Walter McKenzie

iPedagogy: From Piaget to iPads

I've had ongoing discussions with artists and educators who aggressively advocate for high-quality human experience they believe they can provide via handheld tablets. The artist is adamant his iPad paintings are a valid form of art. The educator is touting his implementation of iPads to kindergarteners in a Maine public school district. In both cases, I asked the same question: "Are you advocating for this because it adds value, or just because you can?"

I ask the question because we live in the age of "just because I can." We don't need a reason. We simply push the boundaries of traditional assumptions. If I can do something that couldn't be done five years ago, it has de facto value and any arguments are invalid. In a virtual-world vacuum this may be true; in a vacuum there are no real-world implications. But as educators, there are very real implications for how we think about research-based learning theory and the integration of technology into learning. I continue to think through this personal pedagogical dilemma, as a veteran educator and techie. I write this as an open invitation to you to think this through with me.

In the case of the artist, the crux of the discussion focused on the medium: Is painting on an iPad a valid form of art? The artists using such technology insist, "Yes, a computer tablet is an art medium." I try to understand their reasoning, but I get stuck on the fact that it does not provide the touch, texture, and multisensory experience of traditional paint on canvas. Is "painting" on an iPad human expression? By definition, yes, a human is expressing him or herself visually to anyone who might see the resulting display. But isn't that more of a craft? Any craftsperson can create and reproduce images as visual products. That does not make it art. Art is a process: the use of artistic media to create and arrange visual elements in a way that evokes human response. Let me share a dated example. At my wedding, an eccentric high school friend and aspiring artist gave me the gift of "Xerography": a framed picture of objects he arranged on the glass of a photocopy machine while placing his face over the top as he hit the copy button, resulting in a bizarre set of images with a ghostly-gray profile of his face in the background. While original and well-intended, rest assured I did not consider it art. We laughed and I put it away in a box. That was the extent of my human response.

Spring forward to the discussion of iPads for kindergarteners. The original educator in question was touting this because it was "the first district in the country to do this," which left me responding, "maybe there's a reason no one else has tried." My objection lies squarely in my background as an early childhood educator. Five-year-olds need to learn using all their senses: feeling the texture of the paint, smelling the paint, experiencing it as they spread it across paper, observing its real-world qualities as they mix colors. They are in Piaget's Preoperational Stage: highly egocentric with "magical" thinking about how the world works because they don't yet think logically. They actively interact with their environment and develop their fine and gross motor skills in the process. Five-year-olds need concrete, authentic experiences that help them test their understandings of how things work around them as they interact with peers and adults. For all these reasons, isn't equipping every kindergartener with an iPad, even if done with the best of intentions, developmentally inappropriate? Certainly, use of handheld technologies after children have integrated their real-world experiences into existing schemata is sound practice; my concern is assuming that, just because we can, virtual experience can supplant human experience.

The key for me in these discussions is an understanding of experience: authentic, virtual, and vicarious. In my mind,

  • Authentic human experience means by definition genuine direct interaction with the physical world through all our senses.
  • Virtual experience happens in an artificial reality that is constructed to simulate human experience through select senses.
  • Vicarious experience is a second-hand rendering of someone else's authentic human experience through select senses.

If you accept that these three working definitions (in layman's terms, I know) are fair and reasonable, then the entirety of both discussions comes down to one essential question: Can virtual, vicarious experience replace authentic human experience? The techie within me wants to say, "Maybe ... depending on how it's used," but my educator background pushes back: "No, it cannot be, by definition." Don't get me wrong. I taught kindergarten and first grade back in the late eighties and we had computer software I would use for concept of letters, one-to-one correspondence, ordinals, and the like, but always after learners had lots of experience with manipulatives, interaction with others, and real-life applications. Technology in general can nicely augment authentic human learning experience, but it cannot supplant it.

Not convinced? OK, let's play it forward. Can we learn and grow and create and communicate and live exclusively in a virtual word? Is the premise of The Matrix attainable? If your answer is yes, then "just because we can" is the pedagogy for you. But if your answer is no, where do you draw the line between authentic human experience and those that are virtual and vicarious?

Here's where I draw the line in my mind:

  • Developmentally, around age 7 children can start thinking logically with scaffolding and support. So, beginning in the upper elementary grades, one-to-one computing may be appropriate for specific learning experiences.
  • Beginning around age 12, children start using abstract reasoning and think logically. By middle school, children can incorporate virtual, vicarious learning experiences into original learning products and problem-solving tasks.

"Just because we can" is a really low aspirational bar. Of course you can hand five-year-olds a piece of technology and they will point and click and figure out how to make things happen. So what? If it can't be used by the learner to internalize and master higher level understanding, what's the point? Look at whole child partner International Society for Technology in Education's National Educational Technology Standards (ISTE NETS). They're not about hapless use of technology. They emphasize

  • Improving higher-order thinking skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity;
  • Preparing students for their future in a competitive global job market;
  • Designing student-centered, project-based, and online learning environments;
  • Guiding systemic change in our schools to create digital places of learning; and
  • Inspiring digital age professional models for working, collaborating, and decision making.

To this veteran ed techie, "just because we can" seems more feel-good than learn-good. As educators we owe our children more than inappropriate access to technology. Agree? Disagree? We need to think this through and come to common sense consensus.


Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, a joint position statement issued by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College, 2012

National Education Technology Standards (PDF), International Society for Technology in Education, 2007

"Developmentally Appropriate Practice in the Age of Testing" by David McKay Wilson, Harvard Education Letter, 2009

Early Connections: Technology in Early Childhood Education, The Northwest Educational Technology Consortium

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at

Comments (4)

alice hixson

August 1, 2013

As an arts educator who loves, loves, LOVES technology I must insist that very young learners need all the time they can get with an arts specialist and their hands touching, molding, moving, making, dragging and creating with the elements of art in a live, real-time, face-to-face, messy, paper, crayon, paint, clay, scissor, environment.

It’s true that art created on an IPad is art. I use Faces I Make to entertain my grandchildren. But that’s entertainment and not education. Is it art—possibly. But they need, as you say Walter, that developmentally appropriate interaction first.  I’ll hand my IPad to my 4 year old grandson again. But he’ll get paint and paper for Christmas. And I’ll encourage more and more time in the art room for him to use tactile art supplies when I see his principal in the fall—no matter how much technology she’s obtained through grant writing.

Gail Lovely

August 2, 2013

Thanks for prompting thought, Walter.

I am always amazed at the dichotomy that is formed or alluded to when we talk about technologies.

Having young learners use technologies does not mean the loss of art, PE or other “things which matter” unless we decide that is what we want. Technologies, particularly multi-touch touchscreen tablets remove technological barriers and can provide access to materials, media, audience, actions and interactions which may be valuable and actually be “things that matter”.

The intentional, thoughtful, planned use of technologies with young learners can be a catalyst for conversations, discussions, explorations and learning and not an isolating, mind-numbing experience which happens at the expense of other things we value.

Just my two-cents, thanks again for prompting thought!

Walter McKenzie

August 5, 2013

Gail thanks for the thoughtful response. This will all play out in the years ahead. My guess is education is going to look very different by the time we retire!

Walter McKenzie

August 7, 2013

Alice thank you for that distinction! Yes arts education (IMHO) is a different animal. That is where cognitive, psychomotor and affective development factor into the equation. Thanks!

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