Emergent technological literacy: what do children bring to school?

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  • Emergent technological literacy: what do children bringto school?

    W. B. Mawson

    Published online: 30 November 2011 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

    Abstract There has been very little research into childrens technological practice inearly childhood settings. This article describes four typical examples of the technological

    activity that occurs on a daily basis in New Zealand early childhood settings. It is sug-

    gested that children come to compulsory schooling with well-developed technological

    knowledge and competence in instigating and carrying out technological tasks that is not

    recognized and taken advantage of by the majority of primary early years programme

    developers and teachers. A number of ways by which early years school technology

    programmes could benefit by recognizing the extent of childrens emergent technological

    literacy and amending programme delivery and teaching strategies are detailed.

    Keywords Technological literacy Curriculum development Teaching Early childhood


    Although there is an increasing amount of knowledge of technological practice in the early

    primary school years (Anning 1992; Gustafson and Rowell 1998; Hope 2001; Mawson

    2007; Milne 2004; Milne and Edwards 2011; Roden 1999; Rogers and Wallace 2000) little

    research has focused on young childrens prior to school technological experiences. This

    article is based on two research projects in early childhood settings. The first was a 2-year

    investigation into the nature of childrens independent collaborative play. This was fol-

    lowed by a year-long investigation of long term projects. An area of particular interest of

    mine (e.g. Mawson 2002, 2003, 2011) is to understand and encourage childrens techno-

    logical experiences in early childhood settings and it is this aspect of the research that is the

    focus of this article. A greater knowledge of the emergent technological practice and

    knowledge that children bring to school may allow teachers to use the childrens interests

    W. B. Mawson (&)Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland, Private Bag 92601, Symonds Street,Auckland 1150, New Zealande-mail: b.mawson@auckland.ac.nz


    Int J Technol Des Educ (2013) 23:443453DOI 10.1007/s10798-011-9188-y

  • and skills to create more relevant and authentic programmes in the first year of school. This

    would have a positive flow on effect on the school technology programme.

    Much of the early childhood literature focuses on descriptions of longer-term projects,

    based on childrens interests but with a high degree of teacher direction (e.g. Alkon 2004;

    Carr 2000; Floerchinger 2005). Marilyn Fleer explored childrens technological practice in

    some depth in the 1990s (Fleer 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000) and Beverley Jane and Jill

    Robbins (Jane 2004; Jane and Robbins 2004) have continued this in the first decade of this

    century. The general place of technology in early childhood has also been addressed (Fleer

    et al. 2004; Napper 1991; Smorti 1999) but little of it is research-based. This article offers

    another perspective as it provides evidence of childrens technological practice in col-

    laborative play with no adult intervention, as well as more teacher-directed experiences.

    This wider focus may offer greater insight into the technological knowledge and capability

    that children bring to compulsory schooling.

    Technologically oriented play in early childhood settings has a number of facets (Mawson

    2002). One aspect involves children setting and achieving a clear goal in their socio-dramatic

    play such as preparing and having a picnic or constructing animal enclosures for animals. A

    technological process begins with the identification of a purpose or aim and ends when a final

    outcome is developed and evaluated. In early childhood settings the purpose is invariably

    identified by the child and is focused on satisfying a personal desire.

    Early childhood curriculum and pedagogy are holistic in nature and the development of

    mathematical and scientific literacy are closely related and intertwined with childrens

    emerging technological literacy. Metz (1993, 1997, 2004, 2011a, b) has done much to

    show that young childrens scientific knowledge and understanding has been undervalued

    and disregarded by Science curriculum developers. Mertzs work clearly shows that when

    the focus is on tasks that are contextually related to the children and their prior experiences

    young children clearly demonstrate well-developed scientific competence. Young chil-

    drens capable use of scientific process to explore the natural and physical world is also

    well documented (De Boo 2006; French 2004; Van Hoorn et al. 1999; Howitt et al. 2007;

    Johnston 2005). Young childrens mathematical competency in early education setting has

    also been investigated. Children under the age of five have demonstrated strong emergent

    knowledge and understanding of numeric, algebraic, statistical and geometric concepts

    (Anthony and Walshaw 2009; Austin et al. 2011; Dehaene 1999; Geist 2001; Park et al.

    2008; Pound 1999). Children in early childhood settings use their developing scientific and

    mathematical knowledge as an integral part of their technological play.

    Young children come into compulsory primary schooling with rich prior experiences from

    home and early childhood education (Bruce 2004; Dockett and Fleer 1999). In their inde-

    pendent and teacher-assisted play children incorporate a wide range of technological

    knowledge and understandings. The technological experiences described in this article

    provide an insight into the technological competency and capability that young children bring

    to school, and offer some possible avenues of interest that might be explored. An initial

    primary school technology programme based around childrens interests and competencies

    could provide greater relevance, authenticity and motivation in the early years of schooling.


    The data for this article comes from two separate research projects that took place in

    Auckland, New Zealand early childhood centres. First, an investigation into the nature of

    childrens collaborative play was carried out in an education and care centre (2007) and a

    444 W. B. Mawson


  • kindergarten (2008). Second, an investigation into teacher roles in developing long-term

    projects was carried out in a different kindergarten (2009). In each setting the children

    were 3 and 4 years of age and the teachers were fully trained and registered. I spent one

    morning a week from the beginning of February to the end of November in each early

    childhood setting.

    Although the focus of the research was different both research projects were interpretivist

    ethnographic case studies. A case study is an in-depth exploration of a bounded system based

    on extensive data collection (Creswell 2007). An interpretivist approach is the systematic

    analysis of socially meaningful action through the direct, detailed observation of people in

    natural settings in order to arrive at understandings and interpretations of how people create

    and maintain their social worlds (Neuman 2000, p. 76). The interpretation of childrens play

    was underpinned by sociocultural theory. From a sociocultural perspective effective

    learning takes place within learning communities where participants co-construct learning

    encounters through a process of reciprocal exchanges of meaning (Rogers and Evans 2008

    p. 18). Rogoffs concept of guided participation provided a focus for the study, particularly

    her belief that participation requires a description or an explanation of how people partic-

    ipate in sociocultural activities that are not formed by individuals alone, but by individuals

    with other people in cultural communities (Rogoff 1997, p. 266).

    For a play episode to be considered technological in nature required a clearly identified

    intention on the childrens part, evidence of planning and resource collection, a recog-

    nizable coherent process to achieve an fitting solution, and some appropriate evaluation of

    the success of the outcome. Confirmation of my identification of technologically oriented

    play episodes was sought through discussions on my initial data with the childrens

    teachers and my technology education colleagues in the Faculty of Education. The children

    involved were also shown photographs of their play and invited to talk to me about what

    they were doing in the photograph. I used this conversation to tease out their understanding

    of the process they had been through. The feedback from the three groups was incorporated

    in the illustrative episodes in this article. I was seeking to provide an authentic narrative

    that captured the essence of the play episode and was true to the holistic nature of early

    childhood education programmes.

    Ethical considerations

    Research with young children poses a number of important ethical issues that need to be

    addressed. Although the children, aged 3 and 4-years-old, were not able to give fully

    informed consent, which was gained from the parent/care giver, care was taken to explain

    to the children, in terms that they could understand, what was being observed and to make

    clear that at any time they could ask not to be observed. I also looked for non-verbal

    indications that children were withdrawing their consent.

    The research had ethical approval from the University of Auckland Human Participants

    Ethics Committee and the Auckland Kindergarten Association Ethics Committee. Pseud-

    onyms are used for all children in this paper.


    Childrens technological experiences occurred in one of three contexts. First, they were

    totally child initiated and carried out with no adult interaction. Second, they were initiated

    Emergent technological literacy 445


  • by the child and carried out with adult assistance. Third, they were based on childrens

    interests but involved adult planned and directed activities. Two examples of the first

    context, and one of each of the other two contexts that are representative of early childhood

    technological practice and knowledge are described in this section. The nature of the

    technological literacy encapsulated within the play, and the implications for programme

    planning in the early compulsory schooling will be addressed in the discussion that


    Example OneEducation and Care Centre 1The builders yard (Child initiated and


    Two boys had been playing a Fireman game using a small wooden ladder as a prop.

    Tiring of the game and thinking about what else they could do with the ladder, they

    decided to construct a builders yard. Having located a suitable place in the corner of the

    centre, they entered into a discussion about what was found in a builders yard and what

    builders did. Their first decision was that builders had smoko (morning tea) so their first

    action was to find a cup each and go to the water tank to get the cup of tea. The next

    40 min were devoted to creating the builders yard. A discussion would identify what was

    needed and this would be followed by a search round the centre to find a resource that

    would serve the purpose. The ladder became the gate to the yard, and a stop sign was found

    to control the entrance. The sandpit area was raided for spouting, guttering and drain coil

    pipes to provide the builders supplies. Tree-trunk rings, used as stepping stones in the bark

    area, became the builders seats and tables. The foam mats from the climbing boxes

    provided the beds. By this time a fairly complex and accurate simulation of the boys

    understanding of builder work and premises had been created, and this served as the basis

    for the socio-dramatic play that ensued (Videotape, field notes27/5/2007).

    Example TwoKindergarten AMotorcars (Child initiated and controlled)

    Sarah and Patsy were involved mother and daughter socio-dramatic play in the

    family corner. The developing scenario entailed a visit to the supermarket. Rather than go

    to the supermarket in a pretend car the girls decided they needed to make cars that they

    could drive. Some large cardboard cartons had been given to the kindergarten earlier in the

    week and Sarah identified them as being suitable for their needs. They each got a cardboard

    carton and after opening out the bottom, climbed inside and stood up, holding the cartonsunder their arms. We need a steering wheel and seat belt, said Sarah and the two girls

    got out of their cartons and went inside. They came back with paper plates, string, glue and

    Sellotape. They glued the paper plates on to the front flap of the carton to act as the steering

    wheel, and Sellotaped the string from one side of the carton to the other to act as the seat

    belt. Patsy started to walk around the kindergarten driving her car and Sarah called out to

    her You havent got your licence. Patsy, you need to come home and get your licence.They proceeded to use their cars to go from home to the library and the shops. Patsys

    string came unstuck and she looked very sad and said, I cant get my seat belt on. Sarah

    came up and looked at the problem and went and got some more Sellotape to re-secure it.

    When that failed to achieve the desired outcome Sarah fetched a stapler and successfully

    stapled the string securely to the cardboard box. The two girls played with their cars for

    nearly an hour until tidy up time (Field notes, photographs18/04/2008).

    Example ThreeKindergarten AScuba gear (Child initiated with teacher assistance)

    A teacher was engaged in a discussion with a 4-year-old boy about what the child had

    done in the weekend. The child described in detail a diving trip that he had been on with

    446 W. B. Mawson


  • his father on the Saturday. At the end of the conversation the child expressed a desire to

    build his own scuba gear. A discussion then ensured about the nature of scuba gear, the

    component parts, and how they were connected. Having clarified what was needed (tank,

    air hose and straps) the teacher and the child then searched the kindergarten for appropriate

    resources, selecting a three litre plastic bottle, a length of plastic hosing and strips of a

    range of fabrics. The different fabrics were examined and assessed for suitability and a

    choice was made. After the teacher and child had jointly constructed a plan of action, the

    child, with minimal physical assistance from the teacher proceeded to construct the scuba

    gear. Technical difficulties with making the hole in the plastic bottle and inserting and

    fixing the plastic tubing, and securely attaching the fabric for the shoulder straps to the

    plastic bottle were met and overcome. Four other children became interested in the process

    and began to make their own scuba gear. Because of the childrens interest the teacher

    contacted the father who came to the kindergarten to show and explain the use of real

    scuba gear. As a result of this activity the children revisited their original creations and

    added depth gauges, face masks and weight belts. The ongoing socio-dramatic play with

    the scuba led on to a project to make a boat using a large ex-refrigerator cardboard



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