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Educational Apps, a Skeptical Look

November 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Old School iPadThe more I look at the educational potential of iPads, the more aware I become of their potential and the limitations of ‘educational apps.’

Can you believe there are already 74,000 educational apps available for iPhones and iPads—and the number keeps growing. Even more startling, 72% of the top selling apps are designed for preschool or elementary children.  There is no denying that learning with iPads is here to stay. Sadly, the market is filled with low quality ‘edutainment apps’ that obscure many worth-while experiences for children.

The promise of digital education is great. There are marvelous programs such as the apps from Montessorium and the activities from Khan Academy. These programs allow children to act as agents of their learning experience. A child takes ownership and pride in his or her accomplishments with these high-quality programs.

Unfortunately, parents have a difficult time finding these superior activities in the haystack of bingo-math-cute-bunny-video-game-type drill activities.  At their core, these types of learning-blaster apps create a demotivating, passive learning experience. Rather than genuinely internalizing their learning, children are led through programs and rewarded by tokens, beeps or other external rewards.  Here is an example of typical, but misguiding game design: an award-winning software company brags that your child is “motivated to continue learning by ABCmouse.com’s Tickets and Rewards System.”

Creators of these programs don’t seem to understand the key insights of Montessori education. That is, “tying extrinsic rewards to an activity [like tokens, tickets or money] negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn.” Angeline Lillard, The Science Behind the Genius, 2005.

It is sad to see that so many educational app makers seem compelled to offer more flash than substance.   And we know that that the hyper-stimulus of electronics can impede the development of qualities such as patience, calm and persistence.   These skills are absolutely necessary for genuine learning and development to take place.  Have app makers thought about how these essential skills get learned?

What criteria should parents use when selecting educational apps for their children? Look beyond the arcade-style apps that allow children to rack up points.  Choose apps that allow them to be active agents in the learning process, encourage quiet perseverance, and inspire. Just like the classic ‘physical world toys’ that offer open-ended play like Legos and Lincoln Logs, high quality, child-friendly apps will be the ones your child will return to again and again.

At Evergreen School, we see the great potential for technology in the classroom.  Yet we are very selective about which materials, books and apps are appropriate for our older students. After all, the facts our children know may seem important, but it is their attitude about learning that will matter most in the long term.

Digital Montessori?

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment
Digital Montessori

The texture of the physical world

Montessori education is coming into the digital age.  It has been over two and a half years since Warren Buckleitner delivered a lecture at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester titled What would Montessori Say About the iPad? When Old Theories of Play Meet New Media.  Since then, new Montessori apps have been developed, educators have debated the proper place of technology in classrooms, and school districts have invested millions of dollars in mobile computing for classrooms.

It is no surprise that there has been a debate within the Montessori community as well. The MariaMontessori.com blog wrote, “There has been much talk recently about Montessori-inspired apps…  Some Montessorians are enraged, feeling that the apps violate the very foundation of Montessori pedagogy.  Others love them, and claim that if Dr. Montessori were alive today she would use an iPad in the classroom…”

There is no doubt about the awesome power of technology to be a teaching aid.   Have you tried Khan Academy? And there is no doubt that the hyper-stimulus of electronics can impede the development of qualities such as patience, calm and persistence.   We know that children who overuse devices can lose touch with the texture of the physical world and miss opportunities to interact with people.

At Evergreen, we have been thinking a lot about the role of technology in the Elementary classroom (grades 1-3).  Is it necessary?  Is it dangerous? Is it helpful or is it a costly, flashy distraction?  To help us answer those questions, Mrs. Hatziyannis and I have been test-driving Montessori iPad apps. She is now watching her own children (age 5 and 4) interact them.  She is looking to see if they live up to the words of Trevor Eissler, author of Montessori Madness who said the Montessorium App Intro to Letters “shows how Montessori allows children to be craftsmen.”

In addition to Montessori-specific apps, Mrs. Hatziyannis will be investigating others designed for research and creativity apps for writing, art and music and speech recognition that help students turn their spoken words into type.  In the end, I believe, we will find that there is potential to use iPads in our Elementary classroom– and some real pitfalls to avoid.

It is such an exciting time to be an educator.  Many questions. Many opportunities.

A Learning Machine

A Learning Machine

Learning through the senses, a key part of Evergreen’s approach to learning.

Career of the Hopeful

Aquarium TripDo you love it or do you hate it when your children ask difficult questions?

A few days ago, my eleven year old daughter asked this one:  Dad, when was the golden age of American history?

Oh no!  I felt like I was reliving the AP American history exam.  What’s the answer?  Was it our nation’s birth when Madison, Adams, and Jefferson forged our country and our founding principles? Was it when Lincoln and the North ended slavery and gave the nation a new birth of freedom?  How about the sixties and seventies when social movements brought greater equality to women and minorities?

I wondered: Is there such a thing as a golden age? Aren’t there categories of golden ages? One of technological innovation, one of artistic creativity, one of industry, one of political philosophy, and one of political discourse?  What about a golden age of quality of life?

To my daughter, I said, “It is now. We are living in the golden age.”

To many, my answer offends.  There is too much injustice, conflict, inequality and unemployment in America today.  Look at the senseless death of Trayvon Martin. The most popular movie in America is about children forced to hunt one another.  Our nation is saddled with unsustainable debt. We are polluting ourselves to death. Compromise is impossible; our politics are broken and appear unfixable.

But for my daughter, and her generation, I have hope.  Mankind has never had more powerful tools to help itself. In technology.  In education. In governance. We have the ability to create systems of checks and balances. We have vaccines, biotechnology, brain scans and iPads.   We can regulate ourselves so that the public’s interest is put ahead of private, selfish interest.  It can be done.

I chose work in schools because education is the career of the hopeful.  Life, in so many ways, has improved.  We have come so far. Believe in today and tomorrow.

Our greatest threat is longing for a bygone era.  Could you look your daughter in the eye and tell her that our best days are behind us? Let’s enjoy here and now, as we work to make a brighter, safer tomorrow. It can be done.

Here’s to the Passionate Ones

January 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Chinese Copycat iPhone

What would make you riot? With over 140 million iPhones sold worldwide, the Chinese are demonstrating to get the 4S back on their store shelves. Apple products inspire intense passion.

Steve Jobs’ new biography is a fascinating peak inside the mind of one of this century’s greatest innovators.  I was shocked to learn that his leadership style did not match my image of him. The book is a great read for anyone whose life has been transformed by the digital revolution (that means all of us!)

More than anything, I was struck by Jobs’ intense passion for his products. He was a perfectionist who relentlessly pursued the most elegant, user-friendly devices.  His passion made him volatile and sometimes cruel. To a lesser degree, I was fascinated by his marketing prowess.  I reminisced about the Think Different Campaign of 1997 and its anti-establishment poetry: Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently… (the entire ad/poem is here)

To celebrate Jobs, I would rewrite the poem: Here is to the passionate ones. The caring ones. The ones who go the extra mile. The optimists who work to make things better.

And here is to the Evergreen teachers who attended Montessori workshops at Loyola University this weekend, The ones who choose to learn and grow. The ones who look for ways to be better teachers.

Thanks to all your support of professional development at Evergreen School!

Ngram Viewer and Manipulatives

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment
Hundreds Board

Hundreds Board

Google’s Ngram Viewer may be the coolest thing on the web. You can find it at http://www.ngrams.googlelabs.com/  It’s an app that graphs the frequency of a word or phrase during the past 500 years from their database of over 15 millions books. While it is a powerful tool for lexiconographers, social historians and other academics, it is a lot of fun for anyone to play with.  You can even compare the frequency of two or more words, for example, you can see that in 1965 the use of the word “coffee” surpassed the word “tea” for the first time since 1675.  Use of “abacus” shot up in the 1850s and coincided with Commodore Parry’s visit to the Asia.  “Calculator” surpassed “abacus” in 1950—no surprise. There are endless words and phrases to try.  Even names work—you can trace the rise of names like Khayal, Lazarus and Josefina.

The Ngram Viewer can also be used to look at trends in education.  The word “manipulatives” is used to describe classroom materials that children get to touch, move and manipulate to aid in learning.  In the 1980’s, use of the word exploded. This was when traditional schools discovered what Montessori schools always knew:children need to handle materials to learn and understand.  Unfortunately, traditional schools still do not come anywhere close to having the kind of thoughtful and engaging things that we have at Evergreen.  Montessori works because the materials are the education and the teacher is the guide—not the other way around.

Really Smartboards

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Who doesn’t love it when a lone voice speaks out against the orthodoxy of the educational-industrial complex? And why would a technocentric blog written by a self-described, “passionate advocate of learning innovatively” call Interactive White Boards a waste of money and time?  To many Montgomery County parents, Interactive White Boards seem like a great leap forward for their children— a 4-foot  touch screen that brings graphics and video to the classroom.  It’s like a giant I-pad on your wall.  To Lisa Nielsen, writer of The Innovative Educator blog, these Smartboards, “don’t change the model that’s broken. They just make that model way more expensive.  With a Smartboard, the teacher usually still controls the content, stands in front of the classroom, and has to manage a bunch of kids through a lesson they’d rather not be managed through.”  Montessori materials may look low-tech and simple, but they stimulate a growing brain far more. Be thankful for what you don’t have.

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