Reviewed By: E. Hawkyard, M. Holmes, L. Morrison, T. Vargas, C. Wisniewski
Introduction and Theoretical Framework
Screens, screens, screens. They’re everywhere. And there is, as every reader knows, quite a bit discussion about whether or not we ought to be spending so much of our attention gazing at them. This is a particular concern when it comes to very young children. Of course, screens in and of themselves are not all bad. As Lindstrand, a Ph.D student in the School of Education and Communication at Jönköping University in Småland, Sweden—who draws on a variety of scholarship here—points out, “[o]n the one hand, there is concern about young children’s use of technology and how it may affect childhood and children’s cognitive, emotional and social development in negative ways…[o]n the other hand, technology is regarded as a positive feature influencing children’s play, learning, and the development of literacy” (p. 124). Knowing that literacy and verbal language development have a great a deal to do with one another, and are important influences in the way in which young children make meaning, Lindstrand set out in this study to “[explore] the links between the embodied and multimodal ways in which young children make meaning with interactive whiteboards and early literacy processes” (p. 125). We are told that the use of interactive whiteboards are on the rise in Swedish schools, and we have also seen them being used more and more here in the United States and elsewhere.
Lindstrand’s study is largely inspired by Olsson’s and Lind’s work, who each claim that in such things as ‘nonsense’ (Olsson, 2009) and ‘scribbles’ (Lind, 2010) there actually lies meaningful methods of problem-solving. Young children purposefully, these scholars argue, use gestures and markings to test and play with problems that they themselves have constructed. Gestures as well as words, which undoubtedly interact with the material world and with others who are within it, should be understood as ‘expressions’ that explore, communicate, negotiate, and question (pp. 125-126). It is these ideas as well as those put forth by Gee and other New Literacy theorists (literacy is a social practice) as well as the multimodality work of Kress and Pahl & Rowsell that Lindstrand uses to frame her study’s design. Children under three years old were specifically selected because, though there are now a number of studies being published that deal with children’s use of technology in school, there are few that address pre-school age children and none that deal with children under three. Lindstrand is analyzing how technologies, in particular IWBs, affect the use of language in preschool.
Methodology and Findings
To observe such interaction, a little over four hours of video footage was shot over a six-month period that records “natural occurring interactions” (p. 128) between the IWB and 15 children aged one to three years, and four pre-school instructors. Some of the footage was shot while the camera was attached atop a tripod, at at other times the camera was hand-held. These interactions were then transcribed, and sorted into sequences that showed those moments when children closely interacted with the IWB. Particular attention was paid to those interactions in which children were using a web camera and paint program, for they were activities in which the children were required to use technology, thus “[offering] insight into potentials provided by the new technology”; thus, guided by Kress’s 1997-era example, Lindstrand was able to witness “[c]hildren’s actions on their world, [which,] through their bodies, leave traces of their interest that can be analyzed” (p. 127). “How are children’s interactions with IWBs constructed?” she asks, “How do children use different modes in their interactions with an IWB?” (p. 127). Lindstrand’s study of her target IWB interactions were guided by Kress’s social-semiotic approach, indeed his very same set of questions, “‘Whose interest and agency is at work here in the making of meaning?’, ‘What meaning is being made here?’, ‘How is meaning being made?’, ‘With what resources, in what social environment?’” (Kress, 2010, p. 57).
In one of the situations in which the webcam was used, its image was rendered on a portion of the IWB while the main camera captured students viewing and responding to the webcam’s projected image. The webcam captured children standing in front of the whiteboard. It was during this time that the instructor applied a special effect to the webcam’s projected image, making it spin. The main camera captured student’s seeing themselves. “Unlike a mirror,” Lindstrand tells us, “it is not the board itself that mirrors the activity. While a mirror will reflect a person who walks right up to it, one has to stand a certain distance from the board to be captured by the small camera and become visible on the board” (p. 130). The children are able to see both themselves and their movements on the whiteboard. They lean their bodies according to the rhythm of the board’s circular movements, in the same direction, in separate directions, jumping, and balancing. Lindstrand argues that
“[t]heir different choices…can be understood as different experiences of the visualization, differently [moving] in order to continually adapt to the changing orientation and construction of new bodily signs….part of the process of meaning-making that is created by the logic of three-dimension space, technological functions, and the children’s own activity and interest. They are exploring the space and connections between their own bodies and how [their bodies] are displayed on screen” (p. 132-133).
These physical movements and others that are described are accompanied by occasional verbal expressions that seem to reinforce their attempts to balance or stretch their bodies as well as call attention to their success at doing so. In these situations, “verbal language is not seen as separated from other modes” (p. 133).
In another segment of activity captured by the main camera, a young girl is seen interacting with the IWB in a paint program. The girl’s touch on the board mimics a pen or a paintbrush on paper; thus, when she creates circles with her fingers, those circular outlines are rendered on the IWB. Various hand and body movements are visible in the segment: she takes her finger off the board, moves her arm downwards, places left her hand on the board and spreads her fingers, she touches the board and makes a line, and she moves her arms in large circles and spreads her fingers. Many of these movements are repetitive; often they are executed slowly and deliberately. It is through these movements that she explores the whiteboard, the changing pictures of marked lines, the light itself, and her own shadow. These repetitive movements, Lindstrand argues, are akin to the Lind’s (2010) concept of “visual alliteration” (p. 137) that is used to describe intentional and free play scribbling in which early problem solving skills are, in part, developed in children. The girl’s various gestures and their repetition are seen by Lindstrand as “cooperating simultaneously” with the IWB “as a medium that offers different modes such as images, colors, writing and drawing…using what is at hand, the materiality, to express and explore [the young girl’s] interests in a sign-making process that can be seen as part of early literacy” (138-139).
Future Scholarship and Some Questions
While Lindstrand’s work here offers an intriguing case for the necessity of understanding multimodal communication as it intersects early literacy theories, it does not, unfortunately, offer much in the way of any concrete suggestions regarding future scholarship. The study only suggests that educators need to be familiar with these burgeoning theories, so that they may use technology in preschool environments that support rather than restrict a child’s “creativity, play and learning” (p. 142). Future scholarship could study students and others of different age groups (including adult learners) who also use IWBs so as to determine meaning-making as it develops or is deployed over time with respect to this technology in particular. One also wishes for one or more such studies to be carried out in cultures other than Sweden so as to help differentiate for early learners, especially, various cultural influences, which are likely then to be able to be isolated and identified—that is, if the New Literacy Theorists are indeed correct about literacy development being socially constructed. And while Lindstrand’s work is intriguing, more groups of students and far more footage than four hours needs to be studied if we are to know for certain whether her claims should be taken as gospel. Drawing on already present studies that explore post-preschool-age student interaction with non-IWB technologies (i.e., computers in general or tablets, for example), several of which Lindstrand cites in her introductory section, it also would be very useful to create other additional observable situations, wherever applicable, in which preschoolers make meaning with those same technologies. And, finally, given that many children are not likely to find themselves in an environment rich with IWBs or other technologies like that for some time to come, if ever, we perhaps ought to ask to what extent are such children are deprived of the kind of meaning-making practice that is seen in the children profiled in Lindstrand’s study. What other strategies and methods do preschool-age children use to make meaning in “embodied ways” that would be observable in communities not equipped with IWBs but rather more mundane technology?
Lindstrand, S. H. (2015). Are we spinning or is it the board? Young children’s interaction with an interactive whiteboard in preschool. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 3. Retrieved from https://www.idunn.no/dk/2015/03/are_we_spinning_or_isittheboard_-_youngchildrens_inte
Kress, G. (1997). Before writing: rethinking the paths to literacy. London: Routledge.
Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: a social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London: Routledge.
Lind, U. (2010). Blickens ordning: bildspråk och estetiska lärprocesser som kulturform och kunskapsform [The Order of Seeing: Visual languages and aesthetic learning as forms of culture and knowledge]. Stockholm: Institutionen för didaktik och pedagogiskt arbete, Stockholms universitet.
Olsson, L. M. (2009). Movement and experimentation in young children’s learning: Deleuze and Guattari in early childhood education. London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Pahl, K., & Rowsell, J. (2006). Travel notes from the new literacy studies: instances of practice. Clevedon [England]: Multilingual Matters.