My mind has been filled with thoughts about the brain even more than usual in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. On Saturday I spent time with an economist friend who has recently been asked to consult on the emerging field of neuro-economics. He agreed with me that education is a field ripe for this kind of approach to influencing behavior; sadly, he also didn't know anyone investigating this perspective. On Sunday I spoke at the Learning and the Brain conference at MIT where I focused on the intersection of technology and cognitive research. Then the following evening I participated in an idea-generating dinner among faculty and students from the TIE and MBE programs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Two big ideas in particular emerged for me over those few days.
First, we still have much to learn not just about the effects of technology on cognitive development, but also about what questions to ask. I heard a lot of assumptions about how the brains of the digital generation are wired differently, but I didn't see a lot of evidence of that different wiring. Do today's youth really have different brains? At what age did a child have to start using technology to get a different brain? What technology are we talking about anyway? Using a mouse? Hypertext? Playing video games? Watching TV? Talking on the phone? There have always been generational differences. What's different about this one? How do we separate the usual generational cycle from anything unique here? Good research requires specific questions that define and isolate variables. We have exciting and interesting work still to do here.
Second, we need to move beyond the either/or orientation that often accompanies hyperbolic talk about technology and cognitive development. In the good old days, we read books. Today's generation reads short passages on the web or even shorter pieces on Twitter. Back in the day we focused on tasks one at a time; today's hypertext, always-on, multi-tasked world leads to constant distraction. When I was a kid we played with other kids outside. Now children become avatars interacting with other imagined identities in giant virtual worlds. On and on it goes.
However, technology doesn't typically displace what we used to do. Children still read books, focus to the point of ignoring parental requests, and talk to one another in person. But they do these other things too. If we look at the technology as additive, we can start to ask questions about when and under what circumstances it might actually amplify what we already do (communicate) and when it might compete (watching TV instead of running around). Sometimes the amplification can be good, allowing us, for instance, to increase contact with family members. Sometimes it can be bad, such as allowing hate messages to spread more readily. It's a nuanced portrait that merits thoughtful examination. The better we understand it, the better we will be able to use it in constructive ways. That's part of what we're up to.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dthai/
/ CC BY-ND 2.0
We were excited to have Tom Loveless from the Brookings Institution visit our Scholastic headquarters in New York this week to share some of his recent research and to join us in a conversation about current issues in math education. Our discussions focused heavily on Tom’s analysis of NAEP data and how it unraveled the profiles of what he has called “the misplaced math student” – low-performing, unprepared 8th graders who have been pushed into Algebra 1. Not surprisingly those students often are found in large urban districts with high-poverty and high African-American or Hispanic populations. The mothers of these students are less likely to have completed college, and their teachers are slightly less well-prepared than their high-performing peers. I have to admit, though, that the teacher data gathered from NAEP looked pretty dismal no matter how you split the student demographics.
We also spent some time talking about international comparisons, including the relative merits of TIMSS, PISA, and NAEP. Tom’s recent presentation about PISA sparked a lively editorial from Jay Mathews of the Washington Post. It was interesting to dig into individual test items to get a deeper understand of the differences among the measures. What do the tests really tell us? How bad are our students performing against international benchmarks?
Finally, we had a chance to share some of our new programs. In particular, Tom got a glimpse of Fraction Nation which tackles one of the most critical gaps in math education as identified by the National Math Advisory Panel. Tom was a part of that panel, and he seemed impressed with how well we followed the research. We’re looking forward to more conversations with Tom Loveless and other leading math thinkers and actors.
Photo Courtesy of R. Abrams; Pictured: (L to R) David Dockterman, Tom Loveless, Margery Mayer.
Our producers have been busy building new prototypes and making changes based on insights from the education community. Last month, we held a mock classroom with eight district-level educators who gave us their thoughts on a math product that’s in development. We formed a teachers advisory board that met for the first time last week. They shared with us their teaching challenges and needs, as we took notes to see which we could address through our products.
Our next step is to get more kid and teen representation—we want to know their thoughts on what’s easy and what’s hard, what’s fun and what’s boring, and what’s cool and what’s lame.We are looking for kids and teens ages 10 to 16 to test out new educational products that are in development.
Opportunities throughout the year include user testing for prototypes and focus group discussions. We would love to have more young voices help guide the development of our products. All testers and opinion providers will receive compensation.
If you know a youngster who would be up for this, please e-mail me
with the child’s name, age, and city and state of residence, and we’ll send you more details. Feel free to also pass this message along to others.