Screen Time? How about Creativity Time?

[Excerpt from my book Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play]

Discussions about children and new technologies have become increasingly polarized. On one side are people who might be called techno-enthusiasts. They tend to get excited about the possibilities of almost all new technologies— the newer, the better. On the other side are people who might be called techno-skeptics. They worry about the negative impacts of new technologies, and they prefer that children spend more time with traditional toys and outdoor play and less time on screens.

I get frustrated by both sides. Let me explain why — and explore how we might think about things differently.

Let’s start with the techno-enthusiasts. With digital technologies playing an increasingly important role in all parts of the culture and economy, it’s hardly surprising that people are enthusiastic about using new technologies to enhance learning and education. And with children spending more and more time playing games on their phones, tablets, and computers, it’s hardly surprising that educators are trying to integrate gaming into classroom activities, hoping to leverage the high level of motivation and engagement that children exhibit when playing games.

There is a certain logic to all of this — but there’s a problem. Too often, designers of educational materials and activities simply add a thin layer of technology and gaming over antiquated curriculum and pedagogy.

In one classroom I visited, there was a large display at the front of the room, and each student had a network-connected laptop. The teacher asked questions, and the students entered responses on their laptops. On the large display, for all to see, was a listing of which students had answered the question correctly, and how quickly each student had responded. Students were awarded points based on their speed and accuracy, and the display showed a running tally of their scores.

The software was well-designed, and the teacher was happy to have easy access to well-organized data on student performance. I have no doubt that some of the students found this game-like approach very motivating. But I’m also sure that some students found it very discouraging and disempowering. And the activity put an emphasis on questions that can be answered quickly with right and wrong answers — certainly not the type of questions that I would prioritize in a classroom.

The activity reminded me of my own experiences in fourth grade, when the teacher rearranged the order of our desks each Monday based on our scores on the previous Friday’s spelling test. I believe that this highly visible weekly ranking was bad for all students — those in the first row as well as those in the last. It is painful for me to see the same pedagogical approach repeated decades later, with greater efficiency, thanks to new technologies.

As frustrated as I get with techno-enthusiasts, I get equally frustrated with techno-skeptics. In many cases, the skeptics apply very different standards to new technologies than to “old” technologies. They worry about the antisocial impact of a child spending hours working on a computer, while they don’t have any concerns about a child spending the same time reading a book. They worry that children interacting with computers don’t spend enough time outside, but they don’t voice similar concerns about children playing musical instruments. I’m not suggesting that there are no reasons for concern. I’m just asking for more consistency.

Techno-skeptics often argue that children should spend more time with crayons and watercolors, rather than tablets and laptops. But they tend to forget that crayons and watercolors were viewed as “advanced technologies” at some point in the past. We see them differently now because they’ve become integrated into the culture. Computer pioneer Alan Kay likes to say that technology is anything that was invented after you were born. For kids growing up today, laptops and mobile phones aren’t high-tech tools — they’re everyday tools, just like crayons and watercolors.

I think I become particularly aggravated with techno-skeptics not because I disagree with them on so many things, but rather because I agree with them on so many things. Most techno-skeptics have goals and values very similar to my own. We all agree on the importance of providing children with opportunities to develop their imagination and creativity.

In developing the Scratch programming language and online community (scratch.mit.edu), my research group at MIT Media Lab is aiming to expand opportunities for children’s creative thinking and creative expression. We see Scratch as a medium for expression, not unlike crayons and watercolors. As children design and share interactive stories, games, and animations with Scratch, they learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for everyone in today’s society. But when techno-skeptics look at new technologies, they tend to see only the challenges, not the possibilities.

Today, concerns about the role of new technologies in children’s lives are often expressed in terms of screen time. Parents and teachers are trying to decide if they should set limits on how much time their children spend interacting with screens. I think this debate misses the point. Of course there’s a problem if children spend all their time interacting with screens — just as there would be a problem if they spent all their time playing the violin or reading books or playing sports. Spending all your time on any one thing is problematic. But the most important issue with screen time is not quantity but quality. There are many ways of interacting with screens; it doesn’t make sense to treat them all the same. Time spent playing a violent video game is different from time spent texting with friends, which is different from time spent researching a report for school, which is different from time spent creating and sharing an interactive story with Scratch.

Rather than trying to minimize screen time, I think parents and teachers should try to maximize creative time. The focus shouldn’t be on which technologies children are using, but rather what children are doing with them. Some uses of new technologies foster creative thinking; others restrict it. The same is true for older technologies. Rather than trying to choose between high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech, parents and teachers should be searching for activities that will engage children in creative thinking and creative expression.