Thursday, September 07, 2006

Learning All the Time

The topics showing up in the New York Times lately are too important to ignore. I apologize for mining this one source so consecutively but this is truly good material.

One of the complaints often heard is that class sizes are too large and that students aren't "keeping up". Yet I will go to any number of Board meetings or other events where someone will lament that television, video games and so on are distractions to learning. These complaints about media other than textbooks assume a truthiness that has the audience nodding.

I not only disagree with this, I think the assertion is self-defeating. Just as Ebert and Roper recommend movies, teachers and their affiliated organizations should begin to grade, recommend, and incorporate new media into the learning mix.

What students need is more quality learning time throughout the day. Rather than continuously trying to shoehorn more responsibility for instruction on teachers we need to leverage alternative media.

Here's why.

When Toddlers Turn on the TV and Actually Learn by LISA GUERNSEY, New York Times

“We found that if children gave evidence of treating the video as a social partner,” Dr. Troseth said, “they will use the information.”

Their article referred specifically to “Blue’s Clues,” saying the show appeared to be “on the right track” — a point that, not surprisingly, thrilled creators of the program. Alice Wilder, the show’s director of research, said each script was tested in live settings with children to make sure that the show’s hosts — a young man named Steve in the early seasons and the current one, Joe — appear to be having realistic, child-centered conversations with viewers.

Developmental psychologists say the Vanderbilt research offers an intriguing clue to a phenomenon called the “video deficit.” Toddlers who have no trouble understanding a task demonstrated in real life often stumble when the same task is shown onscreen. They need repeated viewings to figure it out. This deficit got its name in a 2005 article by Daniel R. Anderson and Tiffany A. Pempek, psychologists at the University of Massachusetts, who reviewed literature on young children and television.

Child-development experts say the deficit confirms the age-old wisdom that real-life interactions are best for babies. Parents can be assured, they say, that their presence trumps the tube.

But psychologists still want to get to the bottom of what might explain the difference. Is it the two-dimensionality of the screen? Do young children have some innate difficulty in remembering information transmitted as symbols? “It’s definitely still a puzzle, and we’re trying to figure out the different components to it,” said Rachel Barr, a psychologist at Georgetown University who specializes in infant memory. She and Harlene Hayne at the University of Otago in New Zealand published some early evidence of the video deficit in 1999.

The Vanderbilt research offers the possibility that the more socially engaging a video is, the more likely the deficit will disappear. But Dr. Troseth and other psychologists stress that in-person connections with parents are by far a child’s best teacher. No word yet on whether that includes those moments when harried parents are so distracted that TV characters are more responsive than they are.

Despite the video deficit effect what these studies are beginning to confirm is that interactive technology can affect the learning of children. As we get better at understanding these learning symetries, educators will be able to develop re-usable learning activities that can be downloaded or streamed to the student and like a good movie will convey compelling information to that audience.

I mention this not because we will need teachers less but because these supplemental learning activities will free teachers to have time to get better at their own practice.

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