, we have a tendency to translate that into a data in – data out equation.
If the skills chart says a kindergartener should be able to “describe three signs of autumn” we instantly and conveniently translate that into an exercise in factual repetition. A call-and-repeat format. We tell them: 1-the air gets colder, 2- the leaves change color, and 3- the leaves fall down. They learn to repeat it all back to us.
Three signs of autumn: check.
But these types of standards are meant to represent the types of experiences a child should have. Experiences that consequently lead to understanding.
If a child has experienced autumn– the sound of leaves underfoot on a walk, the subtle crispness of the air in the morning, and collecting leaves of every brilliant color– that child absolutely understands autumn, and could list more than just three signs.
Too many of us view intelligence as something transmitted, like a file download. We tell our children the facts, they repeat them, and *boom* they’re intelligent. We assume that if we flash an image of an apple at a toddler and get her to repeat the word, she knows what an apple is. (And isn’t she advanced?)
But does she know what the apple feels like in her hand? Does she know what it tastes like? Does she know what happens if you drop it?
Artificial intelligence is the intelligence of machines. It’s written in programs and produces devices capable of amazing things. Creators can simply input information, and it’s operable.
But in many aspects, artificial intelligence cannot compare with true human intelligence.
It cannot reason abstractly, adapt fluidly to new situations, build emotional connections, or communicate new ideas creatively. That is the unique and advanced ability of human intelligence. But do we always seek that advanced intelligence for our children?
Do we settle for the lesser, artificial intelligence of repeating programmed information?
Real intelligence requires experience. Knowing something from all angles so that you can rearrange the parts and create a new and innovative solution. It requires the ability to reason and make connections –connections that are created by active involvement.
I read recently that medical schools are facing a unique challenge. For quite some time, medical students have learned about the heart and its functions through the old pump analogy. While it’s quite typical for students to arrive at medical school without a strong hands-on history with the human heart, many had had experiences working hands-on with a pump. Because the students had seen one, used one, fixed one, and/or disassembled one, the connections could be made between the two and understanding could be quickened.
Today, however, many students come to medical school with a vast knowledge of terms and facts, but few have actual experience with a pump. Suddenly the analogy lacks meaning because there is a lack of experience.
These aspiring doctors didn’t need more time with flashcards, they needed more time at play.
As parents and teachers, we often feel pressure to give children all the new and best our age of technology and information has to offer. But can that be at the expense of real world experience?
A quote from this article resonates with truth:
I tell parents that the best toy they can give their children is themselves,” said Dr. Khanh-Van Le-Bucklin, M.D., an academic pediatrician with the University of California, Irvine, … “No educational toy, TV program or video can positively affect a child’s development like time spent with an engaged and talking adult. …Live conversation and interaction give children the most meaningful experiences.”
In fact, high-tech “learning toys” have been shown repeatedly to have fewer educational benefits than human interaction and old-school play. (Sources here and here.)
When we read facts-based standards, we need to connect those to experiences, not just data. If children should be able to recognize shapes, for example, we should give them experience with blocks and tangrams, and talk about them as they hold them and create with them. We should go on shape hunts and create pictures with shapes. We should read books about shapes and sing songs about shapes. To simply hold up two-dimensional pictures and run a shape-name drill is seeking a lesser, artificial intelligence.
I don’t mean to say that there isn’t room for memorization or quick data-recall exercises, but if that memory isn’t built on experience, it will hold less meaning and be applied more rigidly than a concept or idea that has been lived.
We, and our children, are not computers. We don’t gain true intelligence by a simple process of data input. We aren’t waiting for the newest update to download or the most recent app to simply insert new information for us to process.
Indulge me a moment as I take a more personal perspective.
I personally believe that we were created by a truly Intelligent and Divine Being. I’m sure that if He wanted to, our Creator could instantly “download” all the knowledge He hopes for us to attain. But instead, He allows us to learn through experience. Shouldn’t we seek the same for our children as He does for His?
Even with personal beliefs aside, we know that children need experience.
Long before the proliferation of the iPad, developmental psychologist, William Crain, wrote of the danger of educating young children by simply perching them in front of screens:
The computer monitor presents only symbols — words, pictures, numbers and graphs. The child is exposed to a great deal of information, but the child receives it on a purely secondhand, mental level. What does it mean to learn biology strictly from words, pictures, and other symbols, without first having rich, personal experience with plant and animal life? Or to learn principles of physics — principles such as velocity, force, and balance — without lots of experience throwing, hammering, seesawing, and climbing? The child learns symbols, but without the personal, bodily, sensory experiences that make the symbols meaningful. The danger is that the child who is learning a great deal for the first time at the computer terminal is learning at too cerebral a level. The child is becoming a disembodied mind.”
A disembodied mind. That description has stuck with me for years.
Reducing our children to their brains, as empty vessels for the sole purpose of being filled with digitized information. This approach discounts not only the wonder of the whole child, but the wonder of the whole earth.
If we want information to be instantly received and repeated, we should learn computer programming. But if we want truly intelligent children, we need to slow down, give them our time and attention, and experience the world together.
Find support for promoting and preserving play! Why We Play releasing soon! Click here to learn more.”
Debbie Eccles says
You said that perfectly! Our school is talking about going 1-1 with some form of computer device beginning at kindergarten. I have been in disagreement with my the corporation about kindergarten children moving to digital learning only. I will definitely be sharing this, if you don’t mind.
Thank you! Thank you for putting this so perfectly into words! I rank this post right up there with your wonderful Pushing Children Down the Stairs post (not sure that’s the exact title, but I’m sure you know which one I mean). As a kindergarten teacher who is fighting a difficult and constant uphill battle to continue providing children with experiences and not just scripted facts to be memorized and regurgitated, I greatly appreciate what you’ve said and wish we could shout it from the rooftops! Thanks for being a consistent voice for what’s best for children!
LOVE this! I have been told by so many about great apps and computer programs I could use for my kids, but I have firmly held to the belief that technology cannot replace human interaction and teaching. You explain why so wonderfully here!
Amy Webb says
Wonderful article! Makes me think of a recent NPR story about online preschools being used in low-income or rural states that cannot provide classroom-based preschool for their residents. It’s not an acceptable replacement! Love your work.
Nina Javez says
I had so many enriching childhood experiences that my children may never have, while the modern technology is wonderful, I wish they would resort to less IA learning.