Author Archives: Joe

Fostering Scientific Thinking In Young Children

I recently contributed an article to Neighborhood Parents Network‘s Parent to Parent Newsletter (pdf), which describes much of my approach to science education. Below is a slightly longer version of the piece. I hope you find it useful.

In many ways, children are born scientists. Their natural curiosity drives them to explore and experiment, and they are often fascinated as they learn how the world around us works. Their thirst for scientific knowledge seems endless. But when you ask children what scientists do and how scientists come upon new knowledge, the response is often vague. You hear descriptions of men and women who know lots of things, dress in white lab coats and toy with beakers full of chemicals.

Facts are often at the core of science education for young children, and that is part of a strong foundation in science. But science goes far beyond factual knowledge. The process by which scientists make their discoveries is what makes the world of science so special. The following tips can help plant the seeds of scientific reasoning in your child’s mind.

  • Say, “I don’t know.” In fact I encourage you to sometimes say, “I’m not sure,” even when you do have a pretty good idea how something works. Then, with your child as a partner, follow up and try to find some answers. Young children are somewhat inclined to think dichotomously — either they know the answer or they don’t. Show your children that learning is an active process. Show them that “I don’t know” can be a temporary condition.
  • Model different ways to search for knowledge. Read books, watch short videos, search the internet, and design your own experiments. Don’t stop with facts. Teach your child that penguins eat krill, and then tell them how you learned it. Maybe you read about it in a book that was written by a penguin scientist, who watches penguins. Maybe you saw a video or a photograph.
  • Use the words “I agree” and “I disagree” as much as you can. These words are your friends. Whereas ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are stubborn declarations, talking about what you believe opens up a conversation. You can make a case for what you think, and children will get a glimpse of your thought processes. You can also teach that scientists often disagree; they do experiments to see who is right, and they sometimes change their minds.
  • Question what your child already knows. If your child tells you that Tyrannosaurus ate meat, you’ll probably agree. But you don’t have to stop there. Dig deeper and ask your child why we think tyrannosaurus was a meat eater. Turn it into a research project. Ask whether people have ever seen a dinosaur eating. Then look at animals alive today, watch what they eat, look at their teeth, categorize them, and see what you’ve learned about sharp teeth.
  • Discuss and implement simple experiments. I suggest starting with very simple experiments. Take something, put it into two groups, do different things to those groups, and then see what happens. With support, even very young students can see how the scientific method helps us learn. Does your child want to design an unrealistically challenging experiment? Does your experiment involve dozens of sharks and giant lasers? Well, then use your imaginations. Turn it into an art project and draw what might happen, or act it out with whatever costumes you can come up with.

Try This Simple Experiment!

What do plants need to grow? Perhaps your child can tell you that they need dirt, water, air, and sunlight. This wonderful experiment shows how experimentation helps us learn more about what a plant needs.

Plant bean seeds in four different cups, mugs, or small pots. Garden beans or green beans work best. You might want to plant two or three seeds in each container, because there could be some duds. Give each cup a different set of conditions. (1) One cup will get no dirt. (2) One cup will get no water. (3) One cup will get no sunlight. Either put a box over the top of it or keep it in a very dark closet. (4) And the last cup gets everything we think it needs: dirt, water, and sunlight.

Then, water the plants every couple of days (but not the no-water plant!) and watch what happens. Plants will start sprouting after about a week. If you like, you can measure and graph their growth. Be prepared for a surprise!



Evaluating Apps: Harry Walker’s Rubric

I recently got in touch with educator and researcher Harry Walker. He spent years developing, revising, and establishing the validity of his Evaluation Rubric for Mobile Apps (which forms the nice little acronym, ERMA). He administered a couple rounds of surveys to a couple hundred experts around the U.S. and a few other countries, and tested the rubric’s validity.

Walker has been kind enough to share his rubric with me and with you. While there are a handful of rubrics being used out there (nicely summarized here), few if any have undergone such rigorous testing. In developing his rubric, Walker has established a foundation of research for us to build upon, which the fast-moving field of educational technology so often lacks. For that, I am grateful.

Take a look at Walker’s rubric below, and read some of his thoughtful insights on his blog, I Teach Therefore IPod.

Harry Walker Rubric

New App Reviews: March 2014

I have rigorously sifted through another group of educational apps and added them to my lists of summaries and recommendations. As always, click on the links at the top of this webpage to read my descriptions, comments, and criticisms for these apps, along the rest of my app summaries and recommendations.

I give the following apps my highest level of recommendation:

I somewhat recommend the following apps:

I do not recommend these apps:

Gamification and Edutainment

There is a growing trend in education to make learning activities more game-like. It is sometimes referred to as gamification or edutainment. Although educators have been turning their lessons into games for a long time, recent technology seems to have accelerated the shift. Learning activities today often resemble video games to the extent that there’s a fine line between the two.

The goal of gamification, of course, is to provide a fun and rewarding learning experience for children, so that they spend more time learning and their interests grow. A growing body of research (meta-analyzed here by SRI International) suggests that digital games positively affect academic outcomes. This rings true in my anecdotal experience. I have had many students who are disinterested in even the most exciting of my manipulative activities, but who clamor for the chance to try the same types of activities in a game-like app. And even the easiest-to-teach students — the students who are eager to learn from any type of activity — seem to learn more quickly when there’s an app that ties into our lessons.

However, I hesitate to embrace gamification wholeheartedly. Maybe it’s partly that I have yet to overcome the knee-jerk “waste of time” reaction that many parents and educators have when they think of video games. But there are a couple of reasons I think game-like learning is only a piece of the puzzle, not the answer to all of our problems.

Oatmeal and Lollipops

There is growing competition to make educational apps more and more entertaining, and the result is often a reduction in their educational value. Apps vary to a great degree in how they incorporate game-like attributes. Some remain highly focused on academic skills but have included prizes, short games, or animations as rewards. Others, on the other extreme, look very much like video games with perhaps an occasionally inserted math problem or literacy activity. The former I would compare to nice bowl of oatmeal with a touch of sugar in it. The latter is more like a lollipop with a tiny little bit of fruit juice. The problem is that, in the minds of young children, oatmeal is no match for lollipops. If I introduce those candy-like apps that are very fun but teach little, then my students will be less interested in other apps that are less exciting but more educationally valuable.

I acknowledge some oversimplification in the above argument. Many apps successfully integrate valuable lessons and entertaining activities. There is certainly no single “educational vs. entertaining” continuum on which apps can be placed. But I have seen a number of candy-like educational apps that are very successful. And I hear of teachers using those apps despite my confident assessment that they have little educational value. It seems there is often greater incentive to create apps that are entertaining than to create apps that are educational. Junk food sells, but it’s not good for us.

“It Builds Character”

So says Calvin’s dad in the old “Calvin and Hobbes” comics, whenever something boring or undesirable must be accomplished. Though it’s not what children would want to hear, some percentage of their learning should be challenging to the extent that it’s not fun. Not everything should be a game. At some point down the road, there won’t be rewarding games for all the lessons students need to learn. Nobody is designing games to make my job fun and rewarding. Much of my motivation comes from within (though the steady paycheck helps). The ability to overcome boredom and find such motivation is a skill that requires experience. That struggle makes makes us stronger, and in many cases it makes for memorable and therefore powerful learning experiences.

Granted, I teach four and five-year-old students, so it sounds ridiculous that I would suggest they be made to struggle on a daily basis. Like any teacher, I always want to find that happy medium between too easy and too hard. But I do strive to regularly provide significantly challenging experiences in the classroom, and with tablets that sometimes means using an app without bells and whistles. For example, we use the app Number Pieces to help foster an early understanding of place value in two and three-digit numbers. The concept is challenging for young children, and the app (which I highly recommend) is essentially a blank slate — it has no questions and answers, much less rewards and prizes. But I believe it is a valuable activity.

How Edutaining Should It Be?

The trend toward gamification in education appears to have helped children learn better and faster. It’s not a trend that I would suggest we reverse. However, I think there is a limit to the extent that it should be employed. Where to draw that line will be difficult to determine with much certainty, in the rapidly changing world of educational technology.

Tips For Using Ed Tech With Young Children

I wrote a guest blog post for the Neighborhood Parents Network. It contains some tips for using educational technology with preschoolers and kindergartners. Head over to the NPN Website to check it out. Here’s an excerpt:

In my classroom, we have two simple rules for using tablets: be gentle, and try not to sneeze or drool too much. The kids laugh when tell them this. It is a joke for the most part. But I see our students’ eyes open wide when they catch a glimpse of an iPad, and I do wonder if they begin to salivate.

Tablets have burst onto the educational landscape with remarkable speed. While children clamor to get their fingers on the nearest touch screen, parents and educators must weigh the technology’s exciting potential against a host of unknowns.

New App Reviews: December 2013

A few months have passed and my students and I have been able to toy around with some new (to us) apps. I have compiled another set of reviews. A summary is below. As always, click on the links at the top of this webpage to see my reasoning for recommending or not recommending specific apps, and also to see see the rest of my reviews and recommendations.

I am most highly recommending the following apps:

I am somewhat recommending these apps:

I am not recommending these apps:

Embrace Technology or Wait for a Research Base?

A group of researchers have formed a new project aimed at improving the use of tablets as math education tools. As the New York Times reports, the Next Generation Preschool Math (NextGen) project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, strives “to develop and evaluate apps, teachers’ guides and tools for tracking children’s progress.” A lot of people are making good apps right now, but I am particularly appreciative of the work these researchers are doing:

Scientific research on the educational value of apps is nearly nonexistent. The NextGen project is trying to change that, through a painstaking process that includes not just software development but also testing, data gathering, observations of classroom dynamics, interviews with teachers, assessments of children’s learning and controlled comparisons.

Tablets are becoming ubiquitous in schools, and at a remarkable pace. The first iPhone hit the market in 2007. A mere 6 years later, a survey of early childhood educators indicates “nearly 3 in 10 classrooms have an iPad or other tablet,” as reported in the article cited above. That is a quick change for professionals in any field. For teachers, it is lightning fast; schools are often particularly slow to change.

Scientific research, on the other hand, must move slowly. It requires sound experimental design, thorough evaluations, peer-review processes, and repetition. That rigor is well worth the trouble. Science has brought us to a better understanding of how best to teach children, as it will continue to do. But it takes time, perhaps enough time that a fast-changing technology could become obsolete before its evaluators disseminate their conclusions.

Therein lies the dilemma. As a teacher, I can embrace technology as it emerges, trusting the intuition that there is great value in using technology in my classroom. But in doing so, I must rely heavily on my own common sense and rationality, knowing that they will at least occasionally be mistaken. Or, I can set aside my iPads for a while and wait for research to determine which practices have an evidence base. At the moment, it is hard to find middle ground between those two choices.

I look forward to the days when we have a better grasp of how best to use technology in education. I am grateful that dedicated researchers, like those at NextGen, are doing their part to gets us there.

New App Reviews: August 2013

I have  added summaries and reviews for another group of apps. Click on the links to read what I have written about each. And as always, click on the buttons at the top of the page for my extensive lists of app summaries and reviews.

I am most highly recommending the following:

I am somewhat recommending these apps:

These are the apps that I am not recommending:

  • Space Phonics Adventure (Phonics)

I also want to point you to another resource for helping teachers and parents find educational apps. It is called Graphite, it is run by the non-profit Common Sense Media, and Bill Gates thinks it is a valuable resource.

Google Play for Education

While Apple’s iPad continues to dominate the educational tablet landscape, Google has renewed its push to grab a bigger piece of the market. Their new platform is called Google Play for Education. Holly Korbey, of MindShift, summarizes some of the features:

Apps will be arranged by both grade level and content subject, and educators will be able to read reviews from other teachers. And instead of worrying about multiple iTunes accounts and credit cards, teachers using Google can draw from a pre-loaded account to purchase apps, then push out apps, YouTube videos, or e-books to students through Google Groups. The content will appear on students’ tablets in seconds.

Here is an introductory video featured on Google Play for Education’s website:


It is hard to get a feel for how Google’s new platform might benefit young children. It may be some time before that can be easily determined.

New App Reviews: June 2013

I have summarized and reviewed another group of apps. Click on the links to read what I have written about each app.

I am most highly recommending the following apps:

I am somewhat recommending these apps:

I do not recommend these apps:

As always, click on the buttons at the top of this page for my extensive lists of app summaries and reviews.