Cognitive Daily

There’s been lots of commentary online about Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg’s article about why children (and adults) often resist learning scientific information. Deric Bownds gives the money quote from the article:

Resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and it will be especially strong if there is a nonscientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy.

The critical question, of course, is who kids think of as reliable and trustworthy. Certainly teachers and parents are reliable, but are they trustworthy? Teachers sometimes make you do long, boring worksheets, and parents tell you that Lima beans taste good. Other kids are much more trustworthy than that — they’d never steer you towards Lima beans! Even more reliable and trustworthy are the characters kids see on TV. Batman and Spongebob show up at the same time every day, and their behavior is nearly perfectly predictable. It may not be a surprise, then, that the latest educational tool to make the news is a TV-like computer promoted by President Bush’s brother:

Inside each COW is a hard drive containing a year’s worth of social studies or science lessons done in short cartoons, songs and occasional straight narration. The lessons are devised to match the standards in many states, and the company is working on a math curriculum.

Mr. Bush said his curriculum made social studies and science more accessible. “Middle schools use 19th-century technologies to teach 21st-century kids,” he said. “Textbooks honestly have failed middle school children. They rely on children’s ability to read, and they’re boring.”

So how does the “COW” change all that? By showing them videos!

Back in Harrison Road Elementary, in a more crowded classroom across the hall from Ms. Hodges’s fifth-grade class, another fifth-grade teacher, Merilee Grubb, had a handful of students who seemed distracted, chatting with friends and ignoring her. But when Ms. Grubb clicked on the videos, the children quieted down and watched almost automatically, with some singing along.

Once the clip ended, though, the same scattered rumbles of distraction ran through the room, and Ms. Grubb had to remind the audience to pipe down. The clips seemed to change the classroom chemistry somehow, raising the expectation among students that their teacher should be just as funny and engaging as Mr. Bighead.

There’s not yet evidence that the devices actually improve student performance compared to traditional teaching methods, but Bush’s company is giving schools the devices for free in order to assess their effectiveness. Based on Bloom and Skolnick Weisberg’s analysis, it’d be surprising if the devices didn’t improve performance on some measures.

The real question is whether these devices could actually address the fundamental problems in the education system. On the one hand, our current system clearly isn’t working, but on the other, there are many other influences on children besides what goes on in the classroom. It’s an expensive replacement for a textbook, when what may actually be needed is more and better teachers.


  1. #1 Ted
    May 30, 2007

    Inside each COW is a hard drive containing a year’s worth of social studies or science lessons done in short cartoons, songs and occasional straight narration. The lessons are devised to match the standards in many states, and the company is working on a math curriculum.

    We don’t need that much standardization. We already have an unhealthy, shared ego as Americans that a common, centralized curriculum would do us further damage. If the curriculum was exceptionally good, that may not occur, but socially and politically, the odds are against it partly because children need a person that recognizes their different learning patterns (or disabilities).

    Mostly, I suspect that in the long term the COW is geared toward getting troublesome teachers out of the picture so that even smallest private schools (not all private schools are good) can have a standardized curriculum that is centrally controlled.

    Who needs their kids to be contaminated by the teachers and their labor unions anyway?

    Is this the ethically challenged Neil Bush?

  2. #2 ji
    May 30, 2007

    Heck, I’m willing to try anything to get our poor education rankings to go up.

  3. #3 Karl Bates
    May 30, 2007

    If one takes the view that “education” is merely the command of rote facts to be recognized in a multiple-choice exam, then surely the COW will win. Test scores would certainly rise, especially if we did away with the tiresome reading of tests administered with pencils and fill-in-the-bubble forms and replaced them with an interactive interface — hosted by the same COW characters of course. Yes! And we can give Diebold the contracts for the machinery!

    But these poor assembly-line kids wouldn’t know how to think, solve problems, apply abstractions to novel situations, or express their ideas (assuming they still have any). There’s a ton of data that shows the young brain sort of shutting down when it’s in “receive” mode in front of a television. The jaw goes slack, the eyes glaze over…

    I’ll agree that most classroom teachers could use a little bit of show biz help, but please let’s not do away with books. We know that the best learning is that which lights up lots of different parts of the brain at once, as when one reads printed words on a page and simultaneously visualizes what those words are describing. It’s the kind of thing I’m afraid the Bush boys didn’t spend much time at as kids.

  4. #4 Tony Jeremiah
    May 30, 2007

    Bush’ COW initiative appears to be an aspect of the edutainment movement in education. I’m not familiar with any peer-reviewed literature concerning its impact on learning, but based on the underlying premise, its most direct impact is likely to be on the motivational aspects of the learning process.

    But motivation is only one aspect of learning, and although it may help to be motivated to learn, I’m not sure edutainment approaches would actually impact the cognitive aspects of learning (e.g., those spelled out in Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives ranging from knowledge retrieval at the lowest end, to knowledge evaluation at the highest). However, that might really depend on the specifics of the edutainment instrument being employed.

    As Karl pointed out, it may be very important that the COW approach does not simply have children passively processing information, and, the skills being taught should not merely involve information retrieval. I suspect an improvement on the COW method (based on what I’ve read here), would be to make it more interactive. For example, the video lessons could be broken into vignettes, and after each vignette, the children are asked questions about what they are watching. Preferably, the form in which they are asked these questions should be in the same format as the actual testing situation (i.e., they have to read a question and then respond). The clicker technology that’s becoming common in undergraduate classroom, and, involves students being given essentially a remote control device that allows them to input an answer to displayed multiple choice questions, might be an interesting component to add to COW.

    The statement “Textbooks honestly have failed middle school children. They rely on children’s ability to read, and they’re boring” is not a completely sound argument for implementing COW. One the one hand, support for COW is logical to the extent that it reduces the boredom factor. On the other hand, the statement also implies that there are reading problems not being dealt with. If you put two and two together, you would essentially end up with highly entertained, but functionally illiterate children. And given that the standardized tests aren’t likely going to use videos to examine student knowledge, there should at least be a reading component to the COW initiative.

  5. #5 Greg
    May 31, 2007

    One step closer to the way learning happens in The Matrix! When are they going to put plugs in the backs of everyone’s heads and just download all the information they need to be a fully functioning and productive drone happily contributing to society?

  6. #6 Kent Kauffman
    June 1, 2007

    I’d never thought I’d say this, but I’m with Bush. Books are boring (and I own more books than anything else). They have a place, but engaging students will always be the most important thing in a classroom, because let’s face it, most textbooks, and many teachers, aren’t good at it.

    As long as the videos are educational videos, and possibly some videogames as well, I’m all for it.

    You could use shows already produced and save money. Like Survivor to illustrate zero sum game theory in action. The Shield to illustrate small group psychology and politics. Or even a question and answer session over the Daily Show and the Colbert Report on why satirical news is the fastest growing segment of news programming.

    Entertaining and educational should be complementary.

  7. #7 Wendy
    June 1, 2007

    I agree with Karl’s point, but I have a question. What makes him believe that students know how to reason and problem solve now? I work in an university, and it always amazes me how low the expectations of university professors are. Undergraduate curriculum is geared toward repetition (if not simply recognition) of material, with few courses expecting students to be able to understand concepts and implement that learning.
    This is coupled with the unreasonable expectations of the students (with regards to their grades, NOT to their performance). These two (admittedly anecdotal)observances have led me to believe that elementary and higher school systems already have abdicated their responsibility to teach younger students how to evaluate information. If my supposition is correct, then COW will not change how students are taught. It (COW) is simply an extention of the educational failures of today.

  8. #8 tekel
    June 1, 2007

    Ted: Yes, this is the same Neil Bush that had to be bailed out of the Silverado S&L failure in the 80s. Remember that? He and his partners stole about six billion dollars from their investors on that scam. And the US government paid for it.

    And how are schools funding this glorified VCR today? They’re paying for it with money from Neil’s brother’s No Child Left Behind boondoggle. Money that comes from your tax dollars. Seems like Neil is still stealing from the government just as fast as he can.

    After all the furor over the whitewater real estate deals, why isn’t anyone asking questions about how Bush’s “education” policies through NCLB are shovelling money into his crooked brother’s pockets?

  9. #9 tekel
    June 1, 2007

    adding: given Neil Bush’s involvement with the company, it is a mistake to evaluate these particluar devices as educational tools. Education was never their purpose, so whether they succeed or fail as educational tools is irrelevant (except to the children who are forced to watch them). The only reason the devices exist is to collect taxpayer money allocated to NCLB and funnel it back to the Bush family.

  10. #10 verstapp
    June 3, 2007

    … and of course there are no vested interests seeking to promulgate their worldview by having it force-fed to children via therse machines, now are there?

  11. #11 roseindigo
    June 3, 2007

    No amount of money or clever programs will improve education if education is not valued by the children, which means it must be valued first by the teachers and their parents. And no amount of money or fancy programming will take the place of instilling creative thinking and some self-discipline in a child. I think this is just another boondoggle so the right people can make more money and has nothing at all to do with our children except getting them used to being brainwashed.

  12. #12 Gordon Worley
    June 8, 2007

    Learning in this way will probably result in a net benefit, offering another method of obtaining information. However, it must not be done at the expense of existing methods, since each has benefits and disadvantages that work together to give students a complete education. For example, with the advent of printed work, some thought schools would go out of business because people could just learn by reading. Of course, that didn’t happen because, although printed works offer a valuable avenue of education, lectures and personal interactions also offer unique value. In the same way, I think a product like this could define a new category of learning devices, but it remains to be seen if it will actually be successful. After all, edutainment hasn’t really succeeded in the way some people thought it would because it’s a game with work artificially thrown in it, so you have no real motivation to do the work since it’s not really part of the game, just what you have to do to progress. It remains to be seen if that will be the fate of Mr. Bush’s device.

  13. #13 Ann Nunnally
    June 12, 2007

    The reason textbooks and lectures are boring to some kids are because they are only engaged in the learning process by using one input–reading or listening. They are both forms of receptive communication. Video is more appealing because it combines moving vision as well as audio. It is still passive, however. The best way to teach is to guide someone into understanding an idea by using all their senses. Technology is not always the answer. Spending more time in a lab touching, smelling, hearing and seeing the results of experiments will do more to remove skepticism than any TV show or video game with special effects.