News

The five ingredients of active learning

Julia Child understood the magic of butter - a substance that can pull together diverse ingredients to create a delightful culinary sensation. And if there's a butter-like equivalent in the creation of children's interactive media, it's active learning. While active learning may be harder to taste than butter, it can have an equally transformative effect on multi-media ingredients.
October 1, 2009

Julia Child understood the magic of butter – a substance that can pull together diverse ingredients to create a delightful culinary sensation. And if there’s a butter-like equivalent in the creation of children’s interactive media, it’s active learning. While active learning may be harder to taste than butter, it can have an equally transformative effect on multi-media ingredients.

Years ago, early childhood curriculum designers at the High Scope Educational Research Foundation, where I trained teachers, distilled active learning into five components – materials, manipulation, choice, language and support. While we had teachers in mind, these key points work nicely with kid’s interactive experiences. To illustrate, let’s examine two similar, but differently designed activities. One is made with active learning in mind, the other without. Can can tell which is which? (Warning: this will require some active learning on your part.)

First, watch this three-minute video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0wcBcPc4xE) on the Children’s Technology Review YouTube channel. Ok. Now we’re ready.

Approach #1: Wheels on the Bus from Sesame Workshop (available at Sesamestreet.org/game).
The activity opens with Elmo saying, ‘Let’s play silly songs. Elmo the bus driver is ready to play. This song is, `The Wheels on the Bus.’ When you hear the music, press the key.’ But which key? And if Elmo is ready to play, you’re probably asking why can’t I just push the keys? Did you notice how you can’t control the pace of the song, and how the actions on the bus are pre-scripted? It makes this a flavorless experience.

This activity suffers from ‘TV writer’s disease,’ according to veteran digital designer Erik Strommen. ‘The dialogue was written as if for TV, not for interactive media, so it’s longwinded and not very focused or directive,’ he says.

Approach #2: Wheels on the Bus from Duck Duck Moose Design (available in the US at the iTunes app store).
The only instructions for this iPod Touch/iPhone app involve a silent finger, suggesting where you might touch the screen to open the doors or move the wipers. This activity exemplifies the ingredients of active learning much better than the first.

Now let’s examine both games through the active-learning lens. It’ll help to run each experience through the following checklist to find out just how tasty it is.

Materials How much content is there to explore? In the first experience, there is just one version of the song and few surprises from page to page. The bus always does the exact same thing. Contrast that with the second approach, where, along with a variety of versions of the song, there are multiple things to click on each page – there’s just much more to actively manipulate.

Manipulation You have the content, but what can you do with it? Manipulation encompasses both little things, like rolling over an icon to see what’s highlighted, and big things, like the ability to change the background graphic, record your own song, or start a giant bus rolling. The slightest tap makes a big honking noise, and the wipers seem glued to your fingertip when you slide over them. The first approach assumes toddlers are too young to understand these relationships, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Choice In approach #1, children are given no choice in the pace or version of the song or the ability to stop and start over. In the second game, children get to choose the song version or language, and complete silence is also an option. And if you have an iPhone, it’s possible to record personal vocals in the dialect of your choosing.

Words As recognized by cognitive scientists like Robert Gangé and Jerome Bruner, for a young developing child, language facilitates cognition. In other words, if you want to get a child thinking, get them talking. The Sesame app talks at children, while the Duck Duck Moose one gives children the option to talk as they listen to different forms of language.

Support Both activities make it impossible to fail. However, the second one does a better job of supporting a child’s natural instinct to poke, slide and touch – minus the lecture. As such, a child is better-supported from a developmental perspective.

The lesson here? In the quest to craft the perfect interactive beef bourguignon, good ingredients like popular licensed characters, funny writers and famous narrators certainly can’t hurt. But when they’re bathed in active learning, a child is much more likely to come back for seconds.

Dr. Warren Buckleitner is the editor of the Children’s Technology Review, which provides an insider’s view on children’s interactive media products. You can reach him at www.childrenstechnology.com.

About The Author

Menu

Brand Menu