Study Shows Tech in the Classroom Boosts Math Skills for Youngest Learners

Pasnik_Whiteboard-300x225This week my colleagues at Education Development Center and SRI International and I are releasing findings from our Prekindergarten Transmedia Mathematics Study. This research is part of Ready to Learn, a partnership between the US Department of Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS. The basic premise of Ready to Learn is that it marshals public media resources in support of 2- to 8-year-olds from traditionally under-resourced communities, who are often less prepared for school than are their more socially and economically advantaged peers. After focusing on literacy and school readiness for a good many years, in 2010 the initiative began exploring how transmedia could support math learning, as early math achievement is a strong predictor of later school achievement. Think Cat in the Hat’s Huff-Puff-A-Tron on the front lines fighting against the achievement gap.

Of course we’d be over the moon if everyone would read our study’s full report but here’s the skinny on our main findings for those with limited time:

  • The important math skills measured—counting; subitizing; recognizing numerals; recognizing, composing, and representing shapes; and patterning—increased significantly for the study’s four- and five-year-old children.
  • Preschool teachers who enacted the PBS KIDS Transmedia Math Supplement reported significant changes in their confidence and comfort with early mathematics concepts and teaching with technology.

In other words, kids learned math and teachers grew more confident teaching math, which is what one would expect to happen when classrooms are equipped with high-end technologies, such as interactive whiteboards and laptop computers, and when teachers are encouraged to use high-quality free content featuring popular characters like Curious George and Sid the Science Kid.

But the study wasn’t an isolated test of shiny new hardware and content; instead, it sought to understand math learning and teaching in real classrooms—92 of them in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. As required by the Department of Education, the study was a randomized controlled trial and it followed a three-condition design:

  • A third of the classrooms received a PBS KIDS Transmedia Math Supplement, which included: PBS KIDS Lab videos and games; nondigital materials, like books and foam shapes; interactive white boards and laptop computers; broadband internet access; and on-demand technical support. Teachers also received pre-study training and ongoing coaching support focused on the enactment of the supplement.
  • A third of the classrooms were equipped with the exact same technology resources, and teachers received similar levels of training as well as tech and math support but the support was not organized around a sequenced curricular supplement.
  • And a third of the classrooms kept doing what they always do; this is what researchers commonly refer to as “business as usual.”

Pasnik_RTL_Laptop_Classroom-300x400The positive findings—children learning significantly more math and teachers expressing greater comfort with technology and confidence in their math teaching—flow from a comparison of the first with the third group. The second group, which received an infusion of digital resources, did not experience measurable gains in math learning. Put another way: air-dropping technology into centers serving young children, even with modest levels of support, was insufficient. The report has an expanded description of why we think this was the case but here’s the gist of our conclusion:

  • A sharp, cohesive curricular focus adds potency to a common approach to technology integration, which tends toward the general and aspirational and often leaves teachers to select resources piecemeal and on their own.
  • Conversely, when teachers are prepared with the content knowledge and pedagogical experience needed to mediate children’s learning with technology, children are able to make use of the learning opportunities available through engagement with digital media.
  • Digital transmedia’s potential to advance content-area learning for young children may be of greatest value for those children who are most in need of academic support. The shorthand version of this goes like this: “The children who have the most to gain are the ones who gain the most.”

Despite calls for more and stronger mathematics for young children, particularly with the introduction of the Common Core Standards, there are few preschool math curricula and even fewer that have been tested. Likewise, many existing methods for teaching early mathematics simply aren’t delivering, especially for kids from lower income households and English learners. That we were able to find positive results with a 10-week supplement indicates the promise of well-sequenced digital assets when combined with teacher supports, perhaps making a modest contribution to those wishing to understand young children’s mathematics learning. We invite everyone to ask us questions about any of the elements of this study from the selection of transmedia resources to the model of teacher support. Get in touch at our website.

Next up for our Ready to Learn research team: the transmedia of Peg + Cat and math learning at home…

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