By: Robert Schroeder
“We’re going to have to end up changing the way we teach technology because technology has changed the way we do business, and business in the largest sense is everything we do in our lives. That means children really need to become comfortable with using these tools.”
Dan Brown conspiracy theories aside, the early Freemasons in the United States relished the Latin motto, “out of chaos comes order.”
In a kindergarten classroom at National Teachers Academy on Chicago’s near South side, chaos is neatly defined as 30 five-year-olds with their own iPad. The order part? Thirty kindergartners engaged in individualized learning through technology-assisted differentiated instruction. iPads are remaking the classroom of teacher Carrie Both, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education in 2007.
Chaos: at the start of an allotted 30-minute period for engagement with the tablet device, the kindergartners descend upon a cart filled with each student’s iPad, each clasped in what appears to be a nuclear bomb-proof day-glo orange rubber cover. iPads are grabbed, headphone cords tangle and tango and students meander back to their desks.
Order: at the tender age of five or six years old, these kindergartners independently start their device. Headphones on, apps engaged, lesson begins. There is only minimal supervision from Both and two teacher assistants.
Each student receives a personalized video via Dropbox from Both, tailored for students struggling with mastering a concept, individual instruction for the day’s lesson or prepping students for the next day’s lesson.
“The iPad has evolved from just a substitute for pencil and paper to really redefining and flipping my classroom,” Both said. “The kids are willing to challenge themselves to do more, things I didn’t even know the apps were able to do.”
Both relies on the iPad to transform her students into content creators. Her students use a book creator app to create books based on what they have learned in class. As students share their work across mobile devices, Both believes her students put more effort into their work knowing their work is public.
Her kindergartners interact with the world at large through Twitter, @NTA110. The tweets are often whimsical—where students are spending the holiday break, for example—but Both says her students want their messages to be seen publicly and engage in greater strategic thinking when forced to consider a public audience.
iPads are also crucial as a catch-up device for students in Both’s classroom. Students still developing writing skills can engage in note-taking by simply talking into their iPad and recording their speech, enabling greater student participation in close reads and Socratic seminars.
“Initially, I’m not a super-techy type of person so it was a struggle, but I see the value in pushing my practice,” Both said. “I really see the value in what the kids are creating.”
Closing the Digital Divide
Before the storm of five-year-olds manhandling iPads, there is the calm of an infant installed in front of a screen.
The earliest of early childhood learners might stare at a TV program or a DVD on a laptop like any adult, but all they see, in the words of wired.com, is a “mesmerizing, glowing box.” The average 12-month old is spending one to two hours daily staring at what amounts to a glorified, pixelated wall.
For parents about to throw their TV off a ledge, hold on. The TV and its digital compatriots have some redemption in store. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institute of Health, screen time use can be beneficial for early childhood learning starting at the age of two.
Yet researchers are concerned that passive entertainment screens—TVs, laptops, iPads and smart phones—are leading us into the new age of the digital divide—the so-called “app gap.” More than half of families with mobile devices and incomes above $75,000 have downloaded learning apps specifically for their children. For families with incomes dipping below $30,000, the ratio drops to one in eight.
What the mesmerizing and glowing box will not reveal is that all screen time exposure is not created equal. The passivity of television has a significantly different effect on cognitive development than the interactivity of a well-designed mobile app. As with many of the challenges that impact low-income communities and families, public schools are asked to close this gap. Can an urban school like National Teachers Academy make a difference in traditionally underserved communities?
Bill Teale, PhD, director of the UIC Center for Literacy and professor of curriculum and instruction at the College of Education, says mobile technology can be a tool to develop early childhood literacy skills, particularly in marginalized urban communities, but teachers need resources and professional development to start closing the app gap.
“For three and four-year olds, and certainly for six, seven and eight-year-olds, there are quite a few possibilities,” Teale said. “Technology can be very useful in terms of helping those children with things like foundational skills, developing phonological awareness, learning letters and learning how sounds relate to foundational literacy skills.”
Teale’s research, “Better start before kindergarten: computer technology, interactive media and the education of preschoolers,” was published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education. His study found that despite the possibilities for promoting early childhood literacy, most pre-K and early grade classrooms are not utilizing technology for literacy development.
Using grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Teale launched workshops for Chicago-area teachers on strategies for incorporating technologies in the classroom. For example, students equipped with digital cameras on a field trip could take pictures and dictate stories that accompany those images. In another instance, the use of iPads could be useful as a touch-screen device for children who may not have keyboard access growing up.
“Increasingly, the early childhood classroom becomes the place where we can begin to level the playing field in terms of digital access,” Teale said. “We’re going to have to end up changing the way we teach technology because technology has changed the way we do business, and business in the largest sense is everything we do in our lives. That means children really need to become comfortable with using these tools.”
As a result, Teale sees an imperative for preschool teachers and early childhood educators, particularly in urban contexts, to develop developmentally-appropriate ways of infusing technology into instruction. Teale says teachers are generally up-to-speed with using social networks, but it is difficult to translate that knowledge into activities appropriate for preschoolers to engage in.
So what does effective early literacy instruction with technology look like? Teale says teachers he studied who succeeded found ways to link to pre-existing technologies, such as e-books, while other teachers used apps that help develop stories designed by young children. The key in both instances is using technology to leverage early language skills.
Teale’s study equipped teachers with two iPads in their classroom. Some urban school districts are going much further—the Los Angeles Unified School District invested $1 billion in 2013 to provide every student with an iPad. The early results from Los Angeles are mixed, but Teale emphasizes the key is not the presence of technology, but teacher ability to integrate technology into curriculum.
“We need to do a better job of giving teachers professional development to get them comfortable with technology,” Teale said. “That is the big mandate for our field. Technology is central to the way in which our society will operate, so it is incredibly important that kids, through their teachers, become comfortable with this in an appropriate way.”
The App Builders
For a teacher or parent, learning to use an iPad is one challenge. Determining best practices for early childhood learners is another. Apple alone features more than 65,000 educational apps for the iPad. Teale says his research reveals a focus on creativity in app design often results in “bells and whistles” that do not help children learn; those who understand early development mostly do not know how to program. Somehow, Teale says, these two groups need to converge to design apps with both market saturation and childhood development in mind. In New York City, Stephanie Dua is attempting to do just that.
Dua (right) is the founder and CEO of Learn with Homer, a company producing comprehensive reading apps for children ages three to six. Learn with Homer is attempting to infuse the latest in early childhood reading research into an app for parents to use with their children that reflects and complements lessons taking place in the classroom. The company’s first nine levels of the “Learn to Read” app hit the market in August 2013, with 22 levels and 150 lessons at the kindergarten level.
“Why does something in school need to be deathly boring, be it workbooks, worksheets, or pedagogy itself?” Dua said. “When you go to an app, it can be beautiful and fun, but we need the scaffolding and research behind it.”
Before starting Learn with Homer, Dua led the Fund for Public Schools, a non-profit partner of New York City Public Schools seeking to create public-private partnerships to boost the system’s performance, for six years before serving as a senior advisor on the creation of literacy standards in the Common Core State Standards.
Along the way, in conversations with classroom teachers and district leaders, Dua identified a glaring hole in early childhood literacy development: teachers had access to materials that built fluent reading skills and separate materials that could build general knowledge, but few materials that combined knowledge acquisition with fluency lessons. Learn with Homer seeks to fill this niche with a product that satisfied four components: a product loved by kids and parents alike, a product that created transparency for parents about what great reading instruction looks like, a product that infused the best global research on how children learn to read, and a product that could be used in the classroom or in the home but not in conflict with what takes place in the classroom.
The company employs an academic advisory group to run its research arm. Peggy Kaye (right) is the organization’s director of learning, a former public and private school teacher who currently consults with Children’s Television Workshop, Disney, the United Federation of Teachers and New York City Public Library. Kaye is charged with connecting with researchers and translating research results into a tangible product for children, a bridge of academic and experiential learning.
The apps zero in on building phonemic awareness in young readers, the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the smallest units of sound that can differentiate meaning. Dua says the skill is one of the key determinants of successful reading later in life, but also a skill that takes significant time to teach. Learn with Homer’s apps are designed to model sound and control for regional dialect, building children’s skills from encoding words to use of sentences to use of full paragraphs.
Since the apps’ launch, the company’s research into how children actually use the product has revealed young learners do not always progress from lesson to lesson in a linear fashion. Children tend to explore the app and parents choose what they wish their child to focus on. The result is that children seem to start using the apps’ story time feature to become comfortable with the experience before jumping to general knowledge sections such as science, history and discover the world, sections Dua acknowledges can be intimidating.
What the Learn with Homer team did not expect was for classroom teachers to adopt the apps for in-class use. Educators were overwhelming in their requests from around the world for a more specific classroom model of the app. The company has set up a beta model for 50 kindergarten classrooms, tailored for teachers to work one-on-one, in small groups or with a whole class. Participating teachers are engaging in a survey process to continue building the research underpinning of the product.
“Teachers have said to us, ‘If it’s not taught properly [in the home], in some ways you are better off not doing anything,’” Dua said. “They have to undo whatever is in there, so by understanding what the research says we will not be at cross purposes with what needs to happen in the classroom.”
The Challenge in the Home
The concept of teaching in the home is not merely an answer of right or wrong answers. Today’s parents are the first generation to manage a series of conflicting questions: Is a digital learning app learning, or is it play? And is it the right type of play? How much play is too much, and is it possible for there to be too much learning?
The vast majority of early childhood research confirms free play is wholly beneficial to the development of young minds. More research validates early access to language-rich and numerical-rich learning environments. Then there is the litany of organizations and movements encouraging kids to get outside for physical activity. And that brings us right back to the screen time debate. Confused yet?
David Mayrowetz and Yolanda Knight’s daughter, Maya, is a six-year-old student in Carrie Both’s kindergarten classroom at National Teachers Academy. Mayrowetz, EdD, associate professor of educational policy studies at the College of Education and Knight, a program officer with the Steans Family Foundation, are trying to navigate these murky waters as their daughter engages with digital learning apps both in the classroom and at home.
“I vacillate between the feelings of ‘Oh, it’s great she is independently motivated to use these apps as opposed to others on the iPad,’ and thinking she’s going to practice skills in this way,” Knight (right) said. “Then there’s the cringe feeling of screen time.”
Maya’s iPad use in the classroom focuses in on literacy skills, and the apps she uses on the family iPad at home zero in on mathematical skill building. From her parents’ view over her shoulder, the apps hone in on developing rote procedural and computational skills with small doses of conceptual understanding mixed in. Mayrowetz and Knight purchase new apps for their daughter as a reward for positive behavior, framing time on the iPad as play with learning mixed in, as opposed to centrally a learning experience.
These apps provide rewards for correct answers and gentle reinforcement after incorrect responses; Maya accumulates virtual currency that can be used to buy virtual gifts and toys. Her parents say she associates her movement through the levels of the app with her learning and takes pride in her own advancement.
Before purchasing the iPad and the first apps, Mayrowetz and Knight reached out to their daughter’s teacher for recommendations on the best apps for early learning. As for synthesizing the digital learning experience in the classroom and the in the home, both teacher and parents are on the ground floor of establishing how this process takes place.
“I think it’s tricky to ask a public school parent to buy something, even if it’s just two or five dollars,” Mayrowetz (right) said in discussing the possibilities of home-school coordination of learning apps. “Especially for a teacher [used to urban school environments], it’s hard to know what a teacher can ask parents to do.”
Knight says as digital learning app access in homes expands, she envisions a feedback loop in which parents can observe their children on an app, describe areas of weakness to a teacher and receive recommendations back from the teacher as to what apps could be useful in addressing these areas.
Just as Dua and the Learn with Homer team are seeking to build apps that integrate cognitive development with catchy design, the two parents say they see the disconnect between these two concepts in some of the apps that Maya uses. One in particular, Jet Ski, attempts to encourage quick computation of math problems to power a boat in a race, but Maya often focuses more on the boat race than the actual math. Her parents say Maya didn’t see the connection between answering questions correctly and the speed of the boat.
“There is no harm in rote practicing of some of these skills, but it certainly is insufficient,” Knight said. “It’s useful in the long term to the extent to which teachers can really build upon it for a deeper conceptual understanding.”
This secondary level of development could come from apps that encourage creative skills and the generation of tangible products. The capacity to engage in more project-based work is a key trait for future app development that would provide a level of comfort for at least these two parents.
“If we saw a little bit of pushing to deeper and more interesting work with the app, if we knew she was engaged in more creative work, stuff that really hits on conceptual understanding, then I would be totally comfortable with her using the iPad more frequently,” Mayrowetz said.
Back in Carrie Both’s kindergarten classroom at National Teachers Academy, chaos once again reigns. Thirty students smash headphones back into their gallon-size Ziploc bags and storm the awaiting iPad cart. Recess is next. Convincing each student to put their coat on appears more chaotic than the iPad lesson itself.
In the resulting calm as her students attack the playground, 30 iPads remain unbroken. Both seeks to connect the lessons back with parents by preparing videos sent via Dropbox updating parents on their student’s progress in the digital lesson.
“This is the critical tool for social interaction, not a frill, not a fringe, but the central way in which our society will operate,” Teale said. “It’s increasingly important that these early childhood classrooms become the place where we can begin to level the playing field in terms of digital access.”