The Elements of Good Teaching, in an App
After 27 years teaching kindergarten, Frances Judd is used to noise, so the combination coffee/bike repair shop where we met to talk was no challenge. Judd retired from the classroom recently and now uses her experience as a teacher and toy designer to develop Mrs. Judd’s Games, mobile apps that foster early learning. I interviewed Judd to discuss how she structured her classroom for children to drive their own learning, helped parents make meaning of students’ creations and accomplishments, and translates that experience into her team’s suite of apps.
Frances Judd: I’m trying not to instruct children; let them flounder a bit. Parents should know that we spend a lot of time on that conversation: where do we have the child user challenge, struggle, not know, and then figure it out?—because it feels so good when you figure something out.
We’re trying to make completely autonomous, self-contained moments where the child feels that great sense of “I found my way, I learned this, I discovered this.” If done well, school is not a place of knowing, but of learning. On a really great day in my classroom, all the children were working collaboratively and autonomously without me instructing them. That’s how I’m still teaching in my app world.
DK: It sounds like you structure your apps, but also leave a lot of room for the child to put his or her own stamp on them. Why is that?
FJ: I give users a palette to paint with: a character that can act like that or this; a behavior makes this happen, but then it’s up to you. Because the apps are basic logic programs, we decide to what degree we want to program a back and forth with the user: if you do this, we do this. To what extent do we want to foster divergent thinking [creativity] vs. convergent thinking [working toward a common “right” answer]? We have some apps that are far more convergent, but even in those we include a mode in the game that is completely open-ended. Early on, we made an app that did not include a divergent thinking piece, and it didn’t “bring the child.” It didn’t matter which child was playing the game, and that shouldn’t be.
Parents can look for whether apps give something to the child, and whether the child gets to give back, too. That interplay is the basis of education.
DK: That’s a good opportunity to ask about Juddly, a safe way for kids to “deliver a little genius” to their parents. The app allows children to send their digital creations, in-game achievements, or other creations to their parents’ mobile devices or computers. Most of your apps feature these easy and safe connections. Why did you want this sharing feature?
FJ: I want to help parents see their child through my teacher eyes, to say “this is a moment that reflects the genius of childhood.” When we say Juddly is “delivering a little genius,” we want parents to see their child’s creativity, not just their accomplishments. We’re delivering little moments that are the touchstone for the child to remember what they did in their app experience.
When you see a child’s drawing, you know something about that child, or you can ask and they can tell you. That’s a different kind of value from saying “they answered three questions right on this addition game.”
Some day it won’t be dad or mom asking “tell me about this”; it’ll be their grad school instructor and they’ll reflect on and synthesize what they know and have learned. That’s the cycle. Children who succeed in school have good “language reasoning” around their learning—not just listing words, but processing. When the child has to talk about it, that’s when he or she understands it deeply.
DK: How and why did you make the transition from classroom to media?
FJ: The man who became the cofounder of my company was once a dad in my classroom. When I retired from teaching, he and his wife told me they couldn’t find app experiences similar to my classroom, with a teacher voice that could articulate why scribbling with a certain pincer grip is foundational for writing, why symmetrical designs are math, why narrative artwork relates to literacy. It may sound small, but we think that it’s big. The parent is the first and best teacher and I’m their partner as a teacher…and now as an app developer.
DK: How do you honor learning differences among children in apps?
FJ: Let’s say I go into a classroom with six iPads and watch six kids playing the same app at the same moment. As a trained eye, I know the range of ways that they play the game. One child out of six will only care about comparing their progress to the little markers of success; as a learner, they need it. I try to figure out how to create rewards for the kids who love that, and yet not create a learning moment that is dependent on that, because a lot of learners don’t care for it. We’re trying to find internal motivators and some reward markers.