Tag Archives: apps

True confessions

Here are two questions we can ask about educational technology.

The differences between them are important.

  1. Is the activity this technology supports more intellectually stimulating than what children would otherwise be doing?
  2. Is the activity this technology supports more intellectually stimulating than what children should otherwise be doing?

I will confess, here, now and publicly that I hold (for example) Khan Academy to the latter standard.

And, it seems to me, the typical defense of Khan Academy is that it should only be held to the former.

What made this difference especially salient for me was a recent article in the New York Times, which describes (among other things) a waffle-cutting app on the iPad. (See video at this link.)

Now, it seems to me that the children in the study were telling the researchers that there is something inappropriate about the activity when the 2-year old was trying to taste the waffle, and the 4-year olds needed to be coerced into not tap, tap, tapping everything on the screen.

But if we imagine a perfected version of the app, optimized for the ways 4-year olds interact with electronics, then we can ask those two questions about the idealized waffle-cutting app.

If kids are cutting virtual waffles in a daycare environment that otherwise provides little to no math talk, then perhaps this app would be an improvement. But I cannot really imagine an app that would be better than having children cut real waffles and talk about the nature of their activity with sympathetic adults as they do so.

I cannot imagine a virtual waffle app that is better than what 2—4 year olds should be doing, which is talking math.

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Help! My parent and my teacher are both apps

People outside of the education profession look at Khan Academy and they see brilliance because Khan conforms closely to American cultural scripts of teaching. Teaching is telling and Khan tells in a friendly, seemingly competent way (which is actually incompetent in some important and non-obvious ways, but more on that in the coming weeks).

This is the drill: Tell students some stuff; ask them some questions to see whether they remember what you told them. See those first two headings on the Khan Academy landing page?

With thanks to Michael Pershan (@mpershan) for noticing this on Khan Academy.

Watch and practice.

People outside of the education profession look at iPad apps and online schools and see efficiency because these-again-closely follow the script of teaching and learning in this country.

So powerful is this cultural script that minor tweaks are seen as revolutionary. (Rewind the video to hear the same explanation again! As many times as you like!) So powerful is this script that our roles as parents can be misconstrued as preparing our children to be this type of student. From the comments on this blog last month:

Around 6-7, I think it is important for children to first internalize basic arithmetic equations as memorized, right-brain pattern recall. Once they do this, their minds are free to think about other aspects of the math problem in front of them. Once basic one-digit equations have been internalized, the next pattern needed is the simple process of stepping through more complex problems.

This was in response to my description of something I had done that had gotten my five-year old daughter to think, rather to respond in a rote way.

A parent talking with his child about mathematics gets redirected to a fact-drilling app.

I’ll make the analogy to literacy again. The equivalent would be a parent writing about how turned on his kid was by a story, and how his kid applied the ideas of that story to thinking about her lived experience. And then got pushback about the importance of phonics instruction to prepare a child for reading in first grade.

But we know that a lifelong love of reading is fostered by reading aloud with parents. (Of course, there are exceptions, blah blah blah.) And if you love reading—barring disability—you’ll learn to read as long as you are provided competent reading instruction.

We need to similarly foster a lifelong love of numeracy. And that does not start with math-drilling apps (Of course, there are exceptions, blah blah blah.) It starts as all things do, through play, conversation and wonder.

Let’s keep the focus, shall we?

Further reading:

Alfie Kohn (of course) on summer learning loss.

Will Richardson on online learning and apps.