Friday, September 6, 2013

Educational Apps for Children: Best Uses and Limitations

We love math apps, but a recent article in The New York Times seemed like a good prompt for us to share some of our reservations. In case you missed it, the article reports on a series of math apps aimed at helping preschool students learn critical math concepts so that they'll be more prepared to start kindergarten and elementary school. According to the article, the National Association for the Education of Young Children advocates technology, with an important caveat: Technology is best used within the context of sound instruction. We couldn't agree more. In our opinion, apps have two outstanding uses: they’re a good way to introduce students to concepts, and they’re great for drills.
Apps as an Introduction

Apps have the capacity to introduce children to concepts in a way that is both inviting and motivating. One of the apps used by the researchers discussed in the article, called Breakfast Time, allows children to "slice" a waffle with a swipe of a finger, then experiment with the resulting pieces. This is a great way to gain a foundational understanding of fractions, but on its own, it's not enough.

The missing ingredient is known in pedagogical circles as "transfer." Many students have difficulty applying what they learn in one task to another task that appears different, even though the connection may seem obvious to adults. Let's use grammar as an example. Many students spend hours identifying nouns and verbs on worksheets. They learn that a complete sentence needs to have a subject, which is a noun, and a predicate, which is a verb or verb phrase. But it takes a fairly large leap to apply that skill to one's own writing without explicit instruction. A student who aces worksheets on parts of speech will often produce sentence fragments and run-on sentences in her writing because she doesn't connect the photocopied, fill-in-the-blank sheets with her own creative story generation. Knowledgeable instructors know that the worksheets are only part of the story; to truly impact a child's written output, they need to teach students to transfer what they learn about parts of speech from a worksheet to their own writing.

So back to Breakfast Time: Slicing waffles via app is a wonderful way to introduce children to fractions. It’s certainly neater than allowing children to practice the same concepts with real waffles. But, as the article explains, the exercise is complete only when the children's teacher shows them how to practice the same principle using real ice cubes and cups, then, we imagine, demonstrates down the road how the same principles can be expressed using numbers.

Apps as a Tool for Drilling

A second great use for apps is to provide kids with rote practice. Going through the same piles of flashcards over and over again is boring, but apps allow children to drill the same facts in a fun way. As many parents have discovered, some of these games can be downright addictive, making kids more likely to want to put in the time it takes to memorize some of these critical nuts-and-bolts skills.

To be alluring to kids, many of these academic games are replete with engaging bells and whistles. If a child taps the right answer, there is often a burst of color or sound, or perhaps a character will deliver a funny (well, funny to your six-year-old) tagline. But these features can sometimes lead the games to be counter-productive, so be discerning about which apps your child uses. 

Kids often show us their favorite apps, and we've seen a few that seem pretty ineffective. For example, one student was so eager for the stimuli that resulted in a right answer that he tapped frantically at all the answer choices until he happened to hit the right one, then beamed as he listened to the music that rewarded him for making the right "selection."  There was no penalty for a wrong answer, and no limit to the number of times he could be wrong. When asked about what he’d just learned, he could not recall the problem or the answer. He just knew that he'd “gotten it right”! Another child found the encouraging phrases that emanated from the game when he picked the wrong choice to be hysterically funny. Instead of using the game to work on his estimation skills, he selected clearly wrong answers on purpose and giggled when the game’s characters innocently urged him to try again.

Most parents and educators realize that technology is not a panacea. But it can provide kids with fantastic tools, and we hope this gives you a few ideas about using flashy new techniques to help develop solid, old-fashioned understanding.

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