Do smart devices make smart kids?


WATCH: Mindshapes' Chief Executive David Begg explains how interactive online books are made

I grew up with Ladybird books. They looked pretty old-fashioned when I was reading them and they seem to belong to a bygone age in the era of iPads and e-books.

These days, with the toddler acknowledged as the family's tablet expert, children often learn to navigate the internet before they learn to read.

But are smart screens making our children smarter or simply creating a new generation of "square eyes"?

In the US most young children have access to a touch-screen device and, according to Daniel Anderson, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, using these devices could be more addictive than watching television.

A young child will look away from a TV screen about 150 times an hour, but a well-designed iPad app is more engaging because the child is touching the screen to generate actions.

Reading crisis
Two boys, one reading a book, one an e-reader Book or e-book reader? Which is best?

Half of all US 10-year-olds read poorly, according to Dr Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which was set up to research how digital media impact on learning.

One of the centre's studies, using an iPod Touch, found that the vocabulary of 13 five-year-olds improved by an average of 27% after using an educational app called Martha Speaks.

Another study, using a different educational app, had a similar result, with three-year-olds showing a 17% gain.

Its latest research compared how children learned using traditional books versus e-readers.

The conclusion was that for young children traditional books were more effective in focusing attention on literacy skills while e-readers helped older children maintain attention and excitement with books.

But even then the picture is complicated.

"Children may be distracted by the bells and whistles of enhanced e-books. They may be engaged but many are not comprehending as much," said Dr Levine.

"It depends on the context and content, but e-readers aren't going to solve the reading crisis."

Book power

The idea that apps and touch screens are now constant companions for young readers was the inspiration for MagicTown, a fantasy world built around classic children's books such as Elmer, Winnie The Witch and Little Princess.

The site is trying to bridge the gap between the screen-based digital world and a time when families gathered around to listen to stories.

Every time a child listens to a story, they create a new house in the town.

They can choose a variety of modes for stories, from basic listening to modules that require them to participate in the story.

Even in the web age, stories maintain their power said David Begg, chief executive officer and co-founder.

"Story is the best medium to teach children. From the village elder importing stories from generation to generation, it is how people learn about emotions, morals and the structure of society," he said.

In Magic Town the village elder is a lion called Louis who will tell different stories to children daily.

The tree at the centre of the town grows more leaves the more stories listened to and withers if none are read.

"It is not about ramming books down kids throats but about engaging them," said Mr Begg.

"We wanted it to be something that parents think is valuable for their children," he added.

Screen learning
Two Indian school boys Not all children have access to books at home

The model of children learning alongside adults is thought to be the ideal, but in parts of the world with low literacy rates it is simply not possible.

In such places, the screen may take the place of a parent or teacher.

Prof Sugata Mitra, whose "hole-in-the-wall" terminals offered children living in the slums of India their first experience of computers.

Now, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Education, he is experimenting with teaching children to read without adult intervention.

"We are trying to find out if children can learn to read by themselves," he said.

He and his team have created reading software which has been installed on computers in three villages in central India, one in West Bengal, plus in a slum school and household in Calcutta.

The trial runs until the end of the year.

"The field reports so far are exciting. Children are starting to read already," said Prof Mitra.

Just how technology can be harnessed to help children learn in better ways may be unclear, but it is obvious children's perception of books has radically altered.

"Really young children look at a real book and think that it is electronic. They try to swipe it and think it is broken when nothing happens," said Dr Levine.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Reading is only learning to memorise and interpret pictures, something the brain normally excels at

    acdcornig to a sutdy at camrbige uinervsty it dseont mttaer in waht way a wrod is seplt as lnog as the frist and lsat ltertes are in palce tihs is bcaeuse the mnid deosnt raed the ltetres by istelf but the wrod as a wohle

    Real Intelligence is finding solutions to problems, which is hard

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    17.Eddy from Waring
    it's much more important to know that, say, their world is made of 92 elements, than who scored in such-and-such a match.
    I completely aggree but it is still important to teach children the value of being aware of what's going on in the world, ok Cheryl's masscarra everyone can do without some knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    It will probably make children lazier. There's nothing better than a good old fashioned book to learn from. At least when there's a power cut or your PC/laptop packs in you can still read a book. Youngsters these days are ill prepared for the world and don't seem to have the imagination to create things for themselves. If it isn't electronic it's no good seems to be the flavour of the century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Logically if the smart screens provide greater information than previously open to children (which they do) then it follows that kids will have the potential to be smarter academically but the only drawback seems to me is that they become less socially interactive and have less social skills compared to previosu generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Do smart devices make smart kids?

    Try giving them a handfull of change to count!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    China and Japan? These guys love a gadget and it doesn't seem to have effected their children or indeed economies.

    I'm sure we'll have the usual bores who will inform us of the vulgarities of ebooks, the internet and a laconic suspicion of anything invented after 1932. But the fact of the matter is our children will get left behind the western world if they're not allowed to explore these gadgets

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Educated - yes.
    Crammed full of facts in preparation for an exam - no.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    14.Big She

    "...keep them active too..."


    Sure, but get them to understand, boy or girl, that it's much more important to know that, say, their world is made of 92 elements, than who scored in such-and-such a match, or what brand of mascara Cheryl Cole uses.

    Not many parents round here do, and boy, do we have some thick kids...

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    We have to accept that we are moving into a digital age where IT skills are crucial - why not teach them from an early age?

    Having said that, it is not simply a choice between Smart devices or books for example. Obviously, both should be utilised.

    For example, consider handwriting - writing things out on paper defeats the electronic devices. Writing on a tablet just isn't the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Obviously, your [you're] too boring to have type [typed] in '5318008' on you [your] calculator and turned it upside down"

    Were you playing with your calculator during English lessons?
    No, just a 3am start this morning. But thank you for correcting my English. I am now safe in the knowlege that the grammer nazi's are at full alert at all times of the day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Children should be encouraged to embrace modern technology, reading a book, be it a paperback or on an electronic screen is still going to benefit them more than just sitting watching TV all day. The fact remains that the parent is still responsible for what the child reads don’t forget to keep them active too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.


    However, studies show we in the UK lag in developing children's learning.

    We need to de-tribalise them, away from Anglo-Saxon, counter-educational anticulture: populist TV, football etc., and its many potential-limiting beliefs, that are plain wrong: primarily the fatalistic one, that you are either born intelligent or stupid.

    Stupidity's mainly socially induced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "Take any student, take away the calculator and supply a slide-rule. Then ask them to calculate something. I bet the results are disasterous [sic]."

    My mental arithmetic isn't great, nor my spelling, but it doesn't matter because I have a calculator and a spelling checker. How would you be if we took away all technology? Can you ride a horse and light an oil lamp? How about making an oil lamp?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Obviously, your [you're] too boring to have type [typed] in '5318008' on you [your] calculator and turned it upside down"

    Were you playing with your calculator during English lessons?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Anyone else grow up with Cuisenaire rods?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    @3. HabitualHero
    "I thought "smart" meant "well groomed". Or do we all live in America these days?"

    No. We don't all live in America. The smart thing to do would have been to check in any British English dictionary before revealing your ignorance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    2. penguin337
    'A calculator is an electronic gadget with no distractions'
    Obviously, your too boring to have type in '5318008' on you calculator and turned it upside down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Exactly the opposite. Devices make us idle and unable to understand the mechanics of finding solutions to problems. They remove the need to think and analyse. Take any student, take away the calculator and supply a slide-rule. Then ask them to calculate something. I bet the results are disasterous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    It's not the tool that matters it's what you use it for.

    Books only have a single function, but electronic devices do many things.

    The problem is parents wont make sure their children use the learning features.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I suspect well designed learning software on electronic books or computers will prove to be at least equal to traditional learning. We have to accept the world is changing.


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