Lessons Learned from ECT: Best Practices Teaching with Technology in the Early Childhood Classroom


From tablets to robots, young children are growing up with new technologies all around them.

While these tools provide limitless possibilities for learning, socializing, and playing, they also confront teachers with a host of new challenges. Many early childhood educators struggle with when and how to introduce their young students to technology. In order to address teachers’ 21st century concerns, Professor Marina Umaschi Bers and the DevTech Research Group launched a new program called the Early Childhood Technology (ECT) Graduate Certificate program at Tufts University in 2016. The program provides early childhood educators of all kinds with the skills, confidence, and technical knowledge necessary to educate children ages 4-7 about coding, computational thinking, engineering and more.

ECT is a three-course blended-learning (online and offline) program that is grounded in Professor Bers’ “Coding as a Playground” philosophy (Bers, 2018). This approach encourages young children to playfully explore technology as creators rather than consumers of their digital experience. The program is open to anyone interested in gaining experience in these areas, making it quite diverse. Participants are made up of caregivers, researchers, educational technology specialists, parents, and full-time classroom teachers. Two years after opening its doors, ECT alums have diverse positions in educational technology fields and they have learned quite a bit about best practices when introducing technology to young children. Mike Terburg, who has a new job as a library technology specialist says, “This program gave me the pedagogy and the philosophy to grow as a teacher. It helped me develop lesson plans and provided me the structure to implement technology, robots, coding and other activities into my classroom in a developmentally appropriate way.” Hannah Boston, who now works as a computer science teacher, says she was inspired by the ECT program to continue her graduate studies in Child Development with a focus on educational technologies through a Master’s program at Harvard University's Technology, Innovation, and Education program. “I will now be attending graduate school to further study technology in education, and I attribute this desire to learn more to ECT!”.

eliot-pearson-children-school

ECT cohort (class of 2017) at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School completing their one-week residency with ECT program directors Prof. Marina Umaschi Bers and Dr. Amanda Sullivan

DeeDee Devore, a first grade teacher who is now a teacher and STEM liason at her school says, “I am definitely more interested (and capable!) of integrating engineering and STEM into my lessons. I am excited to use everything from the ECT program and know that my curriculum design will be stronger because I participated in this program.”

teaching-coding-to-children

ECT alums DeeDee Devore and Hannah Boston teach coding to children at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School

ECT program staff, students, and alumni know firsthand what a challenge it is to effectively teach with technology in the early years. Based on their experiences at Tufts and in their own classrooms, ECT students and staff came together to create the following tips and best practices for other teachers struggling with the same issues:

  • Start Young- From automatically opening doors to sinks with sensors, young children encounter technology everywhere. Early childhood teachers should begin talking to young children about the human-made world beginning in pre-school while kids are curious about the world and want to know how things work.
  • Allow Opportunities for Collaboration and Communication- Early childhood educators should be aware of promoting positive social skills through the use of new technology. Professor Marina Umaschi Bers developed the Positive Technological Development (PTD) framework which encourages teachers to focus on fostering 6 C’s when using tech with kids: Collaboration, Communication, Community Building, Content Creation, Creativity, and Choices of Conduct (Bers, 2012).
  • Choose Tangible Materials- Young children should have limited screen-time, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to teach about coding, engineering, and more! Today, there are a range of tangible tech tools available such as the KIBO robotics kit (a tangible robotics kit programmed by interlocking wooden blocks), the Beebot robot (a colorful robot programmed with directional keys on its back), and the completely non-digital Robot Turtles board game (a 4-person board game that uses coding skills).
  • Not All Screentime is Created Equally- It is important for teachers to remember that not all screen time is created equally. Whenever possible, choose screen-based activities that engage children as creators rather than consumers of their digital experience. For example, instead of just playing a game about the alphabet, children can use a programming language like ScratchJr to create their own alphabet game for a friend to play! Instead of watching a movie or TV show, young children can use apps like ToonTastic to create their own movies and animations.
  • Foster a Growth Mindset-Personal views about intelligence and failure can impact kids’ persistence in challenging areas like coding and engineering. The “growth mindset” is the belief that intelligence is not fixed, but instead can change and grow incrementally through practice (Dweck, 2002; Dweck, 2008). Teachers can remind children that the brain works like a muscle and that it can only grow through hard work and lots of practice. Mistakes are opportunities to grow and learn and they are a big part of the Engineering Design Process!

Above all, teachers should remember to introduce technology to young children in playful ways that celebrate the curiosity and exploration that is characteristic of this age group. Teachers should remember to seek training, support, and professional development in order to gain the confidence and skills they need. For those looking for ongoing support, ECT (or similar) certificate programs may be a good match. Find out more about ECT, or apply now, by visiting: go.tufts.edu/ECT

References

Bers, M.U. (2018). Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom. New York, NY: Routledge press.

Bers, M. U. (2012). Designing digital experiences for positive youth development: From playpen to playground. Cary, NC: Oxford.

Dweck, C. S. (2002). The development of ability conceptions. In A. Wigfield & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), A Vol. in the educational psychology series. Development of achievement motivation (pp. 57-88). San Diego, CA, US: Academic Press.

Dweck (2008). Mindsets and math/science achievement. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, Institute for Advanced Study, Commission on Mathematics and Science Education.

About the Author
Author: Amanda Sullivan
Dr. Amanda Sullivan is the Associate Director of the Early Childhood Technology (ECT) Graduate Certificate Program and a researcher with the DevTech Research Group. She has worked with DevTech for eight years, having completed her Master’s and Ph.D. in the Eliot-Pearson Dept. of Child Study & Human Development at Tufts University. Her research is primarily focused on educational technology in early childhood and engaging girls in STEM.

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