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.