Less is more… Again

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There is a new article making the rounds that nicely dovetails with a couple of my recent posts. “Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom” discusses new research from Carnegie Mellon, which shows that young children who are still learning to focus, like those in K and 1st grade, are more distracted, less focused on the teacher, and learn less in heavily decorated classrooms.

I wrote about similar theories in Keeping a Child Focused and Trouble in Interactive Book Paradise. It was definitely my experience with my two kids that the more extraneous decoration there was around the material they were learning, the less focus they had for the material itself. Sesame Street ABC cards were quickly discarded for my homemade letter cards because of the distraction of characters climbing over the letters. And I’ve become a broken record on how much I like the BOB Books for their simplicity and black and white pages.

Interactive books and classrooms with busy walls may have their place for older children (the article mentions 6th graders who are more capable of dealing with the distractions), and even for younger children in the right circumstances.  But this study advocates the “less is more” approach.  It also makes this one more area of Maria Montessori’s century-old approach to teaching children that has been backed up by recent research. As the article reminds us, “Montessori schools have long emphasized a calmer, understated look.”

More studies are needed to really understand the impact of classrooms with busy walls. Perhaps the children absorb what is on the walls over time, reinforcing the verbal lessons they pay less attention to? Perhaps the children in the more heavily decorated classroom learn faster how to focus and ignore distractions? Or, are the children in the decorated classrooms ultimately more inspired and excited about learning, or do they continue to miss lessons, fall further behind, and lose interest because they are struggling? What does this tell us about teaching the many children with attention issues?

I’m obviously only a researcher within my little family, but the article quotes another researcher of early education, unassociated with this study, who feels that her own research is in line with the results of this study.

I want to throw myself over those scalloped borders and cute cartoon stuff and scream to teachers, “Don’t buy this, it’s visually damaging for children!”

says Patricia Tarr, from the University of Calgary.

Tarr wrote an article in 2004 on this topic which is worth a quick read, particularly for those who will be decorating classrooms next Fall.  She implores educators to rethink their classroom decorations.  One of the classrooms she observed was heavily decorated.  After looking at the commercial decorations that adorned the walls and bulletin boards, Tarr became convinced that they create stereotypes that are counterproductive to the learning going on in the classroom.

The image of the learner embedded in these materials is that of a consumer of information who needs to be entertained, rather than a child who is curious and capable of creating and contributing to the culture within this environment.
She sees value in some postings on walls, but feels they should be based on work done by the children or should be accessible and relevant to work the children are doing, rather than commercial decorations.  If there is a word wall, are they words that are relevant to the children in that classroom, and are they readily visible as a resource, or just a decoration filling a back corner?
I hope you find this food for thought for school and home classrooms, and for the level of distraction that our young ones can handle when simultaneously learning a difficult new task.  Happy reading!
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Diversity in Books, Diversity in Life

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There was an interesting piece on Tell Me More yesterday (a radio program on NPR), describing some of the challenges of getting kids to read and also of finding books that represent the world and not just one corner/version of it.  The show looks specifically at books that have Latino characters or settings, but isn’t exclusively focused on that (e.g., one recommendation is for Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile.)  I particularly liked the show because they came up with suggestions for all different aged readers. There is both an audio and a transcript version, so don’t feel you need to listen if you would prefer to read it.

Why does diversity in books matter?  I’d say the same reason that it matters in life.  We live in a diverse world and we can only begin to understand and relate to it if we are exposed to it.  I’m reminded of dogs (I have a habit recently of comparing people and dogs, which got me in hot water in a recent conversation, but anyway…), and how puppies need to be exposed to people of different ages, ethnicities, and races in order to help them not be afraid as adult dogs.  The more the exposure, and the younger it happens, the better we can remember that we are all people – a person’s a person, no matter how small (or what color).  Reading books from different view points helps with this expansion of perspective.

Additionally, if your kids are minorities in any way, it can help them feel more comfortable with themselves. One of my kids is totally laid back about being black/brown, whereas the other struggles with it.  The aware one is absolutely attuned to representation of race in tv, movies, books, music, and life.  Hearing comments about “just like me” are heartwarming, whereas “is it ok for blacks to…” (fill in any activity currently on the radar) make me wish we lived in a more diverse area. Whatever you may think of him politically, President Obama helps fill the same role – reminding kids that they do not have to be a certain religion, sex, race, etc. to do or be something. Diverse books help in a similar way – showing kids they possible (or the imaginable).

I also had to chuckle, and wish I could have called in, because there was a section of the show where they were talking about getting kids to read more.  One of the parents said the Kindle helped with his son (as it did with my daughter), but they talked some about the need to choose something like the Paperwhite, which doesn’t have apps and games on it.  The goal is reading, not playing.  It reminded me of my recent post on ereaders.

Thanks, Michel, for another great show.

We will definitely be digging into the list this summer!  Happy reading!

Trouble in Interactive Book Paradise

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There has been a recent flurry of news about whether children learn as well from ereaders as they do from paper books. Many of the studies cited are comparing interactive books with paper books. Researchers have found that children have lower reading comprehension on some ereaders because they are getting too distracted by the interactive features. I feel this way with my kids on everything from TV character flashcards to the BOB Books ipad app.

But wait, hypocritical blogger, you may be saying, you recommend the LAZ Readers, which are on the ipad. Yes, I do. But if you look at one of the sample books, you will see how low-tech the readers are. There are no games, no animation, no background music. The only interactive features are the ability to turn pages with your finger (I’ve complained about how sensitive the app is) and the ability to look up a definition of a few words in each book. My kids liked them so much because it was a break from reading paper readers, and made them feel excited just to be doing anything with the ipad.

Long story short, the studies don’t surprise me. I’ve tried to take the simple approach to teaching my own children. I even find that I, a dedicated ereader, get troubled by the new format. It can be harder to go back to recheck something, because you can’t just flip back a few pages. There is a search feature, but the results tend to be overwhelming. Maybe I’m just not an expert at using the finer features of the machine, but I know I’m not alone. Ereaders are here to stay and are fabulous in many ways. But the interactive versions are not, it appears, a great way to get children to read.

All that said, it makes sense to me that if interactive books are what it takes to help increase your child’s interest in reading, go right ahead. Maybe it just means that you need to interact with your child more to ensure that they are really reading and understanding.

What has your experience been?