How Can We Maximize the Potential of Learning Apps?


The following is an excerpt from the book The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis.

Let's dive directly into the world of educational apps. Our survey suggests that the majority -- one might even say, the vast majority -- of educational apps encourage pursuit of the goals and means of traditional education by digital means. They constitute convenient, neat, sometimes even seductive pathways to accomplish what were already goals in an earlier era: mastering concepts, learning arithmetical operations, identifying geographical locations or historical figures or key biological or chemical or physical processes. We could dub them "digital textbooks" or "lectures" or "pre-programmed educational conversations." Decades ago, major behaviorist B. F. Skinner called for teaching machines that would automate the traditional classroom, allow students to proceed at their own rate, provide positive feedback on correct answers, and either repeat a missed item or present that item via another pathway. Those sympathetic to Skinner's brand of psychology and to its associated educational regimen would easily recognize many apps today and would likely nod in approval at their slick, seductive interfaces.

Just as generals are prone to fight the last war, it is probably not surprising that the first generation of educational apps resemble pre-app education. (In fact, no less an authority than Marshall McLuhan noted that new media always begin by presenting the contents of the previous media.) Yet in our view, this tried-and-true pathway represents a missed opportunity. (And given how slowly change happens in our public education system, it risks becoming codified in the curriculum for many years to come.)

Let's turn the educational challenge on its head. What features are newly enabled by the new media, and how can one create and deploy apps that take maximum advantage of these affordances?

As we see it, the new media offer two dramatically fresh opportunities. One is the chance to initiate and fashion one's own products. As we transition from web 1.0 to web 2.0 and beyond, there is no reason anymore simply to respond to stimuli fashioned by others, no matter how scintillating and inviting they may be. Rather, any person in possession of a smart device can begin to sketch, publish, take notes, network, create works of reflection, art, science -- in short, each person can be his or her own creator of knowledge.


The second opportunity entails the capacity to make use of diverse forms of understanding, knowing, expressing, and critiquing -- in terms that Howard has made familiar, our multiple forms of intelligence. Until recently, education was strongly constrained to highlight two forms of human intelligence: linguistic and logical-mathematical. (Indeed, until the end of the nineteenth century, linguistic intelligence was prioritized; in the twentieth century, logical-mathematical intelligence gained equal if not greater importance.) The digital media enable a far greater spectrum of intellectual tools. Not only does this opening up of options allow many more forms of expression and understanding. It also exposes young people to different forms and formulations of knowledge. It gives additional forms of expression to all, and most especially to those whose strengths may not lay in the traditional arenas of language and logic -- for example, to future architects, musicians, designers, craftspeople, and maybe even creators of innovative new software.

9780300196214High time for an example. We turn here to Scratch, a wonderful application created over the past two decades by Mitch Resnick, a valued colleague at MIT, and his colleagues. Building on Seymour Papert's pioneering work with LOGO -- a prototypical example of constructivist education -- Scratch is a simple programming language accessible even to youngsters who have just reached school age. By piecing together forms that resemble pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, users of Scratch can create their own messages, be these stories, works of art, games, musical compositions, dances, or animated cartoons -- indeed, just about any form in any kind of format. Moreover, users of Scratch can and do post their creations. Others around the world can visit these creations, react to them, build on them, and perhaps even re-create them in their own favored symbolic system.

The genius of Scratch is twofold. First of all, it opens up a plethora of modes of expression, so that nearly every child can find an approach that is congenial with his or her own goals, strengths, and imaginations. Second, educational ends and priorities are not dictated from on high; rather, they can and do emerge from the child's own explorations of the Scratch universe. In that sense, Scratch brings pleasure and comfort to those who believe in the constructivist view of knowledge. Not only are users building their own forms of meaning and constructing knowledge that they personally value, but they are epitomizing the claim of cognitivists that one learns by taking the initiative, making one's own often instructive mistakes along the way, and then, on the basis of feedback from self and others, altering course and moving ahead.

Still, just as a hammer in the hands of a vandal can be used simply to strike every item in sight, it would be possible to misuse Scratch, to miss its genius and to convert it into yet another behavioral tool. This less happy outcome occurs when adults -- no doubt, well meaning in most cases -- "hijack" Scratch in the exclusive service of traditional educational goals and means. For example, in an educational setting wedded to a behaviorist approach, it would be possible to use Scratch to model one specific way of drawing objects in the world or for providing the definitive model of how to represent fractions or write a sentence, a paragraph, or indeed an essay.

We see, then, that the app itself is never a foolproof avenue to one or another educational use or philosophy. Depending on the context in which it is used, and the priorities of the educators (which includes those present in the classroom, lurking at home, or at their drawing boards or computer screens at an educational publisher), one can skew the same application toward app-dependent or app-enabling ends.

Nonetheless, we have no intention of letting the app-creators off the hook. Those who design apps can skew them toward dependence; this is what happens when powerful instructions and constraints are built into the app. Recall our discussion in the previous chapter of Songwriter's Pad, an app for writing songs and poems on the iPad. Choose a mood from the list of available moods, and the app returns a corresponding list of words and phrases associated with that mood that you can then insert into your song or poem. We don't doubt that some people will use this app in creative, unexpected ways. However, the constraints built into Songwriter's Pad -- in the form of packaged "bites" of poetic words and phrases -- strike us as leaning toward app-dependence. Alternatively, app designers can skew an app's constraints toward enabling; this is what happens when, à la Scratch, the apps are wide open, when they offer multiple forms of expression, and when the responses from adults and other users are not constrained.

Nor do we intend to leave adults -- be they parents or teachers -- off the hook. Depending on the milieu at home or at school, adults can either signal that apps are simply the latest and most efficient means to a given educational goal -- typically, the traditional "mastery of prior knowledge" that has been the staple of education for many years. Or they can signal that apps represent a new avenue for individuals to explore different pathways, to record their own forms of understanding, and to solicit reactions from others, ranging from those with much knowledge to those who may themselves be edified by the product or project in question.

Take, for example, a new app released in the summer of 2013 by Sesame Workshop, famous for the innovative television series Sesame Street. According to its creators, the Big Bird's Words app lays the groundwork for learning new words. Using text recognition technology, the app prompts children to identify various words -- grouped in categories -- in their surrounding environment. The online demo shows a young boy of three or four working in the food category. He chooses the word milk from a list of food words (each item in the list has a picture next to the word), then holds up his smartphone to a milk carton. Big Bird says, "Milk," and congratulates the child for finding the correct word.

Used in an enabling spirit, this app can encourage children to explore the words around them and connect these words to their daily activities. This might lead to exploration of other words in the children's environment but perhaps not in the app's lexical database. These explorations might even involve discussions with parents and siblings. Used in a dependent spirit, however, the app might engender an overreliance on it for word recognition and perhaps send the message to some children that the only words worth knowing are those that are included in the app's database. Seen in this light, the app-dependent use limits how children explore and learn from their world.

And so we look toward mindful adults -- whether new young parents or wise elderly trustees -- to furnish the settings within which apps will be encountered and used. It's in our hands to provide nudges in the direction of flexible use of apps; to offer initial scaffolds in the form or use of apps but then to remove these as soon as feasible; and to sanction the implementation of spaces and of times in which one puts aside the devices and the apps and fends for oneself. Seth Kugel, who writes the "Frugal Traveler" column for the New York Times, describes the freedom encountered when he renounces his dependence on travel apps: "I believe everyone should use the vast online database of the travel world with moderation. Save a day or two for spontaneity: seek advice from a stranger on the Seoul subway; take a day to explore an Italian town just because you stopped there for gas; trust your instinct to find a Parisian bistro to call your own. Maybe you'll find out later that its croque-madame has been praised 717 times on TripAdvisor. Who cares? You discovered it yourself."

© 2013 Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, authors of The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World.

A complete list of sources can be found in the book. The above is an excerpt from the book The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and senior director of Harvard Project Zero, an educational research group. He is renowned as father of the theory of multiple intelligences. He lives in Cambridge, MA.


Katie Davis is assistant professor, University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents' lives. She is a former member of the Project Zero team. She lives in Seattle, WA.