Educators should embrace—not castigate—video games and TV.
It has been 25 years since the landmark education study "A Nation at Risk." But even after the resulting hundreds of billions of dollars spent trying to ramp up children’s mastery of basic skills, American school performance is, tragically, stuck in wet cement. Millions of children, including the majority of low-income students, are behind in the most important predictor of future achievement: fourth-grade reading. Unfortunately, the current approach to the literacy crisis is locked in a time warp, almost totally removed from the ubiquitous digital media consumption that currently drives children’s lives. Unless we change course fast to integrate literacy and digital culture, our current educational paradigm and policies will make academic achievement gains even more difficult in the decade ahead.
Why is fourth grade such a critical time? When children fall behind in the early grades they tend to stagnate at a critical moment, facing what the Harvard educational psychologist and literacy Fpioneer Jeanne Chall famously called the "fourth grade reading slump," constraining children from moving on to understand the academic and more complex language of a wide variety of content domains. International comparisons show that in part because of these early literacy setbacks, we are losing the global race in science and math education, areas central for twenty-first-century skilled jobs. Early literacy abilities have become a vital "gateway" for high-skill work that increasingly requires all high-wage workers in the global economy to understand scientific and increasingly technical materials. While other nations have raced ahead since the 1980s, our weak educational performance has confirmed our status as a nation still at risk.
But instead of preparing for new needs with modern technologies, programs like No Child Left Behind have turned many of our schools into test-prep academies that are focused on standardized skill sets, in a world that demands higher-level thinking. With the most tech-savvy administration ever now in office, we need a new strategy that relies on the untapped power of digital media. Much like how the computer chip helped define our information age and multiplied productivity in the past two decades, media technologies can help transform children from the bored, reluctant learners of today to an excited, engaged, and creative twenty-first-century workforce of tomorrow.
The New Innovation Skills
Some observers, including the National Endowment of Humanities, have argued that popular digital media like video games are at least partially to blame for the literacy crisis in America. Kids today, they claim, are wasting their time playing games when they should be reading. But a more realistic approach must use children’s natural inclinations to embrace digital media–including video games, mobile devices, and virtual worlds–and acknowledge that such tools might be a missing link for possible breakthroughs in solving the fourth-grade reading slump.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children as young as eight years old are spending an average of six hours a day on media consumption. Many children, who are just learning to read, including those who are struggling at school, play video games like Pokemon, where they must learn to read the polysyllabic names and descriptions of hundreds of creatures. For example, in a description of the creature "Shuckle," they will see language like, "[Shuckle] stores berries in its shell. The berries eventually ferment to become delicious juices." This language is more complex than what a first-grader will see in school for some time. Indeed, scholars like Rebecca Black have shown that many kids, including those who are English language learners, are becoming more immersed in writing through online fan fiction sites for popular titles, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, than they are in school.
Digital media hold great promise to speak to our educational problems in two important respects. First, they can move learning from being "book-centered" to being "experience-centered," while improving reading skills. Biology, for example, is not first and foremost about words, but about actions in and around the world. So why should its education be limited to textbooks? Second, digital tools today are the foundation of what we might call "passion" or "professional-amateur" (pro-am) communities. Today, many young people are using the Internet and other digital media to become "amateur experts"–sometimes rivaling traditional experts trained in more traditional ways–in a great variety of domains. They use the Internet, communication media, digital tools, and membership in often virtual, sometimes real, communities to develop expertise in different areas such as digital video, games, storytelling, machinima (making movies from videogame engines), fan fiction, history and civilization simulations, music, political commentary, fashion design, and nearly every other endeavor the human mind can imagine. They join with others around a shared passion–as opposed to age, race, gender, or class–to learn and practice important twenty-first-century skills. These pro-am communities–and the ways in which they are organized–hold out promise as new sites for closing our literacy, digital, and knowledge gaps, if we can learn to use them well for all our young people.
Preventing the Fourth-Grade Slump
President Barack Obama’s emphasis on building high-quality preschools and early-intervention programs is right, but none of that investment will pay off unless we follow through with a new approach in the early grades. American schools resemble a football team that keeps losing because it plays poorly in the second quarter. While the country has strongly emphasized the need for all children to learn to decode print in the early grades, it has not dealt sufficiently with the fourth-grade slump. Many students who appear to be learning to read well in the early years of school cannot "read to learn"–i.e., use written texts to master content in areas such as science, mathematics, social studies, and literature–by the fourth grade. From then on, they are always playing catch up.
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