Archive for January, 2012

The Recommendation: A Matter of App

January 30, 2012

Flipboard Parenting turned me onto a really great new site for parents called A Matter of App.  Developmental psychologist and education media researcher Cynthia Chiong has created a nifty review system for children’s oriented apps.  The page itself is organized quite well, as she has her posts sortable by overall rating, age (so far in the 3 to 8-year-old range), subject matter, and platform.  She admits fully that as a one-woman operation she has not been able to keep up with the massive proliferation of apps available, but what she is able to get to she reviews quite thoroughly, and always with an eye on both the developmental and the fun aspects.

Her ratings system is based on four categories: Developmental Appropriateness (does the app have the qualities that engage the target age range); Balance (does it have the proper balance of features to make game play fun and simple without being distracting); Sustainability (is this a game that kids will likely want to come back to?); and Parental Involvement (how easy is it for parents to play a part in the game along with the children).

Well, it has numbers in it. Numbers are educational, right?

I find the last category quite intriguing, as I must say as a parent the only way I have been using the smart phone apps with my kids is to see whether I can best their score at Fruit Ninja.  The world of app games has been more of a reward to my kids—yes, you can go play Doodle Jump after you are done with your chores.  When it comes to the developmental side, my notion was more to the fact that smart phone and tablet technology is something native to my boys’ world, so it is a good thing for them to become familiar with how it works. It’s also been a boon to our family when it comes to the weekday wakeup, as my younger son, usually slow and cranky to rise, now pitter-pats happily down the stairs in the morning as he can use his ESPN Score Center app to give us a full run-down on the late evening games (“Dad, your Clippers beat the Nuggets—on the ROAD!”)

So the notion of having someone looking at apps with an eye toward genuine co-play within this world is a great tool.  Indeed, Cynthia (I know I don’t know her personally, but her style makes me want to use her first name) goes into some detail in a very good post on parental misconceptions on children and app use that, irregardless of whether you find the site itself useful, I would highly recommend you not only read this post, but just go ahead and read her full (but relatively short) print article she wrote that this post excerpted from (you can find the link to the .pdf at the bottom of her post).

Yeah, I have more fun playing with 'em than reading 'em, too.

Her essential point is that it is actually crucial for parents not to see educational apps as things they “just give their kids” but as tools that allow parents to become better mentors to their kids, regardless of their familarity with the actual material (“the app can teach my kid better than me” misconception) or with the functionality of the app (“my kid works my iPhone better than me, so I can’t really help her/him” misconception).  She makes a very convincing case that, at least at the beginning, it’s important for you and your child to try out a new app together to ensure not that your child is using the app properly from a format perspective, but that true learning is actually happening.  Her analogy of the interactivity of the smart phone touch screen technology to a pop-up book (statistics have shown that kids learn better from flat books because they get too distracted) playing with the pop-up bits) was a very eye-opening comparison for me.

I am going to forward Cynthia’s article to my school board, because they are extremely focused right now on narrowing the “learning gap” yet much of their technology budget has been spent on attempting to make classroom learning tools available on traditional computers.  Statistics show that more immigrant and minority communities are using mobile devices as their primary internet source, so it’s worth considering how much to invest in traditional computer technologies from an educational standpoint when mobile technologies are both more prevalently used by the communities that are most susceptible to learning gap issues, and because mobile technologies simply give users are more flexibility as to where they are doing their learning.  The latter is important as this very interesting study shows that people retain information better by doing their studying in a variety of locations, rather than sitting in the same place all the time (there’s much more to say on that study, but I’ll save it for another time).

They ain't kidding

As for me, I think I am going to adjust my parenting habits a bit.  First I’m going to regement my kids Droid and iTouch time a bit, giving them a more limited time to use the “empty apps” like Jelly Car and Angry Birds, but give them open season on the more educational apps.  I’m also going to spend more time learning all their apps, whether they’re about blasting numeric equations or slicing fruit with a sword (can you tell I like Fruit Ninja?) in order to better ensure that they are getting the most out of the games, and maybe learn a thing or two from my boys in the exchange.

So if you are a parent with a child form preschool through elementary, definitely go check out A Matter of App—well worth both a first visit and consistent check back (or you can sign up for her Twitter feed, if that’s your bag.

A (Math) Lesson in Win-Win

January 25, 2012

Hello everyone, and Happy (belated) New Year! I have been spending a lot of time lately working on my book projects (something I’ll talk a little bit more on later) but I’ve been missing my blogging, so I thought I’d get back to one of my original SHYB resolutions and start blogging more often.

Sweet aggrigating goodness

Now that I’m part of the iPhone/iPad generation, I’ve found the Flipboard app to be a great way to get a little more news that caters to my interests and whim, with the Flipboard’s own parenting area giving an interesting mix from a number of different sources.

One article that cropped up was this one, entitled Are Boys Really Better at Math?  I started reading it because I’m attempting to become better versed in modern educational priorities and techniques in general as I am my boys’ school representative to the county council on instruction, a PTA-driven cooperative with Arlington County to help give citizen input for curriculum development. So when I saw the word “STEM” — a big buzzword these days in AC schools (my understanding is that it means the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math sufficiently into the overall science curriculum), I wanted to see what this study was all about.

She can get it just as easily as little Bobby can

One of the first fascinating facts was that both boys and girls as early as six-years-old believe that math is more of a “boy thing” which, of course serves as an early and insidious agent perpetuating a stereotype of STEM subjects that create a cultural barrier to female participation and progress in these subjects–something that from a general economic growth perspective we can simply not afford.  If good math minds are being pushed out of even considering the field before they hit first grade, there is something seriously wrong with this picture in today’s job market.

And the fact that this is a cultural bias is indeed borne out by the study itself.  Here’s what it said:

Analyzing math scores from international standardized exams taken by hundreds of thousands of 4th and 8th graders in 86 different countries, Kane and Mertz found no significant differences overall between boys’ and girls’ scores.

Though previous studies suggested that boys were more likely than girls to be either the best or the worst in math, overall gender differences in variation weren’t found in this study either.

What Kane and Mertz did discover were significant differences in the range of scores from country to country, suggesting that sociocultural factors, rather than innate biological differences, underlay math achievement gaps.

But what really made me want to post about this study is that the solution to this problem flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that if you try to prop one group up, it will come at the expense of another.

In addition, although national income, school type, and religion didn’t seem to be related to math performance, gender equity clearly was. In countries where women were more likely to be well-educated and earn a good income, both boys and girls performed better in math.

Dr. Mertz shared the significance of these findings in a recent interview with TakePart. “Many folks believe gender equality is a win-lose situation,” she began. “If women are given more rights, men lose some of the advantages they currently have. Thus, many men are against increasing gender equality…Our finding that boys’ math scores tend to improve at least as much, if not more, than girls’ as some measures of gender equity improve suggests gender equality is a win-win situation, at least with regard to math performance.”

To me, this simply makes practical sense, especially as schools work more on small group and collaborative learning as essential and prevalent tools in today’s schools.  More confident, more knowledgable girls do not suck more air out of the room, instead they become great lab partners, great discussion group leaders, and great mentors for other students regardless of gender.

Interesting points, but I could have sworn that global warming would be the end of our civilization, not teachers unions...

While Kane and Mertz do what good scientists always do, they contain their conclusion to the subject of their study, namely math, I have little doubt that you would see this kind of achievement gap extend to other subjects.  Of course, the greatest achievement gap for today’s American education system is more class based, as the documentary Waiting for Superman very provocatively (though a bit one-sidedly) asserts.  While the teachers union-bashing in the film is so unrelenting as to make me question its level of bias, it does show how breaking down the “soft racism of lowered expectations” by combining higher expectations AND innovative teaching methods AND great teachers can work anywhere.

Wisdom not exclusive to rat chefs

When I hear stories like these, it takes me back to my favorite of all the Pixar movies–Ratatouille.   Chef Gusteau’s most cherished belief is that “Anyone can cook.” And, only in the end, does his nemesis Anton Ego (how awesome is that name?) realizes that what Gusteau really meant was not that anyone could become a great chef, but a great chef could come from anywhere.”  I think the same applies to students, and the Kane/Mertz study is yet more proof that a key element to finding the great chefs, poets, or engineers of the future, we work better as a species when we don’t presuppose winners and losers.