Technology, Distractibility, and the Classroom

DSC_4776This is the third in a three-part series by Lucy Erickson looking and the impact of classroom design, and environmental noise on learning. Lucy originally began this discussion at Click to read that blog.  

I recently had the opportunity to observe instruction in a first grade classroom. The teacher was giving a vocabulary lesson in which she taught children words that could be divided into two categories: words that contained the “AU” vowel sound found in the word “couch”, and words that contained the “AW” vowel sound found in the word “crawl.” To teach this distinction, the teacher used an activity that involved a smartboard. The board showed a bank of words that the children were asked to assign to one of the two vowel sound categories by dragging the word to the right or left side of the screen. In general, it seemed to be a good, educational activity—the teacher was providing many examples of words containing those sounds and breaking them down into their smaller sound components, and sometimes calling on children to assign a particular word to one of the two groups. The children seemed generally engaged. But one thing immediately caught my attention: the two locations on the smartboard that corresponded to the two different word categories (AW and AU words) were marked by a hypnotic swirling black and white whirlpool animation. Presumably, this animation was picked because it was attention-grabbing and visually appealing, but there can be a fine line between designing an activity to be fun and child-friendly without potentially distracting children from the main point of the lesson. I can only imagine that if I as an adult had trouble tearing my gaze away from this animation, the first-graders likely found it even more difficult.

But, when incorrectly applied, [technology] can involve many flashy distractions that are extraneous to the fundamental lesson at hand.

Technology is in many ways a double-edged sword: it can be used to create remarkable interactive lessons that can adapt flexibly to a learner, which can be a particularly powerful tool considering how many children an instructor must try to simultaneously teach. But, when incorrectly applied, it can involve many flashy distractions that are extraneous to the fundamental lesson at hand. This is supported by research. For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, a study that looked at 3-year-olds ability to understand and remember a story presented in an e-book found that children struggled to follow and remember the story when extraneous “bells and whistles” were included compared to a simpler version [1]. This phenomenon is not restricted to more advanced technology: a different study found similar results when comparing letter learning in 30- to 36-month-olds.. Evidently, although children may have enjoyed playing with the flaps and levers, it appeared to distract them from learning the letters [2]. Thus, although there may not be anything unique about the potential for cutting-edge electronic technology to serve as a source of distraction, its power and flexibility to create attention-grabbing images and multimedia may make it particularly distracting.

…it is critical to use insights from the science of learning to guide the design of these apps if they are truly to support education.

Despite the potential dangers for distraction, when correctly leveraged, technology can be a tremendous asset to teachers and classrooms. Well-designed computer activities and lessons can provide support to teachers who must simultaneously address the needs of many different students with limited resources. Take as an example the cognitive tutors that are continuing to be developed and refined which adapt to the needs of individual students by tracking the kinds of mistakes they make to support and strengthen whatever skills may be weak (for a review of early research on cognitive tutors, see [3]). As these technologies become more and more sophisticated, the potential for technology to aid education will presumably only grow. However, as cautioned by Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues [4] in a recent article about the proliferation of tablet and phone apps marketed as educational, it is critical to use insights from the science of learning to guide the design of these apps if they are truly to support education.DSC_4787

References & Further Reading:

  1. Parish‐Morris, J., Mahajan, N., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Collins, M. F. (2013). Once upon a time: parent–child dialogue and storybook reading in the electronic era.Mind, Brain, and Education7(3), 200–211.
  2. Chiong, C., & DeLoache, J. S. (2013). Learning the ABCs: What kinds of picture books facilitate young children’s learning?.Journal of Early Childhood Literacy13(2), 225–
  3. Anderson, J. R., Corbett, A. T., Koedinger, K. R., & Pelletier, R. (1995). Cognitive tutors: Lessons learned. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 4(2), 167–207.
  4. Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in “educational” apps: lessons from the science of learning.Psychological Science in the Public Interest16(1), 3–34.

    Lucy EricksonLucy Erickson is a postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland.  She is a research psychologist at the intersection of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and psycholinguistics. My research focuses on the factors (e.g., parental language input; infant cognitive abilities) that interact to support successful infant language development.

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