Annie Murphy Paul, author, journalist and blogger at the Brilliant Blog, had so much to say about how, when, and where we learn, that my interview with her spanned two posts. Here, Part 2: Getting even smarter with Annie Murphy Paul.
WS: Through your work, you aim to make sense of the latest research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience. What new finding recently made you say “wow?”
AMP: One of the books I read this past year that really stayed with me was the book Scarcity, by economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir. I quoted from it, and commented on it, in this post on the Brilliant Blog. Mullainathan and Shafir argue, on the basis of their research and the research of others, that scarcity–a lack of anything valuable, whether it’s money or space or time–changes the way we think. In their striking phrase, “scarcity captures the mind.” Their findings can help explain all kinds of puzzling human behavior–but it has particularly important implications for how we think about poverty. Poor people’s behavior is often attributed to the weak character of the impverished–they’re poor because they’re lazy, irresponsible, and so on. Mullainathan and Shafir show that under conditions of scarcity (conditions that poor people confront every day) everyone is more likely to make the kinds of choices and decisions that make people poor and keep them that way. Their ideas are very much in keeping with my own emphasis on situational influences on intelligence—the main theme of my forthcoming book Brilliant. We think of intelligence as some kind of internal, unchanging essence, when really it is powerfully affected by the situations we encounter or create.
WS: If intelligence is affected by situations, are there differences when a child learns in real vs. virtual space?
AMP: That’s a fascinating question, and one that scientists are just beginning to explore, at least in terms of computer-assisted learning. In terms of learning from television and video, we do know that young children especially learn much more readily from a live person than from a TV program or a DVD. Scientists actually talk about a “video deficit,” meaning the slowed pace of learning that happens in front of a screen. Based on the volumes of research I’ve read, I’m a firm believer that young children need to interact with physical materials they can touch and handle, and, most importantly, with people whose faces they can see and whose voices they can hear in person.
WS: How do you explain all the positive research behind such ground-breaking shows as Sesame Street and Blues Clues? What do you think is their value?
I think the key to effective children’s shows like the ones you mention is their interactivity. Kids don’t just passively watch them—they think about the questions the programs pose, they call out answers, they count or sing along with the characters.
The subject of video and interactivity reminds me of a fascinating study I read recently. It found that while children have trouble learning from screens, as I mentioned above, they do readily learn words from conversations held on interactive platforms like Skype or Facetime. This exception to the “video deficit” seems to stem from the fact that the other person talking to the child is responding directly and in a timely way to the child’s own utterances. It’s another example of how social interaction serves as a kind of gateway to learning. And it’s a nice message for grandparents and others who communicate with children by Skype.
WS: US kids rank behind many other countries in subjects like math and science. How should we more effectively promote STEM learning?
AMP: Jonathan Wai of Duke University, Nora Newcombe of Temple University, and many other researchers have made a strong case that we (parents, teachers) too often neglect the development of children’s spatial capacities, which turn out to be very important for study and work in STEM. We focus on letters and words, we focus on numbers, but we don’t focus on three-dimensional space and how objects exist in it. We need to start using spatial words–curvy, sharp, tall, wide, deep, shallow–with young children, to help them describe and understand their spatial world. Interestingly, one way that children and teens do get practice in honing their spatial skills is by playing video games. Researchers think that one reason boys’ spatial skills are, on average, better than girls’ is because they spend more time at the video console. Maybe it’s time to get our girls playing MineCraft…
You can hear more from Annie Murphy Paul at Sandbox Summit@MIT. Go to sandboxsummit.org to register.
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