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AC T I ON RESEARCH Early Years students can use higher order thinking ski!s to independently create content in music using touch interface technology.

Sarah Hodgson May 2013

AC T I ON RESEARCH Early Years students can use higher order thinking ski!s to independently create content in music using touch interface technology. Synopsis This action research project was initiated to examine the use of touch interface technology, namely tablet computers, with students in the Early Years. It was an attempt to discover how tablets could best be utilized with young learners. The project first reviews literature surrounding the subject area. The paper then examines current classroom practice of one teacher, focusing on the use of tablet technology with students in the Early Years. A variety of methods were used to collect data, including teacher observations, samples of student work, a student survey and anecdotal evidence. The project was limited to a group of eighty Prep students at an international school in Hong Kong during their weekly performing arts classes. The research indicates that young learners are capable of using higher order thinking skills to create their own content, in this case musical compositions, using tablet technology. It proposes that Early Years students should take active and independent roles in the creation of their own works in order to demonstrate a more powerful understanding of their world. This paper would be of interest to educators working in the Early Years. It highlights the importance of authentic learning when using technology in the classroom and the need to engage learners in the construction of meaningful and tangible artifacts.


Introduction I work as part of the performing arts team at an international school in Hong Kong. I teach music, dance and drama to three hundred and fifty students, aged three to seven, in the Lower School. While the nature of my position at the school may not appear to lend itself to technology, I am passionate about finding ways in which young learners can utilize technological tools to enhance their learning and development. The school has a strong and established Learning and Teaching Technologies philosophy and promotes inquiry learning through use of the IBO PYP Curriculum framework. Two hundred and seventy tablet devices have been purchased for the school, with approximately one hundred and thirty of these being allocated to the Lower School. To date, there has been limited use of these devices with the youngest students in the Pre Reception and Reception homeroom classes. Prep classes, comprised of five and six year olds, use tablet technology regularly, primarily for centre time rotations that focus on skills practice. Fellow professionals have raised questions. Should these younger students even be using mobile devices at school? Is there a genuine and meaningful place for technology within the Early Years curriculum? If the answer is yes, how can the tools be best utilized? The emergence of the use of tablet technology in the classroom has created more opportunities, and more concerns, with regards to the use of technology in the Early Years. I began by investigating a range of literature concerning the use of touch interface technology for learning with students aged three to six.

Are they too young? Jane Healy (1998) questioned whether young students should be using technology at all. She suggested that the use of computers may not be developmentally appropriate until a child reaches the age of seven or eight. While this view may be considered out-dated, it remains an issue that many Early Years professionals struggle with. Perhaps one of the strongest debates around this surrounds the use of manipulatives. There has always been an understanding that for young students to understand certain concepts, particularly in mathematics, they need to experience these concepts “concretely”. Most educators envisage this to denote physical contact, thereby manipulating tangible objects to construct meaning. However, research is now showing that this understanding of the word ‘concrete’ may not be entirely accurate. “Sensoryconcrete” experiences remain vital for young learners, but also require a move to “integratedconcrete” ideas in order to develop a deeper understanding of the concept at hand (Clements, 2002). It is through the exploration of these more abstract ideas that technology can provide opportunities to extend learning. Clements and McMillen (1996) explain that “concrete” has more to do with what is meaningful to the learner and how he/she connects with that, rather than physicality. They stress that “computer manipulatives can be just as concrete as physical ones”. Clements and Saram (1998) undertook several studies, revealing that students who made the most progress were those exposed to a combination of both physical and on-screen manipulatives, rather than using just one method in isolation. Many students have access to the latest devices in their home environments with technology deeply embedded into their everyday lives (Shillady and Muccio, 2012). Larry Cuban (2001)


describes young children as “virtual learning machines” who are both familiar and comfortable with technology. Some would argue that this is an important reason why the students should also have access to such devices at school. Research has shown that young children learn best when their existing understandings are engaged and built upon (Bransford, Brown and Cocking, 1999). Indeed, research on the level of engagement with technology in the Early Years suggests that the students’ digital experiences within the classroom should reflect their ‘real world’ lives (Fleer and March, 2009). There is also the debate about which tools are the most appropriate for leveraging learning in schools - tablet devices or laptop computers. There are differing views on this. For example, Gary Stager (2013) considers the iPad to be purely a “consumption device”. Others, such as Dan Brenner (2013), believe that tablet devices can be tools which allow students to be content creators. Tablets are also being considered as “feature-rich” machines that are more affordable devices for schools (Johnson, Adams, Cummings, 2012). Experts remain divided and research into the use of touch interface technology with Early Years students is currently limited. But if one presumes that embedding technology into a developmentally appropriate Early Years program is worthwhile, then how should this technology be used?

If yes, then how? It is essential that if using technology with Early Years students, the objectives and engagements need not only to be developmentally appropriate, but should ultimately improve learning (Carroll, Kelly, and Witherspoon, 2003). ISTE identify performance indicators for all grade levels, called NETS, and include benchmarks specifically for grades Pre K to Grade Two. They also identify the essential conditions required for successful and effective technology integration. While the initial NETS project was driven primarily by a perceived need to prepare students for the workplace, the standards provide a structure and guidance for educators who are committed to promoting the students’ success in learning. Early Years practitioners who focus on the children’s overall development, and not the technology tool, will be the most successful in technology integration (NAEYC, 2008). “For technology to be developmentally appropriate, it should be responsive to the ages and developmental levels of the children, to their individual needs and interests, and to their social and cultural contexts”. (Shillady and Muccio, 2012) The Reggio Emilia philosophy of constructivism is based on the work of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Erikson (Pound, 2008). It advocates the use of a medley of “languages” through which students can express their thoughts and ideas and learn about their world (Edwards, Gandini and Forman, 2012). Technology can be seen as another one of those languages when embedded in the everyday routines of an Early Years classroom. Indeed, built upon a sound pedagogy, the use of technology in the Early Years has the potential to become “a powerful vehicle for promoting children’s learning” (Hong & Trepainer-Street, 2004).


Papert (2005) advocates the use of technology in education, particularly with regard to the benefits provided by it being a “constructional” material. Students are now able to create their own content, thus using more complex thinking processes. Bloom’s revised Digital Taxomony (Churches, 2007) identifies “creating” as a higher order thinking skill. Learning engagements that require students to construct their own learning and then create content to demonstrate their understanding of a unit of work would certainly provide opportunities for these more complex process skills to be developed. Educators of young children understand that the process of play in an Early Years program is critical to the development of key life skills (Edwards, Gandini, and Forman, 2012). How then can a play-based Early Years programme effectively incorporate the use of technology? A study in Ireland (Downey, Heyes & O’Neill, 2007) concentrated on the relationships between young children, play and technology. It ascertained that technology could facilitate new ways for students to play, with particular reference to the higher order thinking skills required for content creation. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has been a supporter of the use of technology for learning for some time and states that “there is an unquestionable role for technology in the early childhood classroom” (NAEYC, 2012). It advocates the use of tablet technology in the Early Years and explains how technology can develop important social skills such as cooperation and collaboration. Touch-interactive flat screen tablets appear to be the obvious choice of device for the Early Years setting. Young students are still developing gross and fine motor skills and are extremely receptive to tactile, kinesthetic learning experiences. The Horizon Report (NMC, 2012) recently introduced a new category to its annual review. Devoted to “tablet computing”, it highlights the ease of use of the device for small children, promoting creativity, communication and collaboration skills. Creativity also features prominently in Reggio Emilia-inspired programs and technology is often used as a tool as part of this approach (Mitchell, 2007).

A way forward How best can we ensure that the focus remains on the students’ learning and not the tools? Tools will continue to evolve and change. According to Davidson and Carber (2009), educators, including those working specifically within the PYP framework, need to develop an approach to technology that is adaptable. They suggest that by focusing on higher order thinking skills and true inquiry educators are not limited to the constraints of one particular device. This calls for a move away from skills practice. A move away from maintenance ‘busy’ work. Time to give the young learners the respect they deserve and the opportunities to prove that they can think with complexity. One possible way forward is to use technology as an assessment tool. Students engage in authentic assessment tasks that require them to create their own content. This will enable them to make their learning more visible and demonstrate deeper understanding, while transferring knowledge and skills that have been learnt. Can young learners use higher order thinking skills? Many educators, such as Robbins (2007), believe they can: “ ... their thinking is often far more complex, rich, powerful and dynamic than traditional research methods demonstrate.”


Action Research Hypothesis A number of questions emerged from this literature review: • Can touch interface technology enhance student learning in the Early Years? • Can technology be used as an assessment tool in the Early Years? • Can students in the Early Years use higher order thinking skills to independently create their own content using technology? • How developmentally appropriate is it for Early Years students to create their own music compositions using technology? From these questions I developed the following hypothesis for the action research I conducted in my classroom:

Early Years students can use higher order thinking ski!s to independently create content in music using touch interface technology.


Planning I decided to focus on the Prep classes as these are the students I see most often. I teach six classes of twenty students at this level, but was only able to work with four of these due to other performance commitments. Eighty students composing their own music on ten tablet devices, specifically iPads. The Prep classes had been working on a unit of inquiry that focused on music composition and structure. They had knowledge and understanding of a simple musical structure and would be focusing on creating their own composition using this structure in conjunction with the Pro Keys app ( There was also a possibility that this could be used as a summative assessment for the entire unit. Students would work collaboratively in pairs for this task with a ratio of two students to one iPad. I used a four pronged approach to my data collection: ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏

teacher observations of the students engaged in the task - level of engagement, collaboration, confidence and skills in using tablets for creating samples of student work - how successful were the students in completing the task? student survey - what were the students views of the use of tablets in school? anecdotal informal discussions with students - another opportunity for the students to share their views.


Data Collection #1 - Teacher Observations I observed each class for two periods. A combined total of three hundred and twenty minutes of lesson time. After a very brief introduction to the app, the students were encouraged to work with their partner to create their own piece of music using the ternary form (ABA) structure. They were left alone.

The most striking observation was that, with each class, almost every student was on task for the entire lesson. Each pair I observed were completing the task at hand and were not distracted by other students. There was a powerful buzz of concentration in the room.

Perhaps the students were engaged in what Tim Brown (2008) refers to as “serious play”. The students were playing with the technology and constructing tangible artifacts. Ultimately, the students were engrossed in the task and experiencing enjoyment. Papert (1993) asserts: “ We learn best and we work best if we enjoy what we are doing.” Each pair were actively talking to each other about the choices they were making in their composition. There was much evidence of collaboration and communication between the students. I was also encouraged to see that very few of the students requested or needed adult support. For the most part, the students were choosing sounds, composing, creating, recording and saving their work without help. While this is not a review of the app, Pro Keys was a user friendly application for these young students and the split screen function appeared to help the students with their duet compositions. Each student had their own ‘space’ on the screen, that was independently controlled, making collaboration much easier. BBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBB

A video of the students in action can be found here:


Data Collection #2 - Samples of student work Each pair recorded their composition within the app. I extracted these from the iPads and uploaded them to an online audio platform, SoundCloud.

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This enabled the ‘set’ of compositions to be shared with a wider audience, including the parents of the students involved. Knowing that their compositions would be shared to a real audience seemed to have an extremely positive affect on the students’ level of motivation. Of significant interest to me at this stage was the number of student compositions that followed the structure that we had been focusing on (ternary form). Almost every pair were successful in demonstrating their understanding of the musical concept through the use of the iPad. In addition to this, very few of the students needed support in the recording and saving stage of the process, demonstrating that these younger students are capable of operating technological tools without adult intervention. These sound files provide further evidence that Early Years students are capable of using higher order thinking skills. The young learners were actively engaged in creating their own music compositions using original ideas. They were planning, designing, making, inventing and recording sounds thereby demonstrating their learning and understanding within the unit of work.


Data Collection #3 - Student Survey Following completion of the composition task, I presented the students with five statements and a choice of four responses based on a Likert-type scale (see Figure 1). Seventy three of the eighty students were present when the survey was conducted. A visual representation of my findings can be found in Appendix I and I have summarized the data here: ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏

82.2% of the students agreed that iPads can help them to demonstrate their learning. Almost 85% of the students indicated that they are able to use an iPad independently. Just over 65% of the students believe that iPads can make them think better. Almost 85% of the students are confident that they can compose their own music on an iPad. 86.3% of the students thought that creating their own music on the iPad was easy.

I was encouraged by the large numbers of students who responded so positively to the statements given. It remains unclear why approximately a third of the students felt that iPads could not help to improve their thinking. If I were to conduct action research of this nature again, I would dedicate time for more in-depth interviews with the students to discover the reasons for their choices.

Figure 1. Student Survey


Data Collection #4 - Anecdotal Evidence Subsequent to the previous three data collections, I also gave the students opportunities to express their thoughts about using touch interface technology for learning at school. A selection of the comments I received from students follows: ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏

I like iPads. iPad using is fun because it helps me learn and I like learning. You just press stuff. You might be right, you might be wrong. If you get something wrong on the iPad you can try again. iPads can be used for games or learning. We can make our own song and show our friends so they can learn from us. It’s fun to make your own thing to keep.

The one quote that resonated with me and confirmed my belief that projects like this ARE worth pursuing with even the youngest students was this: “We made our own duet. It feels like we are real musicians.” To make an experience feel real for an Early Years student can be challenging at times. When a task is clearly authentic and for a real purpose, it increases not only the level of student commitment but also adds significant value to the learner.

Conclusions drawn from Data Collection From this data I surmise that a large number of the young students were extremely confident tablet users. Higher order and creative thinking skills were evident as the students actively applied their existing knowledge of the musical structure to generate their own original works. The majority of the students involved believed that they could create their own content. More importantly they believed that they could do this independently. Indeed, they proved that they could do this by creating their own musical compositions using touch interface technology without adult help. The students view tablets as learning tools, not just gaming devices. When given real tasks and problems to solve, the students’ motivation to complete and succeed increases.


Professional Insights My respect for and trust in these young learners has been reaffirmed. The project highlighted to me the importance of creating tasks for young learners that provide opportunities for genuine use of higher order thinking skills. When technology is embedded authentically into a playbased curriculum framework it can have positive effects on student learning. The project also reinforced the importance of my role as facilitator. I am not afraid of ‘letting go’ and giving the students ownership of their learning. Most importantly, the project emphasized the need for students to be allowed to be independent in their use of technology. I will continue to seek out purposeful learning tasks that engage the Early Years students on a deeper level. My advice to Early Years teachers about using technology with young learners: Forget using technology purely for skills practice. ๏ Engage the learners in tasks that require the use of higher order thinking skills such ๏ as creating. Allow the students to create real artifacts for a real audience. Let them be. Let them ๏ create. Allow the students to work independently as much as possible. ๏

Further Questions Arising ๏

๏ ๏

One concern I had arose from the survey. It revealed that 86.3% of the students believed that creating their own music on the iPad was easy. Had the task been too easy? I had given them the structure and clear guidelines - essential if this were to be used as a summative assessment. I wonder what would have happened if I had just given them the iPads and said “create”, giving them more freedom to explore the possibilities of the task. This was a small scale research project. I would be interested to see what data would emerge should a similar project be completed with other Early Years students at schools in other locations around the world. This action research project demonstrates that Early Years students can create their own content in music. Is it safe to assume that they can also create artifacts using technology in other subject areas? I strongly believe that the answer to this is yes. This project focused on students aged five and six. Could even younger students, three and four year olds, also create their own content using technology? Finally, if these learners are creating their own content with technology at this young age, what are the implications for later in the primary and upper school years?


Bibliography Bransford, John D., Ann Brown, and Rodney Cocking, eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. (1999). Print Brenner, Dan. "Day of the Tablet." Scholastic. Scholastic, Winter. (2013). Web. 13 Apr. 2013. <>. Brown, T. “Tim Brown: Tales of Creativity and Play.” TED Partner Series (2008) Web. May 2008. <> Carroll, Jeri, M. G. (Peggy) Kelly, and Tonya L. Witherspoon. Multidisciplinary Units for Prekindergarten through Grade 2. Eugene: International Society for Technology in Education, (2003). Print. Churches, Andrew. “Blooms Digital Taxonomy.” (2009). Web. Feb. 2012. Clements, Douglas. "Computers in Early Childhood Mathematics." Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 3.2 (2002): 160-81. Print. Clements, Douglas, and Sue McMillen. "Rethinking 'Concrete' Manipulatives." Teaching Children Mathematics 2.5 (1996): 270-79. Print. Clements, Douglas, and Julie Sarama. "Young Children and Technology: What Does the Research Say?" Young Children 58.6 (2003): 34-40. Print. Cuban, Larry. Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. Cambridge: Harvard UP (2001). Print. Davidson, Simon, and Steven Carber, eds. Taking the PYP Forward. Glasgow: John Catt Educational, (2009). Print. Downey, Stella, Noirin Hayes, and Brian O'Neill. Play and Technology for Children Aged 4-12. Dublin: Office for the Minister for Children, (2007). Print. Edwards, Carolyn, Lella Gandini, and George Forman, eds. The Hundred Languages of Children. 3rd ed. Santa Barbara: Praeger, (2012). Print. Fleer, Marilyn, & Sue March. "Engagement in science, engineering and technology in the early years: A cultural-historical reading." Review of Science, Mathematics and ICT Education [Online], 3.1 (2009): 23-47. Web. 27 Mar. 2013 Government of Ireland. Office of the Minister for Children. Play and Technology for Children Aged 4-12. By Stella Downey, Noirin Hayes, and Brian O'Neill. N.p.: Office of the Minister for Children, (2007). Print. Healy, Jane M. Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds - and What We Can Do about It. New York: Simon, (1998). Print. Hong, Seong B., and Mary Trepanier-Street. "Technology: A Tool for Knowledge Construction in a Reggio Emilia Inspired Teacher Education Program." Early Childhood Education Journal 32.2 (2004): 87-94. Print. Johnson, L., S. Adams, and M. Cummings. NMC Horizon Report: 2012 K-12 Edition. Austin: The New Media Consortium, (2012). Print. Mitchell, Linda M. "Using Technology in Reggio Emilia-Inspired Schools." Theory Into Practice 46.1 (2007): 32-39. Print. National Association for the Education of Young Children. "Meaningful Technology Integration in Early Learning Environments." Young Children September (2008). Print. National Association for the Education of Young Children. Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Washington: NAEYC, Jan. (2012). Print. Papert, Seymour. "A Conversation with Seymour Papert, Marvin Minsky and Alan Kay." Communications of the ACM 48.1 (2005): 35-38. Abstract. Print. Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. 2nd ed. New York: Basic. (1993). Print.


Pound, Linda. How Children Learn. London: Step Forward, (2008). Print. Robbins, J., Young Children Thinking and Talking: Using Sociocultural Theory for Multi-layered Analysis, Learning and Sociocultural Theory: Exploring Modern Vygotskian Perspectives. International Workshop 2007, 1(1), (2007). Web. 16 Mar. 2013. Shillady, Amy, and Leah Schoenberg Muccio, eds. Spotlight on Young Children and Technology. Washington: National Association for the Education of Young Children, (2012). Print. Stager, Gary. "For the Love of Laptops." Scholastic. Scholastic, Winter. (2013). Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <>.

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Appendix I

Data Collection #3 Student Survey Results


iPads can help me to show my learning.

I can use an iPad without help.

iPads can make me think better.

I can compose my own music on an iPad.

Making my own music on the iPad was easy. Strongly Disagree



Strongly Agree

16 A survey of seventy three international school students aged five and six. May 2013.

Tablets in the Early Years  

Action Research: Early Years students can use higher order thinking skills to independently create content in music using touch interface te...

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