The GWT Blog

Will young children learning about choices and purpose better prepare them for navigating adolescence in a digital world?

Posted on June 27, 2011

By Jo Hoffman
Jo Hoffman

My daughter is a 1 st and 2 nd grade multiage teacher, and I’ve often observed her as she helps her students creatively solve problems, generate goals to guide their decisions, and think about planning for the best solutions.  Between the years of kindergarten through second grade, children experience a developmental shift characterized by an increase in self-reflection, control of attention, and emotions, and improved perspective-taking .  Young students are also busy learning associations between words and their meanings; as such, two words, I believe, are emerging as key concepts for young children to develop a greater understanding about during their early elementary years.  With intentional energy and focus, we should be helping children make tangible their understandings of “choice” and “purpose.”

Let me explain why I am making this assertion.  In the summer of 2008, I read two influential books and was introduced to an area of brain research targeting executive function and its impact on decision-making.  The subjects in the books and studies were not young children, but I began to think about and explore how we can perhaps better prepare children in the early childhood years so that as adolescents and young adults in a digital world, they can navigate more successfully the complexities of our time and to engage productively in all its opportunities.

The first book, , illustrates the importance of purpose in youth development.  Damon’s landmark study of some twelve hundred 12-22 year olds offers initial findings that “…reveal a society in which purposefulness among young people is the exception rather than the rule” (p. 8).  Sixty-percent of young people from Damon’s study are lacking purpose.  The subjects were from US regions spanning coast to coast, north to south, urban, suburban, and rural and his findings did not vary by region or population.  They all had in common their age, ranging from 12-22, and all lived and played during this time in our society characterized by the ever-expanding digital presence.

The digital natives of Damon’s study literally grew up along with the technology explosion…from basic Nintendo systems to X-box Live; from beepers to today’s sophisticated cell phones; from the early AOL Instant Messaging to today’s popular social networking sites; and the interactive applications of Web 2.0 and 3.0.  Young people born between 1980-2000 are sometimes defined as the first digital generation.  While these uses of technology are powerful and amazing in their connectivity and potential for learning, is there a causal relationship between growing up in the digital world with its ever-present demands, and the current state of ambivalence and absence of commitment as seen in young adults?

Findings in brain-based research may help to get at the root of what may be ailing the digital generation’s psyche and examining the increased physiological demands on the executive function of the brain operating in a digital world may hold clues.  The executive function of the brain is a term used to describe “ a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one's resources in order to achieve a goal” . T he brain resources for executive function are limited and “…types of actions exhaust executive function and affect subsequent decision-making may even involve the very common activity of making choices itself…The mere act of making a selection may deplete executive resources in the brain” ( p.1).  So then when it comes to making important choices that require more attention and are accompanied by real consequences, the resources needed for executive function may already be depleted from the bombardment of inconsequential choice-making and high frequency responding that characterizes life in the digital world.

The brain’s executive function that is used for choice making is a limited resource tapped equally by making choices of all kinds.  Theoretically, one could expend the executive function resource in a plethora of inconsequential choices.  Executive function has also been shown to be impacted by multitasking, another demand of technology use, which has resulted in lower and less effective organizational function ( Franzen, 2001 ; ).  The digital playground has exponentially increased the number and complexity of choices students make throughout a day.  Is it any wonder then that the ability to identify positive purpose in life can be likened only to finding a “needle in a haystack?”  To what extent do the constant multitasking demands for making choices and decisions contribute to a pervasive feeling of anxiety and exhaustion that may manifest itself as a lack of purpose?  And if this is the case, then are we perhaps fighting a natural disposition toward purposeful activity?  Damon (2008) summarizes implications from neuroscience research, stating, “…a disposition toward purposeful activity has been bred into us and plays a central role in energizing and guiding [us] through the most important choices that we make in life” (p. 26).

In the second book that inspired me to begin my exploration, , Schwartz describes well the paralyzing effects of having too many choices.  After reading this book, questions emerged. Are aspects of our current society and the digital environment responsible in part for the apparent anxiety of this generation? Is the seemingly unlimited array of choices at any given time when we are using digital applications getting in the way of pursuing a positive purpose?  Is there a set of skills or strategies teachers can apply that will help to prepare students over time to face these digital demands?  I’m determined to find out what we can do to better prepare the young learners of the next digital generation and I submit that making concrete connections to expand understandings about purpose and choice for young children may be a good start.

Curriculum targeting the most effective means for young children to investigate purpose and choice has not as yet been developed. As aptly describes, young children are essentialists—“…they believe that the phenomena of the world each have a fundamental essence” (p.122).  Theirs are the unchallenged understandings of a basic moral code.  Simply put, choices are good or bad and when one does something “on purpose,” it is usually not very nice.  Recently, in a small pilot study, first graders’ journal entries bore this out.  I was not surprised, in that having been a K-2 grade teacher for several years, I knew this to be true.  But it is only in the past three years or so that I’ve been thinking about what is in essence the directed to young children.  Without pointedly providing young children with many activities and much discussion about choice and purpose so that their schemas can expand to gradually learn associations between choice and purpose and the variety of meanings these notions embrace, we may be missing a valuable opportunity to better prepare them as they enter the middle elementary years with perspectives beyond essentialists’ understandings.

Current research is limited when it comes to studies of 4-8 year olds’ and their emerging self-reflection/metacognitive abilities.  Desautel (2009)* examined emerging metacognition in second graders, but with the focus on metacognition about themselves as learners.  What other 21st century skills need to be taught so that perhaps our second generation of digital natives won’t be as affected as the first?

I am suggesting that examining K-3 students’ perceptions of purpose and choice before and after specific intervention activities and discussion may be a good place to begin. (See Hoffman, 2010.)**  In the current study being designed, I will be investigating young children’s development in understanding choice, decision-making, and purpose given specific integrated intervention experiences and activities.  The study will continue building on the findings and implications from the pilot study within a developmentally appropriate context about the need to make concrete the abstract notions of choice and purpose for young digital age learners to broaden their perspectives and to better prepare them for the neurological demands that come from growing up in a digital world.

Recently I read Gardner’s and thought about the relationship of choice and purpose to truth, beauty, and goodness.  It may be that as children’s abilities to understand the purpose of things and the choices we make associated with defining and pursuing purpose will help them to recognize truth, beauty, and goodness.  I am exploring how to help today's young children so that when they become adolescents and college-age they have seen learning as purposeful and are challenged to select a positive path.  It is necessary for young adults to be self-reflective about their choices and decisions with a better understanding of the impact that their digital lives has on their ability to make choices of all kinds.  As the use of digital tools and the content on the Internet becomes more and more personally generated and complex, we need the second digital generation to have learned to critically apply skills of authentication to truths, have an expansive list of criteria of beauty, and feel grounded in what it means to seek and recognize goodness.

* Desautel, D. ( 2009). Becoming a thinking thinker: Metacognition, self-reflection, and  classroom practice. Teachers College Record, 111, 1997-2020.

** Hoffman, J. (2010).  What can we learn from the first digital generation:  Implications for developing twent-first century learning and thinking skills in the primary grades.  Education 3-13, 38(1), p. 47-54.


Name: Howard Gardner

Posted at June 28, 2011 at 09:55:07
Comment: Jo, This is a wonderful example of the 'synthesizing mind' at work. You've thought about purpose, executive function, choices, young children and adolescents,and the digital media and introduced a problematic that is worth deep consideration. Our research group has tended to think about reflection as the task of adolescence but you make a convincing case that 'reflecting on goals and choices' needs to begin in the early school years. As for the digital world, I dont think that young people feel as overwhelmed by choices as do older persons like me, but that does not mean that they are making wise, reflective choices. Indeed, how to make wise choices, after due but not undue reflection, is a tremendous challenge for young and old alike. Howard Gardner

Name: Savannah Byrne

Posted at July 01, 2011 at 09:04:23
Comment: Thank you for your reflection upon early childhood; your thoughts will surely aid me in utilizing these ideas in my kindergarten classroom. I am anxious to hear more about the developing study and applications for this age group. I would love to implement some of these best practices for choice and purpose to prepare my students for a lifetime of learning in this digital age.

Name: Lynn Barendsen

Posted at July 01, 2011 at 11:24:46
Comment: Savannah, we're in the process of developing some pilot materials for elementary aged children - if you're interested in helping us try these out, please be in touch! We do have an elementary book list on this site, if that's helpful to you: click "Library" and then have a look at the right-hand column. We'd welcome your thoughts and feedback - tks for writing!

Name: Jennifer Chen

Posted at July 05, 2011 at 12:27:34
Comment: Jo, thanks for sharing your ideas! Your idea on "choice" and "purpose" related to child development as informed by brain research is interesting to investigate in early childhood classrooms. To help children, especially the very young, cognitively navigate through the increasingly complex (and “open”) technologically immersed world, adult "scaffolding" is needed. I wonder how teachers can be best prepared to help children understand choice and purpose. I am eager to hear about the findings from your research and the ensuing practical implications.

Name: Theresa Caputo

Posted at July 11, 2011 at 02:57:18
Comment: Jo thanks for your thoughts which have prompted me to consider the work I've been involved with related to Ellen Galinsky's research and book Mind in the Making. Following hundreds of interviews with researchers & neuroscientists, business leaders, and kids, Ellen has grouped her studies into seven critical areas that children need most: 1) focus & self-control; 2)perspective taking; 3) communicating; 4) making connections; 5) critical thinking; 6) taking on challenges; and 7) self-directed, engaged learning. Ellen cautions that thee are not skills that children just pick up; these are skills that have to be fostered. In her book she suggests simple everyday activities and ways that parents as well as early childhood teachers can help children develop these skills to benefit kids today and in the future. Ellen talks about the how adults as well as children need these "essential life skills" in a ever increasing complex world. She talks about the importance of the skills to prepare children for the pressures of modern life, skills that they will draw upon now and for years to come.

Name: Susan Birnbaum

Posted at July 13, 2011 at 01:30:51
Comment: Thank you for sharing your thoughts on such an important topic. As both and educator and a mom of a 6 year old, I have been thinking about the impact of techonology on both my daughter and all the other 6 year olds out there. This is a concern for both the informed educator and the generation of moms who are now raising their kids amid all the haste. I pose the questions rather than have the answers...Can our children decipher the truth among all the information out there? Can our children focus on one task and find its meaning and purpose while technology is screaming at them to stop and take a look? As has always been true, now more than ever both the school and home environments need to provide human experiences that will foster the various critical thinking skills necessary to master technology. I imagine the impact of these technological tools will need to be studied for years to come and have not yet really come to their full fruition.

Name: Jessica Adams

Posted at July 13, 2011 at 03:16:06
Comment: Your research based discussion of the importance of introducing choice and purpose to young children has caused me to reflect on both my teaching and parenting. As new and exciting technologies develop, we cannot possibly expose our children and students to all available options and related outcomes. What we can control is the importance of identifying a purpose or goal and how choices serve to move towards or away from that purpose. Young children are capable of being guided to this connection, which may make them feel empowered to embrace a purpose.

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