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In Media, Home and Schools: I Teach. You Learn. I Hope.

With roughly 150,000 apps in Apple's "education" store, most aimed at children, there is a legitimate, deep and tough debate to be had on defining and achieving quality in media intended to teach.
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I teach. You learn.

I hope.

Sadly, the relationship isn't 1:1; if it was, schooling would be far more successful, and educator assessment simpler.

In most situations, to teach conveys intent: a goal, plan and curriculum.

Learning is far more complex, resting on a wide variety of factors. These include the students' age and developmental stage; their abilities, needs and interests at the time; their engagement with the teaching approach; and a slew of external distractions from missed breakfast to a new toy.

A good classroom teacher takes into account as many of these elements as possible, planning for some and responding dynamically to others, to shape the best learning opportunity for each student.

By contrast, with educational media, the teaching and facilitation has to be baked during development and production. On distribution, the producer cedes control over learning to the parent, caregiver or teacher. It becomes incumbent on these adults to choose good content for the child, to present it when the young person is "available" to learn, and to support the mediated lessons. This is true both in formal educational settings with curriculum-based media, and in informal or play-based learning at home.

The distinction between teaching and learning has been muddied this past week, after the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood filed false advertising charges against two app companies for using terms in their marketing like "babies are encouraged to learn," and "teaches numbers and counting."

For a long time, I've spoken and written about the need for children's media companies to talk about what's gone into their programs and products, rather than hoped-for outcomes. Promoting curriculum, educational philosophy and recommendations for use opens a dialogue with parents about whether a show, app or game is right for their child.

Appearing to promise outcomes preys on parental guilt, and gets us in trouble (e.g., "Your Baby Can Read"). This is what CCFC claims about Fisher-Price's marketing materials.

(Note: The other company cited, "Open Solutions," chose to alter its promotional language. CCFC took that opportunity to claim victory, even though the apps remain in the "Education" section of the app store, along with tens of thousands of others aimed at children. In other words, given the choice to fight the dragon or the dragonfly, CCFC slew an insect.)

I teach. You learn. I hope.

To claim that an app "teaches" is not a promised outcome; it's a stated purpose. Fisher-Price does not assert that it controls those external factors necessary for teaching to result in teaching; it tells its curriculum and intent.

It's particularly ludicrous to go after an educational toy maker founded in 1930. Most of us grew up with Fisher-Price baby toys and crib activity sets, designed to tap into infant and toddler developmental needs. Today, the company is extending its products into the digital world, underpinned by those decades of research and insight.

CCFC says that there are no academic studies to back up educational claims. That's true, but the tablet is only a few years old, far too new for scholarly research to have been conducted, reviewed and published. There are, however, decades of studies of children's TV. These can't take into account the special (and likely positive) capacities of phones' and tablets' interactivity, but do provide a foundation for making interactive educational media successful. Elements include content that is tightly age-based and characters that children come to think of as "friends," plus uses that engage parent and child in co-play.

Even though there aren't academic studies (which wouldn't likely evaluate specific titles, only broad attributes of the medium), parents and educators have never had so many resources to help them choose great content for their children. Common Sense Media, Children's Technology Review, Moms with Apps, Appolicious and Appolearning, and many others provide independent game, app and program reviews, with transparent rubrics to help parents understand the evaluation standards. The Fred Rogers Center and the National Association for the Education of Young Children produced a deep and thoughtful guide to using technology in preschools and daycare.

With roughly 150,000 apps in Apple's "education" store, most aimed at children, there is a legitimate, deep and tough debate to be had on defining and achieving quality in media intended to teach. The discussion needs to engage industry, educators, development experts and parents. Most important, progress need to be systemic, we can't slay the dragon as long as our attention is distracted chasing dragonflies.