November 15, 2013

Ready and Learning

Well-designed media can help young students learn mathematics—but teachers and curriculum are still essential.

Increasingly, preschools are embracing the use of tablets and laptops in the belief that educational media can support children’s preparation for kindergarten. A new study of PBS KIDS materials shows that using well-designed media can lead to learning gains—when teachers and a strong curriculum are also present.

“Public media and technology supports can be designed in a way that support mathematics learning,” says Shelley Pasnik, director of EDC’s Center for Children and Technology. “When technology tools, such as interactive whiteboards, become integrated into everyday activities, like gathering at circle time or using the water table, then learning can happen. The collection and sequencing of these experiences is important. It’s not just the technology.”

In the study, researchers from EDC and SRI International looked at the impact of PBS KIDS Transmedia Math Supplement, a 10-week mathematics intervention for preschool students. Transmedia refers to the presence of familiar characters across multiple experiences, from television shows to websites to offline learning activities.

The program included technology supports for classrooms, such as Chromebooks; Internet access; and interactive whiteboards. Teachers received professional development and implemented a specific curriculum supplement, which included sequenced mathematics activities involving several popular characters from PBS KIDS television programs, such as Sid the Science Kid and Curious George. In some activities, students engaged with PBS KIDS videos and digital games; in others, teachers led hands-on investigations. Both the digital and non-digital activities sought to reinforce the same mathematical skills and concepts.

To assess the impact of the program, researchers compared the mathematical knowledge of three groups of preschoolers: a group that received the PBS KIDS Transmedia Math Supplement and technology tools, a group that received the technology tools but not the supplement, and a group that did not receive anything. In all, 92 classrooms in New York and San Francisco participated in the study.

The results? Students in the PBS KIDS Transmedia Math Supplement group were better able to identify shapes, count, and recognize patterns than students in either of the other two groups. In addition, the mathematical knowledge of students in classrooms with technology tools but without the Transmedia Math Supplement did not change—leading researchers to conclude that just dropping technology tools into a class does not support improved mathematical skills.

Giving kids a leg up

The findings appear as part of the summative evaluation of Ready To Learn, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS. Ready To Learn seeks to improve early mathematics experiences for children from low-income households, who are particularly at risk of being ill-prepared for kindergarten.

The results are important because studies have shown that early math achievement is a strong predictor of later school success. Children from low-income backgrounds often fall behind early in mathematics achievement—and once behind, they struggle to catch up.

Asuba Maa, a teacher at Union Washington Day Care Center in East Harlem, New York, works with many students who are at risk for early struggles in mathematics. He says that his 18 students thrived during the 10-week study, and that the materials complemented the instruction he was already doing in class.

“We were teaching basic two-dimensional shapes already—squares, circles, triangles,” says Maa. “The materials taught geometric properties and shapes that we hadn’t touched on, like rhombus and hexagon.”

And these lessons seeped into informal activities, too. Maa recounts how a student made a mathematical finding during lunch.

“A student opened a napkin, and said, ‘Look, Mr. Asuba, this napkin has two rectangles inside!” he recalls. Maa used this as an opportunity to explore what other shapes could be made when the corners of the napkin were folded down. They found triangles and squares—and even a rhombus, which surprised even the veteran teacher.

Familiar faces support learning

Pasnik believes that a transmedia approach is especially interesting for children.

“The concept of transmedia is inviting because you are working with a single set of familiar characters that takes you, both the teacher and the child, through different experiences,” she says. “It can be motivating to have knowledge of these different characters, who are first involved in a story line on a television show, and who are now also involved as you do an activity where you recognize shapes.”

Researchers found that teachers benefited from the intervention, too. Teachers who received the PBS KIDS Transmedia Math Supplement indicated that they were more confident and comfortable with early mathematics concepts and technology integration after participating in the study.

“The materials gave me ideas that I would not otherwise have had,” says Maa.

Pasnik thinks that this study is an important contribution to the body of research on the ability of media to help young children learn mathematics.

“Research about young children and mathematics is still an emerging field, especially in the area of teacher practice,” she says. “But recently people have been paying more attention to how teachers can improve and refine their own instructional practice. That a 10-week intervention could detect that mathematics learning was occurring at a significant level is noteworthy.”

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