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Education in the Media, Philosophical Meanderings

Inappropriate Use of Technology

In my home state, a school district just announced that they will be giving every kindergartener an iPad 2 this coming fall. I think this is a terrible idea. I’m not a Luddite, let’s just get that out of the way.

This initiative is not developmentally appropriate. 5 and 6 year olds learning how to use iPads and basic concepts of numbers and language through apps is an inferior task compared to the true needs of that age group and society at large. Learning in small social groups and emphasizing social-emotional growth is far more important than swipe gestures. Being OUTSIDE, exploring, building, and PLAYING, is truly what is needed.

We are not facing a technology epidemic, but we are facing an obesity and climate crisis. Investing $200,000 in environmental changes such as school gardens to teach food literacy and food systems, would have far greater longitudinal benefit than putting kids in front of screens earlier and more frequently.

What do you think? Should I crawl back into my cabin in the Maine woods and go back to my 1840’s transcendentalist romanticism? Is unending technological advancement truly our destiny? Do kids really need to know how to use virtual environments more than live sanely in our real one? (I realize the later is a false dichotomy. I’m just trying to be provocative here-cut me some slack.)

About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


41 thoughts on “Inappropriate Use of Technology

  1. I, too, think this is a terrible idea. Having been at this game a LONG time, I have seen so many of these ill-guided, ridiculous, wasteful initiatives. I know that Maine had the ‘laptop’ program some years ago. That was for older kids and led, philosophically, by friend and mentor Seymour Papert. I am not sure how well the implementation of that went – but, this one is doomed to failure before it starts.

    Hopefully, they have developed a ‘swiping’ curriculum and have standards in place for mastery before they move on to double-clicking. 🙂

    Plant trees.

    Posted by Peter Skillen | April 7, 2011, 10:23 am
    • Peter, the laptop for middle schoolers program is a great one and is enabling lots of innovation including finding solutions to real-world problems such as climate change. It was much better thought out and is actually appropriate compared to this kindergarten initiative. However, Angus King, who led the laptop for middle schoolers initiative was at this meeting and seemed to give his approval. Unfortunate.

      Posted by Adam Burk | April 7, 2011, 10:55 am
  2. I do agree that introducing kindergarteners to an iPad is a little premature. I’m sure many kids that age are familiar with computers, laptops, and even tablets like the iPad. However, I agree that social interaction is much more important to this delicate stage of the developmental process than teaching them how to use a touch screen. Let them get hooked to technology when they are in their teens, not at the age of 5 or 6. How likely are they to look back on their early childhood with nostalgia if they spent most of it staring at a screen?

    Posted by BiologyEd | April 7, 2011, 10:26 am
  3. The usability of touch interfaces for little kids is rather incredible — I watch my 3 year old try to touch our old fashioned monitor and can see that she feels a comfort with “touch” that blows any other interface out of the water.

    That said, as you imply, the risks of this technology to distract kids are enormous. I can imagine that one could take most standard “worksheets” and make a much more engaging iPad version of them. Maybe it will even teach kids skills they need — it’s possible an iPad game will do a better job teaching basic math or letter recognition than the paper equivalents. If I imagine the iPad as a television for showing videos, than it has possibilities for interaction and for differentiation that make it an obvious step up from the projector screen or TV wheeled into the room. Measured against a book, it has the obvious downside that it is hard to look at and easy to break, and the upside that it can pronounce words for you or show you pictures or what have you — it’s easy to imagine building a great “kid” dictionary for an iPad in a way that would never exist on other machines.

    My problem with the iPad is basically the same as my problem with using worksheets and videos to instruct our kids in the first place: kids need activities that are helping them build their attention spans, immerse themselves in creative play, and learn to work well in social groups.

    Measured against my ideal education — which would probably look a lot more like something Bronson Alcott would have done than anything going on in our schools now — the iPad looks pretty awful. Measured, on the other hand, against what actually goes on in most elementary classrooms, I’m not at all sure. That said, when I consider the cost of developing or purchasing excellent apps plus the cost of the hardware, it is hard to believe this is the most effective way to spend our money.

    Posted by Tom | April 7, 2011, 10:39 am
  4. Think of it this way…what are these children going to be reading books on in a few years. A lot of schools are switching to digital books. As a parent I would be okay with it as long as they are not using them all day long. An hour of screen time a day is fine with me, as long as its educational. Plus I think it will get more kids interested in school. They are using them at home to learn, why not school.

    Posted by Amanda | April 7, 2011, 10:53 am
    • Amanda, valid point. I will point out a contradiction, however. If they are already using them at home, then chances are they are getting more than an hour of screen time a day. Plus, iPads are not goof for ereading. eInk devices like the Kindle are designed to reduce eye strain and fatigue while iPads primary purpose is for extravagant (and beautiful) visual stimulation.

      Also, I have not know too many kindergartners that are turned off of school already. If so it usually an environmental factor, like unsafe circumstances at home or at school, rather than how they are being engaged in learning.


      Posted by Adam Burk | April 7, 2011, 11:03 am
  5. Wouldn’t Thoreau have had the Project Noah app? Evernote? A blog?

    Imagine a Hawthorne posterous or tweets from Emerson.

    @waldengeek trippy carriage ride #feelingkindatranscendental #andromantic

    I digress.

    I think the key is balance and it’s right to worry about that. Kids at any age need a school that does AND well – we should all learn how to tell stories with our voices AND writing AND drawing AND apps that help us bring our imaginations to life.

    Insomuch as initiatives like this attempt to level technology access during the school day, I applaud them.

    Insomuch as initiatives like this find meaningful ways for kids to learn and interact socially, I applaud them.

    Insomuch as initiatives like this situate themselves in a pedagogy that embraces student choice and includes play and making and learning across media, I applaud them.

    Insomuch, even, as some initiatives launch at 80% and figure out the rest on the go, I applaud them.

    When there’s not a lot of purpose that kids can see in the use of a pedagogy or initiative, I don’t applaud it. Moreover, I agitate against “blended” learning that doesn’t get kids away from their desks. Programs like this have to do better than swap out a workbook for an e-workbook. They have to show kids real-world connections to their learning and unfetter kids from their desks. If the iPads are just going to be used to “deliver” learning to kids in their seats, then they’ll be no better than any other industrial era relic of teaching.

    Problems are a part of potential.

    A hypothetical for anyone:

    Imagine if you were a teacher getting a class set of these things next year and you didn’t like this initiative: how would you flip it so that iPads became an advantage in helping kids socialize and learn together?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 7, 2011, 11:13 am
    • Chad,

      I do like the move for digital equity. That is an important component of the program I didn’t address.

      I also appreciate your structure of thinking for applause (or not). I’m still not applauding for this initiative however. Perhaps, I’ m wrong. I’d be delighted if that were the case.


      Posted by Adam Burk | April 7, 2011, 11:19 am
      • I defer to you, Adam; if it was XBoxes, we’d have a tussle.

        Keep us posted – I’m interested in what the innovators will do with the iPads, as well as in what the status quo becomes for their use in classrooms.

        Clearly, what’s really needed is for you and I to adopt fake American lit Twitter aliases to continue this conversation.


        Posted by Chad Sansing | April 7, 2011, 11:28 am
      • Chad, now that is an idea I can really get behind! Re: fake American lit twitter handles.


        Posted by Adam Burk | April 7, 2011, 11:34 am
    • “Imagine if you were a teacher getting a class set of these things next year and you didn’t like this initiative: how would you flip it so that iPads became an advantage in helping kids socialize and learn together?”

      Wonderful question, Chad.

      Posted by Alex Steed | April 7, 2011, 11:47 am
    • For kids aged five and six, I think the initiative is kind of ridiculous. If the term “developmentally inappropriate” were in the dictionary, this initiative would have its picture next to it. This sort of initiative is brought to you by the same kind of person who believes in “academic rigor” for kindergarteners. Especially if the kids are expected to do math and reading drills on the iPad in an attempt to jumpstart the academic curriculum, this initiative sounds like a shameful enterprise.

      Even so, once a child is given plenty of opportunities for physical and imaginative play and has gained independence in the kindergarten basics (taking turns, zipping his own jacket, sharing, and so on), and THEN as a bonus gets a chance to use technology for a purpose that is personally meaningful, that child is likely to learn a ton on his own and with others, not just from the technology, but from the new worlds the technology opens up. (I know of one student who started recording with Audacity at age eight and graduated to Cubase at age fifteen–he’s been producing original music tracks for years.)

      A teacher forced to use iPads in kindergarten would do well to seek out games and stories based on hilarious and otherwise intriguing children’s books, software that allows the child to create fun stuff of their own, and software (maybe not even available yet) that lets them create a personal identity through which they can interact with their kindergarten peers.

      A software program based on the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum, might be a winner, but only if it were to get down on the floor with the kids and let them play together! Hmm, now I’m kind of intrigued by the possibilities, but the idea of using the iPad to “deliver instruction” to unsuspecting kindergarteners is downright chilling.

      Posted by Randal Hendee | April 7, 2011, 6:55 pm
      • Rereading this I have to remind myself that I’m not qualified to make professional judgements about early childhood education–I’m a former high school English teacher. Also, it’s a mistake to conflate iPad use in kindergarten with the misguided notion that kindergartners need “academic rigor.” I think it’s a matter of appropriate software and appropriate use. Lots of little kids, especially boys, aren’t ready for academic tasks. For that matter, lots of older kids, including college students, need more experience with play and building things and sharing. Are there age-appropriate iPad apps that allow kindergartners to invent, build, play, and share? If so, turn ’em loose. But don’t overdo it. One iPad per child seems excessive, especially if it’s overused for “academic” drills.

        Posted by Randal Hendee | April 8, 2011, 3:14 am
  6. I think this is a terrible idea too. I might consider buying an iPad lab to use a mobile lab, sparingly, by a number of classrooms, but I don’t think this is an effective use of money.

    I also think that it speaks to the increasingly academic nature of kindergarten. Kids that age are still learning so much important stuff about how their body moves, how to interact with other people, and so learning how to read and engage in adult life seems a bit premature for most children. I mean, reading is an adult activity right now, primarily created for interacting with the adult world. We’ve got children’s literature, etc… but all of these are replications of existing adult content. What does happen at a young age, which is not replicated enough in the adult world, is play.

    You’d have a pretty weak argument to suggest that an iPad for every kid is for playing on, that wouldn’t fly well, so clearly it is for promoting adult academic skills, which in my opinion have no place in the mind of a 5 year old.

    Michael Doyle ( has a great series he’s started on what he thinks science should look like, for example, in the kindergarten classroom, and on this issue at least, he and I agree completely. A really good kindergarten class should spend hours and hours outside during the week, learning about the real world, before they’d ever spend a minute learning about our adult digital one.

    Posted by David | April 7, 2011, 11:41 am
  7. Your post reads as if young people will be required to substitute play/outside time for time spent on their iPads.

    While I obviously agree with the sentiment that investing in environmental changes such as school gardens to teach food literacy and food systems is a great idea, I think that we should work towards investing in all possible avenues for literacy expansion, including the technological.

    Posted by Alex Steed | April 7, 2011, 11:45 am
    • Why then, would you need 1 iPad per child? Wouldn’t an iPad for every 5 or 6 children do, if they were shared between multiple classrooms?

      Posted by dwees | April 7, 2011, 12:20 pm
    • Alex,

      Glad you joined the discussion. Obviously, that’s not necessarily the case regarding play/outside time versus time on an iPad. However, the iPad does represent a trend that does align with that paradigm.

      What I do hope to establish is a sense of priority. Sure “investing in all possible avenues for literacy expansion, including the technological,” sounds good, but all types of literacy are not equal. Kids today are not at risk for being technologically illiterate, perhaps technologically irresponsible, but not illiterate. However, as I stress, there are higher priorities that we need to be addressing such as health–human, community, and ecological.

      Posted by Adam Burk | April 7, 2011, 8:08 pm
  8. I’m with you!

    Posted by bridgesburning | April 7, 2011, 11:54 am
  9. As a mother of a 5 year old, technology advocate, and curriculum coordinator for an elementary school I feel that I need to weigh in on this conversation as well. I think there have been many wonderful points for both sides presented. I have to say I, too, think this is a bad idea for reasons that Chad alluded to in his post. This sounds like a decision that wasn’t debated or thought through all the way to final completion.

    For me, the thing that stands out the most is the idea that ALL kindergarten children need an iPad. That kind of ubiquitous technology adoption always scares me. I believe firmly that there CAN be a place in the kinder curriculum for an iPad, but a set of 6 iPads for each class would be much better than an entire class. A set of iPads allows for some technology exposure but gives it its appropriate place in the curriculum…a PART of the learning that happens there. As David points out, kinder kids still need to be outside playing, investigating, and sharing too. Using a class set allows teachers to use small groups which is KEY in the Kinder curriculum. Not all kids will need to use/should use iPads in the same way so grouping and a set of iPads allows for differentiation in both curriculum and technology to occur.

    In addition, a set of iPads allows for meaning collaboration with iPads to happen among the students sharing the technology as a tool. Imagine students who can’t write but are able to activate and use the camera on an iPad2 to demonstrate their understanding of shadows. There’s powerful stuff there that those groups of students should be allowed to investigate, even at their young age.

    I think ultimately, this is an adoption idea that needs to go back to the team for further discussion and debate until they are able to find more balance between tool, curriculum, and audience.

    Posted by Jessica Allen | April 7, 2011, 12:16 pm
  10. ugh..

    digital equity doesn’t mean everyone gets the same tool..

    you go Adam.

    Posted by monika hardy | April 7, 2011, 12:31 pm
  11. ………maybe this isn’t such a bad idea; they could explore “virtual” playgrounds to see what playing like a normal 5 or 6 year old could be like……………..

    (heavy sarcasm in my comment……in case anyone thinks I’m serious).

    Posted by Samuelson Mathxp | April 7, 2011, 12:38 pm
  12. I couldn’t agree with you more!
    Kids need social interaction, manipulating toys, objects, face -to-face discussions, PLAY and communication!

    Posted by Cristina | April 7, 2011, 1:10 pm
  13. I call this diving head first without looking down below first. If the people at this district truly feel kindergarten students need an iPad to learn, then why have teachers at that grade level?

    Posted by Chris Franzen | April 7, 2011, 1:22 pm
  14. I’m not against kindergartners using iPads. My three-and-a-half year old daughter has an iPad that she uses here and there. We never have her on it for too long, but to be honest, she doesn’t want to be on it all the time either because there are other cooler non-screen related things to do.

    While it is true that the iPad can be used in developmentally inappropriate ways for young children, so can paper and pencil worksheets. In fact, I would argue that the latter is far greater of a problem than the former. When elementary becomes more of a junior middle school, pre-high school program, or College Preperation, iPads are the least of our concerns. However, if iPads are being used to push this developmentally inappropriate practice, then you are right to be against this, Adam.

    And yet, I still believe that this kind of technology can be a fantastic way (in limited doses) to educate young children through play.


    Posted by Joe Bower | April 7, 2011, 5:32 pm
    • Joe, thanks for your perspective. You are right to point out that we already developmentally misaligned in many schools.

      Can you provide some examples of how the iPad can be a fantastic way to educate young children through play? Harking back to Chad’s question about what do you do if you are a teacher in this situation, I’d love to highlight some best practices.


      Posted by Adam Burk | April 7, 2011, 8:11 pm
  15. @Chris, technology is NEVER a substitute for the teacher. Not at any level. However, there are some teachers and schools that are worksheet-compliant factories, and that form of (de)education is just as harmful as being parented or taught solely by a screen.

    Posted by Joe Bower | April 7, 2011, 5:35 pm
  16. here are some of my thoughts and questions…

    I don’t think every student in kindergarten needs a Ipad… one or two in a classroom…sure… just like a computer or video system…

    However this is more about Kindergarten become the new first grade….than about itbeing about children learning to use a Ipad…or even learning….

    I work with 3/4 years olds who know how to use Ipods…. I wonder how Montessori would use them….. this seem like a PR move… i thought there were budget cuts… for the cost of all these IPods you could really built a outdoor classroom, hire a teacher, plant a garden, go a few field trips, do some great project based learning, paint! really Ipads have their place in schools, but really Kindergarten….

    Posted by dloitz | April 7, 2011, 6:21 pm
  17. I knew when I read “Being OUTSIDE, exploring, building, and PLAYING, is truly what is needed” that I would agree with what you were going to say. Yes, every school should have a garden as should everyone that has any place at all. We all have room for hydroponics if there is an inexpensive method (I am still looking). Our school systems could be so much more if we did go “backwards” to the simpler days of raising our own food and playing together.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

    Posted by RJ Johnson - 21st Century Appreciative Inquiry | April 8, 2011, 1:08 pm
  18. I’m noticing what a heated discussion this is, and will be thinking about that.

    See you in a moment Adam,


    Posted by Kirsten | April 8, 2011, 2:53 pm
  19. Children need human interaction, opportunities to discover, create, communicate, explore and invent in the tactile world-filled with trial and error, support, guidance, wonder, emotion, conflict, disappointment and joy. They need to extend their vision beyond an artificially lit screen that is two feet from their face. The virtual world is essential for older grades, when interfacing and researching becomes a part of the learning experience. If people want to invest in Kindergarten classrooms, I suggest every child has access to music, art, movement, outdoors, construction and loving adult teachers.

    Posted by Marla McLean, Atelierista | April 8, 2011, 3:40 pm
  20. Great post! A question, though: why does the use of the iPad (or any technology) necessarily “replace” outdoor exploration? Do we say the same about paper and pencil?

    I am not an expert on early childhood education. I do know, however, that the last thing I would eliminate from the daily schedule in a K class is exploration and discovery. I’d probably use the iPad only when it enhanced learning.

    Posted by Jim Pedrech | April 9, 2011, 5:28 pm
    • Jim,

      It doesn’t necessarily mean that an iPad replaces outdoor time. However, as I discuss in a comment above, it does highlight priorities, and I think that investing this much money in iPads demonstrates a distortion of priorities. The superintendent is quoted as saying that the iPad is more important than even a book and that it is an essential learning tool. And I might be able to live with that if I saw equal understanding and investment in priorities such as food and eco-literacy. These actually will contribute to the development of a responsible and sane culture. Perhaps I would say that a garden is just as important as a book or iPad. But when all they’re talking about is iPads, I have to emphasize the importance of being outdoors, building, and playing.

      Posted by Adam Burk | April 9, 2011, 11:06 pm
  21. New article on the Auburn, Maine school district decision can be found here,

    One excerpt: “Not everyone is sold. Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and the author of “Oversold and Underused: Computers in Schools,” said there’s no proof that computers bring learning benefits to pupils that young.”

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 12, 2011, 4:57 pm
  22. Absurd! A 5-year-old is not half a 10-year-old.

    I’ll admit I *am* a bit of a Luddite—well, a Luddite with a blog, but no cell phone, no real interest in texting or tweeting. Still, our intellectual arena is increasingly digital, and I think it’s appropriate for middle- and high schoolers to live in that arena some of the day. Kindergartners, however, are babies (apologies to my nearly 5-year-old daughter). I agree that this reveals a serious distortion of priorities. To me it also feels disrespectful of the dreaminess and slow pace of early childhood. I would hope we could continue to protect the senses of kids this age, trying our best to keep things simple, earthy, and tangible.

    Posted by Mindy | October 2, 2011, 12:15 am


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