Software Nerd

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Computers in Elementary School

Should elementary kids learn computers? Some say that computers cannot help and might even be distracting, at best. Others say that in this age of computers we need to start our kids off early.

Its fine for elementary kids to learn how to use a computer for something other than games, but its far-fetched to suggest that it will help them use computers later. Using the typical tools -- word-processors & spreadsheets -- takes very little training.

On the other hand, I'm not a complete Luddite about this either. I think that some well-constructed teaching programs can be useful. They are particularly useful in drill. There are many things that a child learns by mental drill -- repetition.

Here's one example from the life of my 6 year old. He's learning certain "math facts". Having past the stage of being able to add number by counting, he is now being taught to memorize some. Presented with any pair of single digit numbers, he should be able to recall their sum, difference and product, without having to mentally add, subtract or multiply them.

He was stuck on the memorizing the products. His "7 times tables" were hard, and so were 8 and 12. Every day, I would quiz him on two or three pairs. In a spare moment, I might ask: "So, what is 7 times 8". After about a week, I found that he was able to remember more. So, I wrote a small software program to:
  • display a "problem", like " 7 x 8 = ??";
  • accept an answer; and,
  • say if it was right or wrong.

It also displayed a score at the top of the screen, "You got 5 right out of 6". I randomized the selection of numbers that would be presented. I also made it log each question and whether it was answered right -- that way I could review it and see if he was having trouble with certain specific pairs (why is "7 times 8" so hard?).

It worked! He has been able to drill at odd moments, and without my being there to help him. The drill has improved his retention of the "Math facts". He even finds the process mildly interesting.

So, yes, a computer can be a useful tool, if applied to the right type of educational problem. Not the computer as something to learn, but the computer as a tool to help teach something else.