Digital Learning: Theory in practice

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In previous articles, I looked at the theories of Jerome Bruner, with his emphasis on children’s thinking skills, Albert Bandura who focused on the social nature of children’s learning and Urie Bronfenbrenner who examined children’s learning in the wider context of society. In this article, I would like to focus on how theories inform practice with the help of Martine Burke who is Lead Practitioner of an outstanding nursery in Bristol. I began by inviting Martine to offer an example of a new initiative she has introduced within her setting that draws upon sound theoretical perspectives such as those discussed in previous articles on Bruner, Bandura and Bronfenbrenner. Martine came up with a wonderful example where digital technology and its potential to develop children’s learning in her Centre were explored (see example below). The example offers insights into how children’s thinking and social interaction with their environments can be progressed and extended by practitioners and how children’s learning in a changing world, which is largely influenced and shaped by technology, can be observed in practice.

The formation of children’s digital footprints

We now know that the digital presence in children’s lives typically begins even before birth when, for example, expectant mothers show ultrasound images of their babies to friends and family – with some even putting these images on social media sites. Before children are even born some have already become part of the ‘App Generation’ where their mothers have used apps on their smartphones after becoming pregnant, as demonstrated by one young mother:

I used an app that gives you a weekly update on the development of the foetus [which] it equates to the size of a strawberry and then a lemon – it really helps you imagine.

How digital technologies help with literacy development

Children’s digital footprints then commence following birth with many children growing up in homes where each day they come into contact with a whole range of digital devices; from their first weeks and months many children, therefore, become immersed in home environments that have a heavy reliance on technology. By the age of two, children can even be seen using tablets or computers. Indeed, it has been estimated that nearly half of children in the UK use these every day and that well over half of 3-7-year-olds have access to a tablet computer at home. Many young children now use tablet computers as second nature and may be observed tapping and swiping the screens on these devices with confidence and ease and often with excitement. Whilst some parents find it challenging to use technology within their own lives, for children growing up today it has become their normal experience. Indeed, children do not limit their activities to tablet computers but increasingly they use their parents’ smartphones to play games and watch videos, video-message relatives such as grandparents and even send messages.  

Children entering early years settings today will almost certainly have had access to a wide range of digital technology within their homes. When used properly, these devices can offer very good learning opportunities for young children. The absence of innovative attempts in using digital technologies in early years settings may work against children having exciting and worthwhile learning opportunities. Tablet computers can, for example, emulate many features of books and offer exciting opportunities for literacy development. Screens look like the pages of books and even young children can swipe their fingers over pages and enlarge the visual details of a picture that captures their interest. There are also many apps that are geared towards helping children in making up their own stories and can even permit the children to add pictures and sounds, making them more visually appealing and motivating the children to engage further with books and explore ideas in much greater detail. Children can then be encouraged to become even more creative with their engagement with reading and writing.

Example of the benefits of digital technology use from Martine Burke of The Southville Centre, Bristol:

When thinking about how Information Computer Technology (ICT) might be used for children in the early years, I asked the team what this might mean for us. After putting the question to the team their response was very positive. They saw opportunities for the children to develop their thinking skills and knowledge by being able to explore, observe and have a go with iPads, tablets, phones. This could also lead to them using or observing adults at home. I decided to observe a group of children exploring ICT equipment in our setting. The children are already very interested in exploring cars, rolling, positioning them next to each other, forwards, backwards, racing them along ramps and showing lots of persistence and imagination and in doing so, developing their social skills through playing with others. I next offered some remote-controlled cars for the children to explore. The children were between the ages of 2 and 3 years of age. The children straightaway became very involved and keen, pressing buttons, observing what happens to the cars when they do so – importantly, the children were making something happen using thinking skills and by having a go, which are characteristics of effective learning. It was a joy to observe the children working together, racing the cars and practising moving them forwards and backwards. Having this opportunity, I feel, enhances the learning environment for our children. Using the indoor and outdoor environment, up and down ramps, steps, modelling language and lots of repetition encouraged many verbal responses from the children. Reflecting upon this, I will offer more ICT opportunities to enhance and support learning indoors and outdoors. Next steps will be metal detectors to explore. 

The above example clearly illustrates how one early years setting is exploring ways in which ICT can be used positively to impact on the learning of young children, to increase their thinking skills and progress social development, to interact with others, acquire new vocabularies and experiment with new ideas and activities and to improve coordination and fine motor skills; all in a way that motivates and excites them with new learning. In previous generations, when theorists such as Bruner, Bandura and Bronfenbrenner were developing their theories, most children shaped their social lives through exploration of the physical worlds around them; play was typically ‘hands-on’ and mostly, ‘out-of-doors’. Children today, however, can shape their social lives and exploring their physical worlds from the comfort of their homes and bedrooms. This process has been reinforced by the fact that many parents have over recent years invested in digital technology for their children by buying computers, tablet computers, smartphones and paying for access to the Internet in the belief that this can benefit their children’s learning and have real educational value as evidenced by Martine in the above example.

For further information on how an understanding of ICT can support practice in the early years, see the following link to Sean’s latest book: MacBlain, S.F. (2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. London: Sage:  https://uk.sagepub.com/en-gb/eur/learning-theories-for-early-years-practice/book259408

About the author

Dr Sean MacBlain is a distinguished author whose most recent publication is: MacBlain (Sage, 2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. Other publications include: MacBlain (Sage, 2014) How Children Learn; Gray and MacBlain (Sage, 2015) Learning Theories in Childhood, now going into its 3rd edition; MacBlain, Long and Dunn, (Sage, 2015) Dyslexia, Literacy and Inclusion: Child-centred Perspectives; MacBlain, Dunn and Luke (Sage, 2017) Contemporary Childhood; Sean’s publications are used by students, academics and practitioners worldwide. He is currently a senior academic at Plymouth Marjon University where he teaches on a range of undergraduate programmes and supervises students at Masters and Doctoral level. Sean worked previously as a Senior Lecturer in Education and Developmental Psychology at Stranmillis University College, Queens University Belfast and for over twenty years as an educational psychologist in private practice. Sean lives with his wife Angela in Somerset, England.  

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