Episode 230 – The role of technology in early learning has always been hotly debated. In our conversation with Ann Gadzikowski, Director of Early Learning at Encyclopaedia Britannica, we discuss the difference between being active users and passive consumers of technology. Ann shares why blocks are an amazing medium to promote STEM learning at a young age.
We want children to be active problem solvers and active creators of technology. We don’t want them to be passive consumers of technology. We want them to form their own path.
Ann, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you, I’m so happy to be here today.!
We’re delighted to have Ann Gadzikowski join us on the Preschool Podcast today. She’s director of learning at Encyclopedia Britannica and she’s also an author. So glad to have you on the show. And tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you found yourself to be an Encyclopedia Britannica.
Yes, so my background is as a preschool teacher. I started my career as a teacher in a childcare center here in the Chicago area many years ago. And I’ve been an early-childhood educator and a director for a long time.
And at the same time, I’m very interested in writing and editing. I began by just writing newsletter articles for my school where I worked. And at this point I’ve had a number of books published, primarily by Redleaf Press. And my most recent book is called Young Architects At Play. And it’s primarily about block play and it includes a lot of STEM activities – science, technology, engineering and math – that early-childhood teachers can do in the classroom with children who are three, four, five years old.
Very cool. So, I understand you’re quite passionate and deeply involved in STEM learning. What does that mean in early-childhood education? Because I think a lot of folks, when they think of science, technology, engineering and math, they think of university. Or in high school, maybe you start diving deeper into these kinds of things. What does that mean at such an early age?
I have to admit that when I was growing up, I wasn’t interested in science and technology and engineering and math. I was interested in stories and I was interested in music and I was interested in children.
And it wasn’t until a little bit later in my career and I was working for university. So, it was Northwestern University here in the Chicago area. And I was developing programs for children. Some of them were on campus – they were enrichment classes. And there was incredible interest in this university community in developing courses and experiences for young children that teach science, technology, engineering and math.
And I had the opportunity to collaborate with the professors at the university, primarily around robotics and coding. And this was back about 10 years ago when touchscreens were first a thing, when the iPad first came out and other kinds of touch screens. And we were all trying to figure out, what does this mean for young children and how they learn?
And my background is in hands-on, developmentally-appropriate practices: blocks, of course, as a really important tool in the classroom. So, I was very skeptical about how technology like touchscreens and robotics could benefit children.
And I had just a wonderful experience of working with a lot of great educators in coming up with ideas of how we could have the best of both worlds, how we could use tablets in combination with hands-on construction materials. We had these wonderful classes where the children would have just a little bit of experience on the tablet and then they would go play in the block corner and they would create these incredible representations of all the different patterns and sequences that they had seen on the tablet.
And in terms of robotics, we would have these little robots that the children would program. And we would build block structures on the rug and then we would program the little robots to drive around the block structures. So, I figured out that we really could have it all. We could teach these incredibly exciting problem-solving activities using this new technology and it would still be hands-on, developmentally-appropriate practices.
Very cool. And certainly there is a hesitation in education at large and in particular, I’d say in early-childhood education around technology and screens. And so it’s interesting that I guess you went through a journey of getting by into how they can be incorporated into learning and development effectively.
What would you say to those early childhood educators out there that are still quite skeptical about the value that technology can add to children’s learning and development in an early-childhood environment?
I think that’s a really important question right now, in the present moment. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic we have so many children who are staying home and don’t have the opportunity to go into the classroom and be in a space with other children and with trained early-childhood educators in some cases. So, that question is a really urgent question right now.
And often what we’re seeing now is that the technology is a lifeline for families and for children. So, how can we use this technology in a way that really benefits children? And because of this present moment, we are having to be inventive and figure it out.
And one of the reasons why I’m so enthusiastic about blocks is I feel like it’s such a great connector in combination with screens. And I was just talking to some teachers yesterday about activities and techniques for remote learning with young children – pre-K and kindergarten children – using blocks on both sides of the screen.
So, the teacher is demonstrating concepts with blocks and then the children have blocks as construction toys at home that they’re using while they’re looking at the screen and talking to their teacher. And when everybody has something to hold, when everybody has a toy to play with, regardless of where they are and how the screens are set up, I think that’s when the learning is most exciting.
So, I think to some extent it’s a necessity for making the best of what we have of the tools that we have. And technology is a big part of that. But I think in the long term, we want children to be active problem solvers and active creators of technology. We don’t want them to be passive consumers of technology. We want them to form their own path.
So, teaching children about the appropriate uses of technology in their lives, helping them make good choices about technology. And as they grow older there will be things related to media literacy and critical thinking. “Is what you see on the screen accurate? Is it real?” Those kinds of questions, those are starting at a younger and younger age. That’s going to be so important for figuring out how to navigate their world.
So, I’m enthusiastic about technology, both out of necessity and because I think that it teaches those higher-level, 21st century thinking skills that are going to be so important later on.
Yeah, and that’s an angle that I really support as well, in terms of there is an element of necessity in terms of children are going to be exposed to technology in their lifetime and an incredible way, even beyond what we’ve seen in our lifetimes. And so, in a way, we have a duty as educators, a responsibility to educate them on technology.
And you mentioned things like media literacy and critical thinking and appropriate use. And these are all great terms of how we can think about educating children on the use of technology. And in particular, your point about creating versus just passive consuming I think is also a very relevant point when we talk about technology and how we’re incorporating that in early-childhood education.
Let me ask you a follow up question to your book Young Architects At Play. I kind of oftentimes when I talk about how ignorant I am about children’s early learning and development, relative to all these amazing people I talked to on the Preschool Podcast, that I just sort of give my children some blocks to play with and sort of hope for the best. Clearly, there is a lot more that that could be done. How can you write a whole book about blocks and using blocks for early-childhood education? I’m curious, like, where to even start with that conversation? I don’t know.
Well, one of the primary messages is just advocating for blocks because there’s so much learning that will happen quite naturally when children play with blocks. We don’t necessarily have to teach children how to play with blocks because it is a natural play activity.
But unfortunately, a lot of homes and a lot of schools don’t have blocks, or at least not as much as they used to. I’ve been doing this work for a long time and I can think back on when it was so common to have a big shelf of wooden unit blocks in every public school kindergarten in the United States. And you just don’t see that anymore. And hopefully you still see it in preschool but not so much in kindergarten.
So, just reminding everyone of how important block play is, that children need to learn geometry with their hands before they can learn it with their minds and that the foundations of that will happen through open-ended block place. So, I’m just a big advocate for the block play itself. I think sometimes teachers or parents say that block play is messy or it’s noisy; it takes up a lot of space. But it’s really worth the effort. So, I just keep advocating for it and that’s a big part of my work.
But what was so exciting for me about researching this book is that I had not thought that much about architecture. Again, I don’t have a background in science and engineering. But I noticed through just a couple of kind of chance experiences that when I looked at the children’s structures as if they were actual buildings… like, what would it be like if this little house that this three-year-old girl built on the rug, what if that was a real building? Who would live there? And you know what would that be like? Like, what kind of street would that be on?
I just started looking at things through a lens of architecture and it made me a better teacher. It made me ask better questions in the block corner; it made me come up with new, exciting ideas to present to the children.
My background is, as a Reggio Emilia-inspired educator. I’m inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia Italy, where children are encouraged to play very creatively often through the use of provocations, where a play environment is kind of prepared for the children, where the blocks are set out in a really interesting way that provokes or inspires learning.
And I was able to do that much more effectively when I was thinking about architecture. I thought about, “Today, if I want the children to create structures with windows and doors, what can I put out for them that will inspire them or provoke them to think more about how they can create windows and doors?”
So, it might be that you might create a little structure with blocks that has windows and doors in it and invite the children to add to it. Or it might be that you’ll put out pictures of buildings that have really interesting windows and doors. Or maybe you’ll use little transparent blocks like magnet tiles that children can use to create transparent windows and doors.
So, you’ll just think about it differently when you’re thinking from the perspective of an architect. So, that that was really inspiring for me. And I was very excited to share those ideas in the book.
Yeah, and I remember as a child myself that blocks were probably my favorite toy or thing to play with. And I ended up studying engineering and love to build and create things. So, hopefully I can speak to an example of somebody who loved playing with blocks as a child and ended up pursuing a STEM education in life.
If you’re a parent at home with young children – which a lot of folks are in that position right now – what are things that you can do to promote STEM learning in a home environment?
Well, certainly, as I mentioned, having blocks available, if you have them. There are all kinds of construction materials that could be used for play that are just around the house if you don’t have blocks available. So, encouraging parents to use cardboard and other kinds of stuff from the recycling bin to build with, using things like bits of foil and popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners and other kinds of things that children can build with and letting them do that in an open-ended way. That, of course, is great when the play is free and open-ended.
I often encourage parents to ask good questions, ask open-ended questions of children while they’re building that help them think about what they’re building and reflect on what they’re building. So, asking a question, not just, “What are you building,” but, “How are you going to use that,” or ,“How are you going to make that strong?”
Often children will build a tall block tower until they can’t build it up any higher and then it falls down. And then we can ask them, “I noticed that your tower fell down. What could you do to build that again and make it even stronger this time?” So, rather than telling them what to do – because we may have recognized that they put the heaviest block on top and the lighter block on the bottom – but if we ask them questions, “What could you do to make it better,” then that provokes that kind of problem solving.
Yeah, very cool. I’m going to make an assumption that engaging with the children in their play in this way is going to get them more engaged and hopefully also get them more interested and active in this type of play, versus just saying they want to watch a show on TV or something, which is, again, a challenge, especially for parents that are at home, trying to keep their young children engaged in something that is, again, more on the creation side to your point, versus just sort of passive consumption of technology.
Yes. And in my present role, my fulltime position right now is director of early learning for Encyclopedia Britannica. And as you may know, Encyclopedia Britannica has been around for a long time. We no longer print a hard-copy encyclopedia. We have digital resources. And one of my jobs is to write and edit for a [web] site called Britannica For Parents. And this is a free site – we have lots of resources for parents.
And since the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of the focus of what we’re providing on the site are resources for parents for learning at home. And we know that we have a lot of parents who are working at home, as well. So, a lot of the tips and ideas we’re providing are for ways you can help your child learn and play while you’re busy because you can’t always engage directly with them. It would be great if we could sit on the floor and play with our children all day long. But that doesn’t happen.
So, helping parents make good choices about what media they are using. We’ve got a lot of recommendations for sites that we know are good quality and are safe and appropriate for young children. And then also for activities that could be paired with some of these media experiences, text and learning. A lot of it has to do with block and construction play.
And then also for alternatives. I’m always a big advocate for reading aloud to children or listening to audio books. Audio books are a digital resource; they’re a digital media. But there’s no screen. So, listening to stories, listening to music, dancing and moving to music, you’re using a digital resource for that. But there are no screens and it’s physical and you’re moving around and it’s a great alternative to screen time. So, that’s been a lot of our focus at Britannica For Parents, is providing those kinds of suggestions for them at home.
Yeah, those are some good ideas. And where can our listeners go to find this information?
Sure, Britannica For Parents, the URL is https://parents.britannica.com. And we publish three or four articles a week, including podcasts. And we’ve got some videos up there and those are all free resources.
And I would also encourage your listeners, especially the early-childhood educators, to visit my author website, which is www.AnnGadzikowski.com. And I’ve got information there about my books. And I’ve got a blog there where I publish some additional resources for early-childhood educators.
Awesome. We talked about it a little bit but it’s definitely a challenging time out there for early-childhood educators and parents alike with young children at home and in the classroom. Any words of wisdom or advice to all those out there doing their best in the COVID world we’re living in?
I would say, trust in the power of play. I think we’re worried about children falling behind if they’re not in school or if school isn’t quite the same as it used to be. But play is always going to be the child’s best teacher. And I’m not so concerned about children learning their ABC’s or their 1-2-3’s. I think open-ended play that encourages problem solving, creativity, conversation – these are all the really important things. And the children will be fine if they have opportunities for those kinds of rich play experiences.
Yeah, very well said. Ann, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today and sharing this advice, sharing with us your journey of learning on STEM and the value of science, technology, engineering and math and all the amazing learning and development that comes with it for young children. Great to have you on the Preschool Podcast!
Thanks so much for having me, I really enjoyed it!