Pre-Primary Digital Normalisation: The Implications For Primary Schools

Child Technology

By Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

Largely unseen, the digitally connected families of the world have, over the last five to six years, taken a lead role in providing their pre-primary children, from the first year of life onwards, the start of a quality, lifelong digital education. Critically, they have employed the same naturally evolving laissez faire model of teaching used so successfully by the digitally connected families of the world in providing millions upon millions of their older children the desired learning with digital technology. It is a success that should be recognised and proclaimed universally, and parents should be commended for their success in contending with a rapidly evolving, uncertain digital environment.

The pre-primary children of the developed, and increasingly the developing and underdeveloped, world are on track to begin formal schooling having normalised the astute use of digital technology, and for that technology to play a central role in their upbringing, lives and learning.

The implications of the pre-primary digital normalisation are immense, particularly for primary schools, and are only now becoming apparent. They will impact on every facet of the children’s vital early childhood upbringing and ongoing learning with digital technology, whether governments or educators desire it or not. It is a development that we all need to better understand if it is to be built upon astutely.

Evolution of Pre-Primary Digital Normalisation

The origins of the development are to be found soon after the emergence of the world wide web in 1993, in the historic change to the nature of youth and youth education that flowed from the digital connectedness and empowerment of the world’s young, the evolution of digitally connected families and the introduction of digital touchscreen technologies.

The move by parents globally twenty plus years ago to empower their young and provide them with largely unfettered use of online and digital technologies has had profound implications. By the early 2000s, adolescents of the developed and increasingly the developing world had, with the vital support of their families, normalised the use of digital technologies.

As indicated in earlier articles, by around 2007–2009, the digitally connected family had become the norm across the developed and increasingly the developing world, with digitally empowered parents taking an increasingly greater lead role in their children’s learning with digital technology.

It bears remembering that, until the mid-2000s, digital usage by the world’s young was primarily that of the teens and, while younger children used the technology, the keyboard and the mouse were not exactly child friendly. The release of all manner of touchscreen technologies in the 2007–2010 period – iPhone, iPod Touch, Android mobile operating system, Apple’s and Google’s app stores, iPad and Android tablets – changed the scene irrevocably, seemingly overnight.

Very quickly, the age of those using mobile digital technologies plummeted. Devices like the iPod Touch and the iPad became very popular with the young, particularly with the addition of cameras, with many a young child also accessing mum and dad’s smartphone.

By 2012–2014, children as young as two or three were readily using iPads and Android tablets, with parents obliged to address the development. They, like the digitally connected families before them, moved naturally to using the laissez faire, non-linear, highly fluid, self-directed, individualised, play-based, parent or older sibling guided model of learning. Anyone who has sat and observed the very young at play on an iPad will have soon noted the children’s excitement, the use of visual – and only slowly the verbal-linguistic – intelligence in navigating the device (Strom & Strom, 2009), the integrated approach, the speed of learning, but also the vital role family members play in assisting children over hurdles, and bringing the usage to an end.

The digitally connected families of the world have – largely of their own volition – accommodated the surge in pre-primary use very well. A read of the European Commission’s study (Chaudron, 2015) of 0-8 digital learning in eleven European countries or the Erikson (2016) study of US families reveals the common sense, balanced and networked learning brought to play by parents, and the limited contribution made by professional educators.

It bears noting that UK Ofcom (2016) reported that 37 percent of three- to four-year-old children accessed YouTube from a mobile device in 2016, on trend for that kind of usage to grow. A Danish study in 2016 revealed that 90 percent of Denmark’s children under seven had access to a tablet (Johansen et al, 2016). Rideout (2017), in undertaking a 0-8 census for Common Sense Media in the US, noted 42 percent of the children in the study had their own tablet, with 72 percent having ready access.

We suspect every parent with a pre-primary child would have appreciated some external support and direction in the use of digital technology, but it was not to be. Rather, what the world saw were parents obliged virtually overnight to address the development, in a time of rapid, uncertain digital evolution and transformation, where few could provide expert advice. That families mostly handed the development so well is to be commended.

In many respects, the success should not come as a surprise. The current digitally connected families are among the most educated in their nation’s history, who have long normalised the everyday use of digital technology. Particularly in the last decade, they have grown their ability to lead the out-of-school 24/7/365 learning and to use a learning model that naturally accommodated exponential digital evolution and societal transformation.

Critically, they have – often unwittingly – paved the way for their children to receive an apt highly individualised digital education that the children will grow and depend upon for the rest of their life.

They have also prompted researchers globally to address the new reality that the very young, in their ready use of touchscreen technology, are invariably working with visual cues, employing and growing their visual intelligence, years before they also bring their verbal linguistic intelligence into play. It is a largely untapped capability, that Strom and Strom (2009) have advocated should be nurtured at all ages, but it is also a capability that questions some of the long-held Piagetian assumptions.

The Way Forward

On present trends, the pre-primary children that have normalised the use of digital technology, who are naturally employing the laissez faire model of learning with that technology and operating within a digital mindset, with all the associated expectations, will likely enter a school that is ill-prepared to build upon that normalisation.

Some who are lucky will enrol in a digitally mature school that complements the efforts of digitally connected families, but most will enter schools that place little importance on digital technology, where that technology does not underpin the learning, that will not provide personal digital connectivity, nor recognise each child’s unique digital capability or empower the children. Rather, the children will all have to follow the traditional ‘one size fits all’ structured instructional program, focusing on what the school/teacher believes appropriate, when appropriate, having their ‘digital capability’ regularly assessed and compared with others.

Understanding schools do not like to have their control questioned, the young and their families globally will likely continue quietly employing the laissez faire approach outside the school walls, largely dismissing what is happening in the school.

 The Implications for Primary Schools

The implications for primary schools are profound. They will increasingly be called upon to educate children with strengthening digital mindsets, who have only known a digital world, who will enter school with an individualised suite of capabilities acquired by learning with digital technology, who will expect to use their ‘personal’ technology in all of their learning, immediate connectivity, to be trusted, empowered and largely free to use the desired technologies and to largely direct their learning with technology.

Most schools will not countenance such an approach. Granted, the school will be working with all manner of constraints, but some of the great attributes of early childhood teachers are their professionalism, collaboration with the family, focus on each child’s learning and flexibility. The accelerating digital transformation bids those teachers to build on those qualities in providing the desired learning with digital technologies. Most will need to better understand children’s 24/7/365.

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Mal Lee
Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now, author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.

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