Fostering Science Education and Positive Technology Use at Home

A child knitting

I have been asked in a couple of different forums about how I have gone about parenting my children with respect ot technology. What came out of that thinking lacks any formal reference to literature, but it does represent my experience. I’ve always felt that despite many potential negatives (and despite being mostly a homesteading luddite sort at home), technology has an important positive role to play as well in my children’s development.

Technology today is a human creation; underlying that creation is a set of crafting skills. The ability to imagine an artificial action in the world, create an image or a movie, print a mechanical object, or send a message all depend on these skills. Yet many of our children never progress beyond simply consuming the artifacts and messages that others create. This article explores, through a series of anecdotes, my personal parenting experiences with technology and tries to shed light on some of the challenges and opportunities my family faced.

My daughter is 2 or 3 or 4. She sees phones around her, and is fascinated by them. Relatives give toy phones that light up and ring to my dismay. Parents are begged for phones. Swiping an iphone or ipad is so intuitive she can do it with ease. We work hard to put computers and phones away in front of the kids, and to do housework, play, singing, and other acts of togetherness when parenting them…. A few months (or a year) pass. I am sick with chronic Lyme disease for many months and years, and find myself learning to parent slowly rather than trying to do everything. We build a cloche, two screws at a time, cuddle, and nap together. One day I am too exhausted to get off the couch. In a fit of desperation I give in to repeated requests… to teach the children to knit, something I know is usually not introduced until first grade at their school. Am I a bad parent? One session and suddenly they’re off and running with this skill they have seen in almost every moment of quiet sitting.

We work hard as parents not to use technology in front of the children, and generally include them in our life rather than structure ours around theirs. All the same, as a parent, the questions I find myself asking about technology readiness and craft readiness are not that different whether it is digital technology, music, knitting, or anything else that the children so desperately want to participate in sometimes before they are of the traditional ‘age readiness’. I wonder why and whether one thing is worse than another. We settle on the rubric that physicality and creativity are important, but balance is equally important. Are they getting social time, exercise, play? Are they learning to handle frustration and self entertain? What is any activity substituting for that would be prefered? We try to minimize the ones we don’t like the answers for.

We are on a train. The train ride is 9 hours long, my children are 4 and 6 if I remember correctly. We have brought a movie, books, felt, yarn, conductive thread, LEDs, batteries, buttons, a multimodal cornucopia of ways to engage. We read, make yarn sculptures, walk the train. Sometime during the train ride I have the goal of learning how to make felt bracelets that can light up. The kids are fascinated. We lay the bracelet flat, but have to think about its top and its bottom and the circle that it creates when the snap is closed. Where does the thread need to go to create this effect? Can we make anything other than bracelets? What about a bookmark, that can tell you which page you were on? You could have two snaps, and fold it over to connect to one or the other depending on which page! The excitement is palpable, and the craft is more than do-able by both children. We make mistakes, plan badly, correct, eventually succeed. I wonder if I am breaking some rule by trying out a 6th grade exercise involving electricity on my 4 and 6 year olds, but I see nothing but pleasure and creativity in their response.

As a computer scientist, what has always fascinated me about technology is the power of arcane acts to create whatever I can imagine, and the importance of imagining good, useful things to create. Around this time I was also beginning to think about how to bring technology into my childrens’ middle-school curriculum, and this project was a first attempt. I am delighted by the invention of the bookmark and by the immediacy of the experience as well as the way it builds on the crafting skills my children already have.

We are leaving on sabbatical for a year. The children are 5 and 7. EBooks are big, it is 2011. Taking a library along would be impossible, but there is a plethora of free and excellent children’s literature (60 years old or older) available on amazon for the Kindle. We buy one and take it on sabbatical along with a drop spindle and a big pile of wool. We also buy the Rosetta Stone software. By the end of the year of travel, we have read innumerable books aloud. The children are used to kindles and have discovered at least one game which we ask them to stop playing. We have invented as many stories as we’ve read, and spun enough wool to knit a pair of socks by the end of Fall, which are completed just in time for Winter.

The kindle feels like a technology win. I like the fact that it is easy on the eyes, and that it lets us dig into so much great literature. Rosetta stone is like a game, but it also feels like a win. It is amazing how easily the kids can pick it up, and it helps lay the groundwork for them to learn two languages during the year we travel. I love the fact that it is so synergistic with other things we are doing (practicing as a family, working with a tutor, immersion in school). It turns out that the human tutor we see most often in the Rosetta stone software actually lives in Zurich, where we are as well. The connections between what we do in our technology, and what we do in our lives are rich and deep and our choices feel positive and right.

The children are older, maybe 3rd and 5th or 4th and 6th grade now. They have learned a little about Scratch programming, another technology that almost any crafty parent could pick up though of course I bring an ease and expertise to this because of my background. We try Raspberry Pis as well, a tiny computer that costs around $30, which they can experiment with and even destroy. We assemble 3D printer kits together because of my research.

I also want to set good examples of creative media use. I try to help with the computational things. All are unsatisfying. Scratch is so artificial. The Pis are slow, and hard to understand for the kids. Joint work is much harder in this realm. Meanwhile, technology’s negative side starts to rear its head. Among my own children and other children we know in the same age group, shockingly considering the age, some are caught reading pornographic fan fiction on a kindle, looking at pornographic videos, having their identity ‘stolen’ to text a hurtful message in their name, watching a spoof of a popular song dance video that turns out to be extremely raunchy.

I start to wonder what I have brought into my children’s lives and how I will proceed.  We have many conversations about pornography, about privacy, about how every online act is essentially public.  This feels similar to sexual education. Talking more, and earlier, but of course in age appropriate ways, is the foundation on which positive parenting can happen. Parenting this requires vigilance, openness, learning, and attention. This wondering is not confined to technology, however.  A child’s awakening to the larger world is a fragile process and I conclude that I need to be as involved and aware as possible, but I have no answers.

These early years set the tone for our work as parents in a technological world. Hard limits in the domain of ‘media consumption,’ with the understanding the forbidden is sometimes more attractive than that which is experienced, discussed, and controlled. Concrete examples of positive uses of media such as learning language, reading emails together from far-away relatives and reinforcing what they are learning in school about searching for information online and evaluating what is trustworthy. Strong support for creative uses of technology, in collaboration with local organizations that support these activities in camps and after school sessions help foster this as well. We ultimately choose to allow unlimited use of the most challenging and creative of applications of technical skills, to support passion, and to teach balance with physical and social activity, as well as other hobbies.

To foster this in a positive fashion, we create a rich home environment that included homesteading activities, craft activities, music, cooking, and we gave them both the opportunity and responsibility to participate in that. We teach them to love the act of creation in many domains. We moved into a neighborhood where both children have friends nearby. All of these things helped to fill their time and create a healthy competition with technology. We’ve reached an equilibrium where the computer is just one of many hobbies, to be used for those things it is good at. Mixed in with all of this, we allow ourselves to enjoy and be amazed by their successes, whether online or offline. And the journey continues…

Public school in Switzerland

During our time in Switzerland, the children attended public school. An important goal for us was that they would learn the language, and the public school system supported this. The school the children were assigned to was 1.5 km from our home, and we generally walked or took the bus (sometimes the children went the whole way on their own toward the end).

The athletic area and my son's school building
The athletic area and my son’s school building

My son was placed in a class for second language speakers. His class had an ever-changing group of about eight children, and two main teachers. The class curriculum was ungraded and tailored to the children, who were moved into mainstream classes as they learned german (if they were staying in Switzerland longer-term). These were all grade-school children, so in addition to main lesson, they had handwork, music, and swimming classes with other teachers, along with special times for gym, art, language and mathematics.

My daughter was placed into a Kindergarten class where a mixture of swiss german and german was spoken. Her main teacher, who had taught at a Steiner school for 22 years before switching to a public Kindergarten, was a warm hearted and loving woman who connected well with my daughter and supported her love of creative play as well as craft work.  One day a week was spent in the woods (the entire morning) playing and cooking over a campfire. Other days were spent in the classroom and back yard. One afternoon a week, my daughter had German class along with other older students who were new to German.

School included a 1.5 hour lunch break, and ended at noon two days a week for my son. My daughter was done at noon three days a week and had the same lunch break. If parents worked during those hours, children could attend “Hort” — a sort of daycare with a kitchen (hot food is an expected part of a healthy lunch). We were skeptical about Hort at first, but my son in particular grew to love the free play and delicious food it provided, and both children often came home with crafts or stories from Hort.

Some things that stood out about the childrens’ experience in school, besides the overall quality of the education, were:

  • Dedicated teachers who educated in a way we loved (the principal, one of my son’s teachers, and my daughter’s teacher all had experience with Steiner education for example, one of my son’s teachers was also trained in art therapy)
  • Very high quality facilities (the school had its own swimming pool, for example, with a moveable floor!)
  • Recorder Concert
    The Block-Flöte player at the concert

    Quality was important throughout. At the end of year picnic, there was a small concert. The school had arranged for a world-class Block-Flöte player to perform in a fairy tale retelling. The music was incredible, and the children ate up every note (and every word).

  • School in switzerland is clearly organized on the principal that education isn’t just about getting as much information into children as possible as quickly as possible. There seemed to be 1-2 short weeks (or whole weeks) free of school every month we were there. Overall, the Swiss do not seem to worry about the children spending hours learning each day. Between half days (every week) and frequent vacations, it is also set up for families with a parent who works part time or not at all.
  • The children learned German incredibly fast (I was reading and retelling portions of Harry Potter to my son all in german within six weeks).

Upshot? I can highly recommend public school as an option for visiting families in Switzerland.

Learning languages

I’ve mentioned before that one of my sabbatical goals was to learn a new language (Hindi). I am not fluent, but I think I came a fair way with it, and I want to comment on the role of different technologies and approaches in our successes (and failures) as a family to learn the three languages that we tackled on this trip.

One of the most useful technologies we employed was the Rosetta Stone software. The kids loved Rosetta Stone, which we started using almost as soon as the sabbatical was approved to get them familiar with Hindi. They spent about 30 minutes at a time on it at the beginning. At our peak, this happened almost daily (after we left Pittsburgh but before we were settled in India. Eventually we hired a tutor (a wonderful friend now) to come for about an hour most days instead. The kids were far more resistant to being tutored than they were to using the software, but I feel we covered much more ground in those hours. We made up all sorts of games, retold fairy tales, played shop, and generally did our best to make it child friendly.

Hindi was a relatively hard language to learn (new alphabet, different sentence structures, and so on). Once we got past the vocabulary phase,  progress was slowish. Still, by the end of the fall we could have whole conversations in Hindi as a family. The kids were not alone in learning the language: Anind and I were trying very hard to learn it as well and we tried to speak it at meals, with our Indian driver, and so on. So between the tutoring and the daily practice opportunities, they used Rosetta Stone less and less.

The Rosetta Stone was not a pure success. It required the right context to be used — enough motivation, and not too much other support. We almost never used the German Rosetta Stone I bought, and of course the kids are far more fluent (they are immersed, unlike with Hindi, and it is a much easier language for them to learn). Use of Rosetta Stone is rare at this point, and mostly me.

You get free tutoring through the online package with Rosetta Stone, along with access to online games. The games are a fun way to practice but slow. When possible, I sign up and have a session with an online tutor. It is based on the material I’m currently covering in the software. However, they only let the kids do it when there’s no other remote participants, which is sometimes hard to find at popular times in the early stages of learning a language.

As a computer scientist, I cannot help but be impressed by the software. It is dedicated to learning language through immersion, and the authors have done an excellent job of maintaining that throughout the software and the tutoring sessions. It uses speech recognition to check pronunciation, and provides multi-media support for learning. And it works, if you put the time in with it, you learn. To my mind, it’s a success as an educational tool and an interactive tool. It supposedly has a social side as well, though as a Hindi learner I was one of few and could not take advantage of it. I’d be curious to see what it’s like.

It has always seemed such a shame to me, that learning multiple languages is not a norm in the United States. During our travels we met 10 year olds who spoke 5 or 6 languages, all with fluent ease. They never needed to touch a piece of software or a tutor. The world has become so small, yet so many of us in the United States fail to give our children the gift of understanding and the mastery of complexity that comes with learning multiple languages. Most of my swiss cousins have raised children who are bi- or tri- lingual, and without the errors that plague even my immersed children.  There is no substitute for that level of early exposure.