Enhancing learning with informati...
Early Child Development and Care Vol. 178, No. 6, August 2008, pp. 637���654 ISSN 0300-4430 (print)/ISSN 1476-8275 (online)/08/060637���18 �� 2008 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/03004430600869571 Enhancing learning with information and communication technologies in pre-school Christine Stephen* and Lydia Plowman University of Stirling, UK Taylor and Francis Ltd GECD_A_186885.sgm 10.1080/03004430600869571 Early Childhood Development and Care 0300-4430 (print)/1476-8275 (online) Original Article 2007 Taylor & Francis 00 0 0000002007 ChristineStephen firstname.lastname@example.org Earlier observations suggested that young children���s engagement with information and communi- cation technologies (ICT) could be unproductive. Interplay: Play, Learning and ICT in Pre-school Settings set out to explore how practitioners can enhance three-year-olds��� to four-year-olds��� encoun- ters with new technologies in the playroom. The study took place in pre-school settings where prac- tice was characterised by free-play and child-initiated activity. Practitioners and researchers worked together in a process of guided enquiry with staff planning and implementing technology-based interventions in their playrooms. The concept of guided interaction is used to describe the kind of adult support necessary to enhance young children���s learning with a range of ICT. In this paper we present an elaborated understanding of guided interaction (considering both distal and proximal interactions) and our findings about children���s and practitioners��� learning when adults proactively support learning with ICT in the playroom. Keywords: Adult mediation Computers Guided interaction Information and communication technologies Pre-school children Introduction The widespread belief in the benefit of play with information and communications technologies (ICT) and the enthusiasm of practitioners and parents for children having early access to new technologies, and computers in particular, is evident in the literature (Stephen & Plowman, 2003a Marsh et al., 2005). Policy-makers also have turned their attention to the provision of ICT experiences in pre-school settings (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2003). In Scotland a national strategy for the use of ICT in pre- school settings was launched in 2003, a move endorsed by the early years community *Corresponding author. Institute of Education, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, UK. Email: email@example.com
638 C. Stephen and L. Plowman in a national consultation on the draft proposals (Stephen & Plowman, 2003b). The Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage in England now includes an early learning goal for ICT, defines stepping stones on the way to this goal and provides case study materials to support staff (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 2005). In their meta-review of the evidence on pre-school learning and provision, Bowman et al. (2000, p. 229) conclude that ���across several subject matter areas, computers can positively affect how children learn and think, as well as their metacognitive skills���. But they go on to argue that research has now moved on from questions about whether ICT can help children learn to examine how best to achieve this. More recently, Siraj-Blatchford and Siraj-Blatchford (2006) have identified communica- tion and collaboration, metacognition and creativity as three areas of young children���s learning that can be supported through engagement with ICT. However, they go on to point to the need for support through interactions with adults and peers and for the use of appropriate software if children are to develop these areas of learning. A small-scale investigation (one of a series of studies undertaken by the authors to inform the development of the national strategy in Scotland) raised questions about the conditions necessary to ensure that children���s encounters with new technologies in the playroom were positive and supportive of learning (Plowman & Stephen, 2005). Children���s use of computers (the dominant form of ICT in the playroom) nearly always happened during free-play periods and was characterised by brief and often unproductive encounters. Children frequently experienced operational difficul- ties, were hampered by their inability to read instructions or respond to dialogue boxes and failed to complete tasks when the games or activities they were interacting with were too conceptually demanding. In most settings in that study, practitioners were responsible for supervising play at the computer along with other activities. They placed considerable value on a child- centred approach, with adults offering a nurturing and developmentally supportive environment and avoiding didactic or what they interpret as ���teacherly��� interactions (Siraj-Blatchford, 1999). Accordingly their supervision of children using the computer was opportunistic and reactive rather than proactive. This situation was compounded by the children���s tendency to walk away and turn to other options when they encountered difficulties with ICT activities rather than to seek help. While prac- titioners would help to overcome an operational problem if it was drawn to their attention, offer positive feedback, sort out difficulties with turn-taking and adjust the level of task difficulty, sitting alongside children and actively helping them to interact with the computer was unusual. In addition, there were few examples of practitioners observing, recording and assessing children���s progress with ICT. Interplay: Play, Learning and ICT in Pre-school Settings, the research project that is the subject of this paper, was stimulated by these findings. We set out to explore how practitioners can enhance three-year-old and four-year old children���s encounters with ICT in a pre-school culture of child-initiated learning through play. By enhancing encounters with ICT we meant promoting the kind of sustained, mindful engagement that characterises active learning. From a theoretical perspective we were aware of the crucial mediating role of adults in children���s learning and were keen to explore the
Enhancing learning with ICT in pre-school 639 kind of mediation that supports children as they interact with ICT in particular. Our expectations about the role of adults, or more specifically the practitioners in the context of the playroom, were shaped by the understanding of children���s learning that comes from the Vygotskian tradition and from cultural psychology. As Alexander (2005) argues: It is true that children learn regardless of the intention of their parents, carers or teachers ��� But learning to a specific cultural purpose requires intervention and support by others. (p. 11) Socio-cultural theory (Vygotsky, 1981) suggests that learning occurs first through inter-personal interactions, followed by intra-personal guidance, before the learner can act independently. Schaffer (2004) describes this as a shift ���from other assistance to self assistance��� and it is the nature of this ���other assistance���, which we have concep- tualised as guided interaction, which is at the core of this study. Guided interaction The concept of guided interaction was initially used in earlier (classroom-based) stud- ies (Plowman, 1996a, b) to think about the way in which the computer interface and the design of interactive media can guide or scaffold navigation and comprehension. In these circumstances, guided interaction was conceptualised primarily in terms of design supporting or mediating the interactions between computer software and the user or learner. The concern then was with the ways in which school-aged children could be guided or prompted to learn while interacting with the computer but without direct adult support. However, using the design of software to support interactions with new technology is inappropriate for pre-school children who cannot read instructions about the process of the activity and often encounter operational difficulties that they are unable to overcome alone (e.g. returning to the menu on a game package, setting the level of sound or the difficulty of a task). In using guided interaction as a tool to think about engagements with digital technology in the playroom, we have replaced the earlier emphasis on the guidance offered by design with a focus on the role of human help in guiding children���s interactions. We wanted to examine the kind of adult mediation that would avoid the unproductive encounters described above when children often made fleeting and unsatisfactory attempts to use the technology available during free- play. We have thought of learning with ICT as involving three interacting components: the child, the technology and the practitioner. In this model, children are active agents in learning, with individual preferences for particular activities and individual styles of learning and perspectives on playroom experiences (Stephen, 2003). Our definition of ICT went beyond computers and peripherals to encompass technologies that are better suited to the needs of young children, such as digital cameras, video cameras, dance mats, electronic keyboards and toys that simulate laptops, barcode readers and mobile phones (Plowman & Stephen, 2006). Desktop computers were