On Robinson on Education

This very striking video has been circulating, and I'm inspired to reply to it:

First, let me say that the video design is very cool.  Moreover, Sir Ken Robinson is quite an excellent public speaker.  Finally, I agree with him entirely that standardization is the source of a lot of our educational difficulties.  But much of the rest of his message is irritatingly wrong.

The typical comment made about this video is that it represents a radical new proposal for what education should look like.  But there's very little that is new about it.  Indeed, many school teachers and education professors, I'd wager, find a lot to agree with here.  Many of the progressive "reform" proposals look like this.  The problem is that they endlessly run up against the facts of reality.  And I don't mean political reality, although that's fierce enough.  I mean the reality of what education really means and what it accomplishes.

So let's try to understand a few things that Robinson is trying to argue.  He basically makes the point that the education system was designed in the 19th century, and its methodology is stuck in the 19th century.  It needs to be updated, he says.  This, by itself, is a rhetorically powerful message, and an effective way to position his proposed reforms, especially for all those people out there who pride themselves on being cutting-edge in everything.

But what exactly, according to Robinson, is educationally backward and now wrong?  Several things, all dramatically denied (and quite amusingly illustrated):

  • 1. Work hard, do well, get a college degree, and you will be rewarded with a good job.  (Our kids "don't believe that" and "they're right not to," says Sir Ken--why?  Because a college degree doesn't guarantee a good job.  I spy a fallacy.)
  • 2. The "Enlightenment view of intelligence," that real intelligence consists in the ability to do deductive reasoning and knowledge of the classics, or what (he says) we think of as "academic ability."  (I think of academic ability as far more than this.  Also, I can't recall coming across either of these as strongly advocated for in my public school education, and these have if anything become even rarer in schools.)
  • 3. There is not enough collaboration in schools.  (There sure was an annoyingly large amount of groupwork in the public schools I attended from 1973 to 1986, and now, I gather, such methods are still all the rage.  So I'm not convinced on this point.)
  • 4. Schools are too standardized: organized on factory lines, scheduled, regimented, studying compartmentalized subjects, with people of the same ages graduating at the same time.  (Here is where I agree with him--except for his complaint about the separation into specialized subjects.)

There are three main points in the rest of his argument, as follows.  First, the modern student is constantly being bombarded with stimulation, from computers, television, handhelds, and so forth.  This can be expected to reduce their level of attention.  But, second, this leads to a ridiculous over-diagnosis of and over-medication for ADHD.  This is supposed to be an epidemic, but it is really a fictitious epidemic.  The problem at base is that kids are made to look at "boring stuff" (Sir Ken actually uses that phrase, to cheers from teenagers on YouTube), which they simply can't do unless they are "anesthetized" with ADHD drugs.  Third, an important element of intelligence is "divergent thinking," or the ability to think of different interpretations of questions and produce many different answers.  Schooling, for reasons above stated, gradually kills this ability off, which is much stronger in kindergartners.  Our creativity is educated out of us.

What should we do instead?  At least in this speech, Robinson is annoyingly cryptic.  For instance, he says: "We should be waking them up to what is inside themselves" instead of "anesthetizing them."  (OK, so how do we do that?  What does this even mean?)  Also, we should get rid of the distinction between academic and non-academic, and between abstract, theoretical, and vocational subjects.  (But...these are reasonably coherent and useful distinctions.  You can't get rid of the distinction, in practice, without getting one of the things distinguished.  I'm guessing Sir Ken is all for getting rid of the "boring stuff," which I suppose would include the allegedly soul-killing "academic" stuff.)  Also: "Most great learning happens in groups."  (Not in my experience.  I associate group learning with precisely the standardization and anti-creativity groupthink that Robinson was bemoaning earlier.  And supposing he's right and I'm wrong: how, exactly, should we harness groups to make "great learning" happen?)

Sir Ken is a charming character, but he is mostly wrong.  I think his views, far from being especially novel or radical, reflect the mainstream of educational theory.  This pattern of educational theorizing has been going on for generations now, and one of the things that people say again and again, ironically, is how innovative and cutting-edge they are when they reheat such stuff for the umpteenth time.

But, you might ask, if Sir Ken's theorizing is mostly old hat and mainstream among educational theorists, why aren't we living out an educational utopia of self-realizing, non-academic, collaborative kids who only go to college when they really want to?  Because, of course, the theory is impractical.  It is poetic justice that somebody who thinks that we should jettison the distinction between theory and practice would be impaled on that very distinction.  Another way to put it, however, is that it is incoherent--in some cases, with itself, and in some cases, with common but often unmentioned beliefs, also known as common sense.

I'm not sure that Sir Ken mentioned any actual academic subjects such as history or mathematics.  But if you are going to castigate academics as "boring stuff," then let's get clear: you are opposing history, mathematics, science, classical literature (OK, so that was mentioned), and various other subjects.  In the same vein, when clever would-be educational reformers say that we need to get rid of the orientation around memorizing facts, they rarely specify which facts they think students shouldn't learn.  As Sir Ken himself says in this talk, he doesn't want to lower standards--of course not, that's just obvious.  But if, in the limited amount of time we have to teach our children before they're all grown up, we start emphasizing vocational subjects, then we're talking about teaching less history, less mathematics, less science, etc.  De facto, standards regarding the amount of such learning are lowered.  You can't really argue with this; it's a hard, cold fact.  The practical consequence of less emphasis on academics, on "boring stuff," is to de-emphasize teaching knowledge that, it so happens, society in general naturally prizes.  You set yourself up in opposition to school boards and parents who understandably want to raise standards so that U.S. schools remain competitive with other countries.  But, you say, what's wrong with that?  They are simply mistaken about what our educational goals should be and so, sure, you do oppose them.  Perhaps; but, again, let's get clear: are you really in favor of reducing the amount of math and history that is learned in schools?  I'm sure there are some people who follow the consequences and say "yes" to this.  But most people are like Sir Ken, who says, smugly and cracking a joke, that he, too, is in favor of raising standards.  He, like so many educational theorists, wants to have his cake and eat it too: he doesn't want to teach so much "boring stuff" in school.  But he also doesn't want to lower standards.  He no doubt wants our kids to do just as well in math and science...just without all that studying, which unrealistically requires ADHD kids to pay attention.

Similarly, just as the U.S. is in the process of adopting national education standards--i.e., taking a bold leap toward ever-greater standardization--he states that he firmly opposes standardization.  Well, I do too, which is why I'm homeschooling my boys.  But in the same speech he says that we learn best by learning in groups, collaboratively.  It is hard (not impossible, but hard) to do that very much apart from a school system.  And what is the politically practical way to create a school system without the sort of standardization Robinson dislikes?  I doubt there is any.  The government cannot and should not do anything without being accountable to the people; and how can it be accountable without adopting some reasonable rules and standards against which its performance is measured?  Besides, quite famously, the U.S. educational system still (as of this writing) lacks a national educational curriculum, and in that respect is remarkably less standardized than other countries.  The point is that as long as government is in charge of education, there are natural pressures toward the standardization that Robinson--and so many, many other staunch supporters of public education and collaborative learning--bemoans.  Again, we can't have our cake and eat it too.  If we want public schools in modern democracies, we must face up to the fact that the quite proper requirements of democratic accountability will make our public school systems greatly standardized.

Not all students should get on the academic track and go to college--opines both Professor Robinson, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of London, and a passel of other highly-degreed academic theorists.  Well, of course this is true, in general.  There are still many jobs that do not (and should not) require a college degree, and there will always be people who, for whatever reasons, won't be competitive enough either as students or in the job market to be very competitive in getting jobs that do require college degrees.  It would simply be cruel, and economically illiterate, to advise everyone to try to get a college degree.  This should be obvious to anybody who has been on the "front lines" of teaching the sort of college freshmen who quickly drop out because they should never have been admitted in the first place.  So, given that this is a truism (at least under present circumstances), why does Robinson, like so many others, feel it necessary to attack a culture in which many people are getting college degrees?  What, exactly, is the point of doing that?

If I were being very charitable, I'd say that Sir Ken simply hated the thought of people making poor life choices, being overambitious, and paying for it in the form of high debt and dashed hopes.  But, having heard his speech, I think another explanation is more likely.  His contempt for the ladder to college comes in the context of a complaint that pushing education on children "alienates" them.  He says that he was taught as a school boy that by working hard, doing well, and going to college, he'd get a good job.  (It worked out that way for him, now didn't it?)  But "our kids don't believe that," he says.  And yet "our kids" are still going to college in record numbers, so if they don't believe it, they're acting irrationally.  Anyway, he seems to be saying that the reason you shouldn't go to college is simply that the academic track features "boring stuff" which will snuff out your creativity.  Yes, as amazing as it might sound, that is what he says in his speech.  He doesn't put it in so many words, but that's essentially what he says.

While Sir Ken and much of his head-nodding audience no doubt think that he, and they, are being wonderfully egalitarian and inclusive when they say and believe such things, really the opposite is true.

In the 21st century, just as much as in the 19th, a solid academic education, a liberal education, which features training in critical thinking and classical literature and all the rest of it, gives us an opportunity to improve our minds.  If you come out against academic education in the sense of liberal education, you really have to explain why you aren't also coming out against keeping a lot of people relatively stupid.  Sir Ken seems to have forgotten that a good, indeed, academic education changes minds; it liberates them, which is where we get the phrase "liberal education" from.  It needn't kill creativity, it can just as easily channel it and strengthen it.  But more importantly--because understanding is more important than creativity, I will be so bold as to say--it develops our understanding of ourselves, our society, and the universe we live in.  Having such an understanding does not merely make us much more employable, which it certainly does; and of course being more equal in this respect was indeed the reason for the egalitarian ideal of universal public education. But it also tends to make our minds and our lives so to speak broader or larger. To pretend that liberal education does not have this effect, to dismiss academic education as an artifact of the 19th century, is to ignore precisely the sort of training that made Sir Ken the speaker and writer that he is today.

Robinson would, I think, have a reply to this.  In his speech he says it is wrong to equate "smart" with "academic" and "non-smart" with "non-academic."  So I seem to be trading on that outdated equation.  This sounds very egalitarian, and especially nice when he says that many people who are brilliant are convinced they are not, merely because they are not "book smart"--a lovely, gracious sentiment.  After all, everybody knows smart and wise people who have relatively little book learning--and people full of book learning who lack wisdom or good sense.  So, sure, that's true; education has its failures, like any institution, and sometimes it isn't really necessary at all. But whoever denied these things?  It hardly follows that academic education doesn't tend to make people smart.  Of course it does; if it didn't, people wouldn't value such education.  When people go to school for a long time, and work hard and conscientiously, they tend to become better readers, better writers, better at math, and in general, possessed of better minds, than they had before, or than they would have in the absence of their education.  And this is, of course, ultimately the reason why people get an academic education.  I know it's rather obvious to say this, but it is, after all, an important bit of common sense that Robinson is ignoring.


Wikipedia's proposed legal policies

It looks like Wikipedia might be, finally, accepting its legal obligations.

Geoff Brigham, General Counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation (which is the legal owner of Wikipedia), has posted to the Foundation-l mailing list a link to a draft document described as Office of General Counsel "staff policies."  The document is here: http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Legal/Legal_Policies

When I saw it, one of my first reactions was: it's totally amazing that  it has taken Wikipedia ten years to draft this document.  Better late than never, though.

Note that these are proposed policies of the Wikimedia Foundation. They are described as "staff policies." I don't believe the average Wikipedia editor is considered "staff."  Nevertheless, the policies would seem to impact Wikipedians directly, and they essentially serve to conclude certain contentious issues in a way that is sure to upset some of the louder idiots on Wikipedia.  For example, the Wikimedia Foundation would be placing the whole sordid "child pornography" mess in the ambit of "office actions."  Office actions, for those who aren't familiar with this term of wiki-governance, are content decisions that the foundation takes without consulting or debating with the Wikipedia community.  They are, in short, rare end runs around the collaborative process, rare bows to the fact that the enterprise takes place in a broader societal (especially legal) context.

In particular, the page addresses child pornography on Wikipedia (and Wikimedia Commons).  It is worth quoting the section:

5. Child Pornography. Child pornography must be removed from the site immediately. Generally speaking, child pornography constitutes a photograph or other visual image of a child engaged is sexually explicit conduct.[3]

It is important to note that depictions such as drawings, cartoons, sculptures, or paintings that represent children in sexually explicit conduct may run afoul of certain obscenity statutes if the depictions lack certain cultural or social value. See 18 U.S.C. 1466A.

Relevant federal statutes on child pornography – with corresponding definitions -- may be found here:

http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PageServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=1476#1

State laws may also be applicable.[4]

As soon as possible, the Office of the General Counsel or the Reader Relations unit should report any discovery of child pornography (as described above) to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (800-843-5678).

Community members who find child pornography on the site may delete and report it. Community members are asked to notify Readers Relations or the Office of the General Counsel about any child pornography found on the site to ensure it is properly reported to the authorities.

Even when reporting, Community members are advised not to send images of child pornography through any means, including the email.

First let me point out that "child pornography" is the term used by the WMF--extended to include "drawings, cartoons, sculptures, or paintings."  The text cites precisely the statute under which I reported the WMF to the FBI (18 U.S.C. 1466A), and under which, at my request, a Senator and Representative of mine referred the matter to the Congressional FBI liason.  But for this, I was publicly excoriated, as you can see here and here.  Nevertheless, it led to reportage in The Register and FoxNews.com and others.  It also had many other indirect effects, including the appointment of a consultant, Robert Harris, to write a report about how the community should deal with "controversial content."  Also, I'm not sure that this is related, but the WMF's counsel during the child pornography hullaballoo, Mike Godwin, left the foundation I think last fall.  He had nothing but loud, blustery, and quite unprofessional contempt for my report to the FBI.  It seems that Geoff Brigham, the new counsel who is apparently responsible for these "staff policies," would not have the same reaction.  If he is willing to underscore the Foundation's commitment to 18 U.S.C. 1466A, going so far as to require staff members to report violations to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Foundation's legal management certainly does seem to have changed for the better.

Congratulations to the WMF would be a little premature at this point, because we need to see how things will shake out--and whether the WMF will actually act on its own policies.  Still, I'm feeling vindicated.

But maybe more interesting in the long run is the fact that the WMF has--as was inevitable, because it is surely the WMF's legal obligation to do so--taken certain new powers upon itself, in a way that is possibly unprecedented.  Observe a new element of Wikipedia's governance taking shape before your eyes.


25 Replies to Maria Bustillos

In a recent essay, in The Awl ("Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert"), Maria Bustillos commits a whole series of fallacies or plain mistakes and, unsurprisingly, comes to some quite wrong conclusions.  I don't have time to write anything like an essay in response, but I will offer up the following clues for Ms. Bustillos and those who are inclined to nod approvingly with her essay:

1. First, may I point out that not everybody buys that Marshall McLuhan was all that.

2. The fact that Nature stood by its research report (which was not a peer-reviewed study) means nothing whatsoever.  If you'll actually read it and apply some scholarly or scientific standards, Britannica's response was devastating, and Nature's reply thereto was quite lame.

3. There has not yet been anything approaching a credible survey of the quality of Wikipedia's articles (at least, not to my knowledge).  Nobody has shown, in studies taken individually or in aggregate, that Wikipedia's articles are even nearly as reliable as a decent encyclopedia.

4. If you ask pretty much anybody in the humanities, you will learn that the general impression that people have about Wikipedia articles on these subjects is that they are appalling and not getting any better.

5. The "bogglingly complex and well-staffed system for dealing with errors and disputes on Wikipedia" is a pretentious yet brain-dead mob best likened to the boys of The Lord of the Flies.

6. It is trivial and glib to say that "Wikipedia is not perfect, but then no encyclopedia is perfect."  You might as well say that the Sistine Chapel is not perfect.  Yeah, that's true.

7. It is not, in fact, terribly significant that users can "look under the hood" of Wikipedia.  Except for Wikipedia's denizens and those unfortunate enough to caught in the crosshairs of some zealous Wikipedians using the system to commit libel without repercussion, nobody really cares what goes on on Wikipedia's talk pages.

8. When it comes to actually controversial material, the only time that there is an "attempt to strike a fair balance of views" in Wikipedia-land is when two camps with approximately equal pull in the system line up on either sides of an issue.  Otherwise, the Wikipedians with the greatest pull declare their view as "the neutral point of view."  It wasn't always this way, but it has become that way all too often.

9. I too am opposed to experts exercising unwarranted authority.  But there is an enormous number of possibilities between a world dominated by unaccountable whimsical expert opinion and a world without any experts at all.  Failing to acknowledge this is just sloppiness.

10. If you thought that that Wikipedia somehow meant the end of expertise, you'd be quite wrong.  I wrote an essay about that in Episteme. (Moreover, in writing this, I was criticized for proving something obvious.)

11. The fact that Marshall McLuhan said stuff that presciently supported Wikipedia's more questionable epistemic underpinnings is not actually very impressive.

12. Jaron Lanier has a lot of very solid insight, and it is merely puzzling to dismiss him as a "snob" who believes in "individual genius and creativity."  There's quite a bit more to Lanier and "Digital Maoism" than that.  Besides, are individual genius and creativity now passe?  Hardly.

13. Clay Shirky isn't all that, either.

14. Being "post-linear" and "post-fact" is not "thrilling" or profound.  It's merely annoying and tiresome.

15. Since when did the Britannica somehow stand for guarantees of truth?  Whoever thought so?

16. There are, of course, vast realms between the extremes of "knowledge handed down by divine inspiration" and some dodgy "post-fact society."

17. The same society can't both be "post-fact" and thrive on "knowledge [that] is produced and constructed by argument," Shirky notwithstanding.  Arguments aim at truth, i.e., to be fact-stating, and truth is a requirement of knowledge.  You can't make sense of the virtues of dialectical knowledge-production without a robust notion of truth.

18. Anybody who talks glowingly about the elimination of facts, or any such thing, simply wants the world to be safe for the propagation of his ideology by familiar, manipulable, but ultimately irrational social forces.  No true liberal can be in favor of a society in which there are no generally-accepted, objective standards of truth, because then only illiberal forces will dominate discourse.

19. Expert opinion is devalued on Wikipedia, granted-and maybe also on talk radio and its TV spin-offs, and some Internet conversations.  But now, where else in society has it been significantly devalued?

20. What does being a realist about expertise--i.e., one who believes it does exist, who believes that an expert's opinion is, on balance, more likely to be true than mine in areas of his expertise--have to do with individualism?  Surely it's more the romantic individualists who want to be unfettered by the requirements of reason, including the scientific methods and careful reasoning of experts, who are naturally inclined to devalue expertise per se.

21. Wikipedia does not in any plausible way stand for a brave new world in which competing arguments hold sway over some (fictional) monolithic expert opinion.  There have always been competing expert views; Wikipedia merely, sometimes, expresses those competing expert views when, from some professors, you might hear only one side.  Sometimes, Wikipedia doesn't even do that, because the easy politicization of collaborative text written without enforceable rules makes neutrality an elusive ideal.

22. Um, we have had the Internet for more than 20 years.

23. The writing down of knowledge is more participatory now, and that's a fine thing (or can be).  But knowledge itself is, always has been, and always will be an individual affair.  The recording of things that people take themselves to know, in Wikipedia or elsewhere, and findable via Google, does not magically transfer the epistemic fact of knowledge from the recorder even to those who happen to find the text, much less to all readers online.  Knowledge itself is considerably more difficult than that.

24. Ours is an individualistic age?  Don't make me laugh.  People who actually think for themselves--you know, real individualists--appear to me to be as rare as they ever have been.  It is a delight to meet the few who are out there, and one of the better features of the Internet is that it makes it easier to find them.  The West might be largely capitalist, but that doesn't stop us from being conformist, as any high school student could tell you.

25. The real world is considerably more complex than your narrative.


Can early education literally create geniuses?

I'm interested in this question, and I am asking in order to be enlightened by you, dear reader.

Suppose you had twins, separated at birth, Norman (for "normal") and Gene (for "genius").  Norman receives an ordinary middle-class upbringing, without much special early learning.  Gene gets the most effective early training that you can imagine, whatever you imagine that looks like.  Next, suppose that Norman, after an ordinary, decent education, has an IQ of 100 (i.e., average).  I'm guessing that Gene would have an IQ slightly higher than 100, and that he would do better and be more motivated in school than Norman.  What I am not convinced of is that it is even in the realm of possibility that Gene will become a certifiable genius, with an  IQ of 140 or higher.  The only circumstance in which Gene has an IQ over 140 is if Norman's IQ is well over 100.

In other words, while certain kinds of early education can have salutary effects, one of the possible salutary effects is not to give a genius-level IQ to a child who would otherwise not have a genius-level IQ.

Am I wrong?  Can you point me to any discussions, books, or studies on the question?


Ask DadDude: learning a second language

I regularly get questions from people asking advice about their early learning situations.  I always tell them that I'm not an expert, just a fellow parent who is highly involved in his boys' education and possessed of an interest in educational theory--but they don't seem to care.  So I think I'm going to start answering people's questions here in this blog, instead of privately, so others can benefit and enlighten both me and the person who is asking me advice.  I'll leave out all identifying info.  The mother who wrote the following calls me "DadDude" because that's been my handle on http://forum.brillkids.com, a really interesting and useful forum.

Hi DadDude,

I have noticed that your posts are well thought out and very resourceful [stop! you're embarrassing me!] as I am beginning the journey of early learning with my son ... I look forward to reading blogs that are written by you.   He is [still a baby] and I was hoping I could get your opinion.  I have heard good and bad points about teaching him Chinese and Spanish while he is this young.  My husband and I only know English but my parents are speaking to him in [their native language].  We only see them on Sundays.  I have heard that teaching babies multiple languages could create a language delay.  I have also heard that you can begin to teach a baby multiple languages from the time they are in the womb.

I would love to hear your opinion.

Hi!  I am flattered that you think I might have something interesting to say on this question.  Maybe someone with more experience will write in the comments, because I am nowhere near the most knowledgeable person you'd want to ask this question.  I'm curious myself about how far along a child can be brought in language ability by elementary school age.  I'm sure early exposure makes it a lot easier to learn the language later on, but I'd love to hear stories to that effect.

So anyway, I must write this as I said above--just as another parent who is also trying to work out such things.

My wife is from another country so my boys are naturally learning a second language, which she speaks virtually exclusively to them.  For this reason, I probably can't comment in any well-informed way about teaching a second language for parents neither of whom speaks another language natively to their children.  I gather, vaguely, that some studies have shown that overall language abilities of children raised with two different languages are rather better.  I also gather that they can be poorer to begin with--the language delay thing you mention--but that's not been the case with H., no doubt because of how much I read to him and talk about language (English, of course) with him.  Maybe someone can add relevant comments about those studies in the comments section (hint hint!).

I guess if we weren't in this position (i.e., if my wife also spoke English to them) then I would at least show some foreign language flashcards or presentations, maybe some foreign language videos, to them.  But we don't do this.  (Lately I've started H. on Latin, but that's different, as I will explain.)  I guess I would do that only because such basic language knowledge is good to have as language and overall mental training.  (Along the same lines we have read a couple of children's books about foreign language as a subject, e.g., giving "hello" in a dozen different languages.)  Children need to understand that people from other countries speak other languages, and they need to get comfortable with that idea.  But your children will apparently at least an introduction to that basic lesson from discussion with their grandparents.  I also am sure that they get a head start in learning a foreign language from early exposure to it--in fact that's pretty widely believed, thus "Dora the Explorer."

I don't know, but I'll bet the language delay thing doesn't occur with kids who are exposed relatively casually to foreign languages, as a "subject" on a par with how Doman kids are exposed to facts about the subject of biology.  Why would limited exposure to alternate words for things they're familiar with confuse little ones?

Now as to Latin, I started Rosetta Stone Latin, Level 1, with H. last year, when he was four (he's about to turn five).  We've kept up our study of this--mostly because I've insisted, I admit.  (If he resisted much I would stop, but with a little cajoling he's along for the ride.  It has helped for me to be behind him in the program, and then I do a bunch and say, "I'm catching up with you!" and that gives him a boost of motivation.)  Rosetta Stone is excellent software, which it should be given the price...and due to his prior training, H. is actually quite good at it.  I'm usually better but yesterday I had the experience of seeing H. do a couple screens perfectly and I just said, "Huh? What?"  At the rate he's going, we'll be through all three levels of Latin, representing, apparently, one year of college Latin, albeit without declarative knowledge of grammar, which seems essential for Latin--we'll hit that later, when he has gained the patience for it.

Still, some people, reading this, would immediately ask, "Latin?  At age four?  Why?" And I submit that, specific issues with Latin aside, that's the same question that people would ask about learning any other foreign language earlier.  So we should really know why we are learning these other languages so early.

Well, I don't know if I could defend the practice of teaching Spanish, Mandarin, French, or whatever as a second language intensively to a baby, with the aim of making a child actually fluent in the language in childhood.  I gather that the basic reason is that it's really easy for babies to learn a foreign language, and they benefit from knowing two languages--and that is true, but as I said, it's hard and surely requires an enormous commitment at any age to learn a foreign language fluently.  (Again, H. hears lots of his second language, but isn't fluent; he understands a lot, but to become fluent, he'd have to have a lot more practice.  His mother intends to start a traditional course of study with him in the language within the next few years.)  Moreover, it is perfectly possible to teach elementary school kids languages, and they can take to it, and maybe learn it (if they spend an equivalent amount of time in intensive study) as fast as older people can; young people do this all the time, I gather.  So for me, it doesn't really clinch the case to say that babies learn languages easily.  I get the sense that some people believe that with a baby, you can spend 10% of the time you'd spend with an elementary school child, with the same effect.  Is that true?  I don't know, but I have to say I doubt it.  I'm ready to be convinced otherwise (in comments!).

Now, as to Latin, I can explain why we started this at age four.  First, he was ready for Rosetta Stone (strange, but true).  I don't know if he would have been at age three--probably not--and he definitely wouldn't have been earlier than that.  Starting now is going to enable H. to know Latin (and later, if I have any say in the matter, Greek) by the time he's a teenager, when he'll be able to benefit significantly from reading the classics in their original languages.  That's why we're doing it.  Besides, it takes us on average just about 15 minutes per day, five days per week.  You might ask, well, why didn't you start with flashcards when he was younger?  Well, it came down to priorities.  I didn't have time to think through just how to make the flashcards, and then make them.  Would we have used a bunch of kid-friendly Latin flashcards if I had found some ready-made?  Maybe.  Would we go through a baby-friendly systematic presentation of the language on video or software, if such existed?  Maybe.  Would I go all-out and go beyond such tools to make my boys fluent by age five?  No.

All I can say is that it sounds like an awful lot of work for an ability that is, for most people, just going to be another academic skill.  Your child has his whole childhood to learn a wide variety of academic skills, many of which could be introduced intensively through creative methods in earliest childhood.  Doman has given us this idea--if you really wanted to give your child the knowledge of the chemical elements that is contained in this book before the age of three, say, you probably could do that, if you really wanted to.

For example, for reasons known only to me (and maybe not even to me), I have exposed H. to a tremendous number of books and presentations about astronomy and space.  He probably knows more about this subject than most elementary school students, I guess, but we'd have to do even more, a lot more, and it would take a huge time outlay to do it, to get his knowledge level up to mine, for example.  (I have a casual amateur interest in astronomy--I had a telescope and subscribed to Astronomy when I was a kid.)  So I guess what I'm saying is that with any subject, you reach a point of diminishing returns for a given age.  Rapidly diminishing in the case of H. and astronomy, because I get the sense that he's tired of the subject.  So we've laid off lately.  We'll return to it more intensively within the next few years and I'm very sure he'll have benefited hugely from his early exposure to all that space stuff.

I guess what I'm trying to argue is that learning to speak Spanish fluently--not just getting familiar with it, not just developing a first year college student's understanding of it, but getting to speak it as well as a native child does--would be a huge amount of work, akin to teaching H. all the details about the planets, their sizes, moons, various astronomical objects and phenomena, everything (other than the technical math details) that would be taught in a college astronomy course.  If it's that much work, I don't see why it would be worth it.

Again, you might want to make the argument that early fluency in a second language benefits a child's language abilities so greatly as to justify all the time spent doing this--and therefore, not learning other things.  Be my guest!  You might change my mind.  I'm taking the conservative-skeptical position on that one, which is why we haven't spent much effort teaching H. to read and write in his mother's language.  (He can read a little in that language, by the way.)

All that said, I would totally agree that first exposure to a foreign language in early childhood, even a fair bit of exposure, is a great idea.  The only reason we haven't done this with H. & E. in their babyhood is that they were already getting lots of second language exposure from their mother.

As to learning a language in the womb...um...I'll take a stab: they might get familiar with some intonation and maybe even some words.  Would any advantage justify reading a foreign language at your pregnant belly?  I'll go out on a limb and say no.  I'll try to keep an open mind, but I'm sure you have better ways of spending your time.  Of course, it might be good for you. Might be your last opportunity to learn a foreign language for a long time!  :-)


Any volunteers to help with the reading tutorial?

I need some volunteers for my new free reading program, and I hope someone (or several someones) out there might be able to help!  I really need it!  If you are interested, please read on.
As readers of this blog know, I am working on something that is tentatively being called WatchKnow Reader.  Here's what I've said about it so far on the blog:
If you're familiar with my "Fleschcards," this program will put them all on a website (and eventually, handheld app) in a really easy-to-use format.  Suffice it to say that this is shaping up to be the most innovative and exciting new free early educational tool online (not that I'm biased or anything).  Time will tell, but I really believe this tool has the potential to be revolutionary.
Now, about the volunteer job.  For each word--and there will be about 1,500 words--there will be both a still image and a video (the video illustrates a sentence).  Well, for the last couple weeks I've been downloading the images and videos from a stock footage site that we've got a generous deal going with.  It turns out that simply picking the best media (out of a database of hundreds of thousands of items) is very time-consuming work.  Frankly, I don't think I can do it myself and meet the October deadline I'm working to meet.  In fact, I have a feeling I'll need all the help I can get, not just one person.
So here's the job: I give you a script of a presentation (i.e., list of words + illustrative sentences that go with them), and you go to this stock photography and footage site and look for images that perfectly illustrate the words, and videos that perfectly illustrate the sentences.  For people familiar with Doman standards of choosing pictures, you'll know what I'm after: clear, big pictures of the thing, and the thing only, and in the most stereotypical kind, pose, setting, etc.  For the more abstract or difficult-to-illustrate words (like "not"), the sentence should give you an idea of what I'm after.  You would give me at least one choice (if you're not sure, more than one), and I'll check it out. If I like it, I'll download it--if not, I'll find one myself.  (You won't be able to download the content yourself, because it's a professional stock photography site.)  I'll give you more guidance if you volunteer.
Now, this might sound easy, but I've been doing it a lot lately, and it isn't.  I'm very picky, and I sometimes end up hunting for the perfect image or video for 10 or 20 minutes (for really difficult ones).  I often don't pick an image that comes up on the first set of search results.  This is why I can't do 1,500 words myself by October.
In exchange for this, I can't offer much except the satisfaction of helping out with something that could really change the world--the world's first completely free end-to-end multimedia reading tutorial.  The project's funder says he wants me to do for education what I've done for reference.  Of course, that's a tall order.  For reference, I had to have a lot of volunteers and now I need some for this education project...  I obviously can't guarantee that this project will be as high-profile as some of my previous projects, but frankly I feel better and more optimistic about this than anything I've worked on for a long time.
I can also, of course, let you see the work-in-progress.  There's already a demo site I can let you see.  But you can't see it if you don't help me out!  :-)
Any takers?  Please?  Please write me at sanger@watchknow.org.  Thanks in advance!

Reviews of educational apps for little kids

Here are some app reviews I just posted on BrillKids.com.  Below that are some older reviews, still valid.

 

Five star apps

National Geographic World Atlas HD - 5/5 - can't believe I didn't get this earlier.  Now one of our most-used apps.  For purposes of teaching, this has gotten more use, recently, than Google Earth, because it simplifies the geographical information intelligently.  But it also integrates Bing maps, which are almost as good as Google Maps.

Shredder - 5/5 - my favorite chess app (and I've tried a half-dozen).  Touch a piece and it shows all legal moves it can make.  Excellent playing strength feature.  Wonderful built-in puzzle problems, though too hard for little ones.

WatchKnow - 5/5 - OK so maybe I'm a little biased, having designed both the app and the website it's based on, but this is one great educational video app!  Nobody does it better!

Peekaboo/Baby Touch (Ladybird) - 5/5 - really a gem.  Basically, it's a series of four baby board books.  Baby must tap the screen, anywhere (?), and the app shows the next slide.  The appeal is the story.  The illustrations are very abstract, as you might have seen in some baby books, but still very attractive to baby E. (and H. too).  Shows what can be done when you call some true design professionals in.

Tap Tap Baby - 5/5 - another gem.  It's like a bunch of baby toys.  It's unique--I've looked for others like it and couldn't find any.  We use this one with E. almost as much as the Counting app.

Counting (has a 1 2 3 logo) - 5/5 - this is what I do with E. when we turn on the machine to play.  Fantastic, simple way to teach about numbers.  Now, when I go down stairs counting, or hop around counting, E. starts giggling.  E. tries to touch the objects himself.

Rocket Math - 5/5 - any app that makes H. want to do math this much and for this long gets my vote.  Hard to describe briefly, it combines rocket construction with two different space games that heavily integrate excellently levelled math problems.

Stack the States and Stack the Countries - 5/5 - we love these.  H. has played Stack the States for hours, literally, and learned lots along the way.  These are very well made and I can't really think of any improvements.

Four star apps

Various Smart Baby Apps - 4.5/5 - we use these all the time.  They're excellently customizable--the programmers/designers really put a lot of thought and work into putting in lots of options that make them maximally usable by people.  The other great thing is that there are a lot of words for a very little money.  One thing that's missing is some sort of management system features for Doman users...  I'd like to make a special mention & praise of My First 1,000 Words--excellent value.  If there is a problem with this, that would prevent me from giving them five stars, it's that--well, they're just flashcards, and even with all the features, there isn't anything extra that puts them over the top.  If they had videos, or extra sounds, or something...

Mate in 1 - 4/5 - wonderful set of mate-in-1 puzzles, highly recommended for chess players (H. isn't doing this yet--maybe soon)

ABCDE and for Russian, iAzbuka (iAttractor LLC) - 4/5 - nice ABC app.  Includes a presentation (only problem is that the letter and the illustrating picture are not separated) and a nice simple quiz feature (obviously for toddlers and preschoolers, not babies).  H. has been using the trace app, which has a feature nice features, but a very nonstandard font to trace.  For our purposes iAzbuka gets a 5/5 because we haven't found any other Russian alphabet apps, and this one has helped H. quite a bit.

Spongewords - 4/5 - I really like this app.  It combines some great features that nobody else uses:  showing/reading the word, letting the word recede into the background (but still visible), then showing a video (only videos), then bringing the word forward again and showing and reading it again.  As it turns out, this is very effective.  As to the voiceover--where is that accent from?  (Just curious.)  And where were the videos made?  (They are all, it appears, home-made, but pretty well made.)  Also, you get eight different presentations--and some, like the animals one, are very long.  Each presentation is a video (you can't do anything but play or exit the videos), and so not customizable, but the videos are so well-designed that I don't care.

Animals HD (Let's Hear the Animals HD) - 4/5 - really like this app.  Flashcards combining good pix of animals with animal sounds--for lots of animals.  Would make it even better to let us see the words separate from the pix, but it's still a great app.  Excellent feature includes all animals on one slide, or four at a time on one slide; the latter allows one to ask baby, "Which one is the tiger?"  E. was getting the answers to those questions right much better than chance!  Includes Spanish version.

Countries/World Countries (ADS Software Group) - 4/5 - while its components are three-star, this one becomes a four star app by dint of sheer hugeness and uniqueness.  It essentially combines over a dozen "OK" apps, including flashcards and quizzes about country shapes, capitals, flags, and more.

Othesr: 1st Grade/Teach Me; ArtMatch; Art Sliding

Three star apps

Baby Flashcards 2 HD (Baby Cortex) -  3/5 - LOVE their "quest" feature, which shows the picture and then shows/reads the word.  No one else has this.  Two problems: can't separate words from pix, and the pix are cartoon illustrations, not photographs.

Various Tipitap flashcard apps - 3/5 - word on the same slide as an excellent full-screen photograph, and has the sound that the thing (e.g., vehicles or animals) makes; but doesn't read the word, and navigation is clumsy.  We mainly use this to teach the sounds of various things.

Speak & Read/Read English (WinkToLearn.com) - 3/5 - I want to like this, but it has the pictures first and then the words, and navigation is clumsy/slow.  For this reason, I'm afraid, I just don't use this much; I like my apps snappier (and customizable--this has no customization).  Quite a lot of words & decent pictures.  Seriously needs to pick just one name for the app.  Is it Speak & Read, Read English, or WinkToLearn.com?

Farmyard (has pic of a rooster for the icon) - 3/5 - pix and sounds of farmyard animals.  I like this and use it occasionally.  Its strengths are unusually good pictures and effective integration with sounds of the animals; but doesn't include the names of the animals (in either text or audio form).

Geomaster - 3/5 - we like it quite a lot.  It's a find-that-country (and state, city, French dept., etc.) game.  It got some nice features, and we do play it from time to time, but it needs a little work.

Others: Sky Writers; JukeBox (pic of elephant on the icon)

Two star apps

eFlash2 English - 2/5 - we just don't use this.  It has lots of categories, but it's just words-on-pictures with simple, somewhat clunky navigation--and what basically makes me use the others is the ad.  Sorry, I don't want ads and won't show an app with an ad, not when there are other apps that are as good or better in most respects.

Toddler ABC (Toddler Alphabet on the icon) - 2/5 - a puzzle game that is supposed to help teach ABCs.  For a while I didn't know one could move the icon on the top of the screen to move to the next letter; but this is very clunky navigation anyway (especially if a toddler is supposed to do that himself).  Not for babies, but even for toddlers this has made some weird design choices, such as relatively small text, and no clear distinction between the moveable pieces and the rest of the puzzle.

AlphaBaby - 2/5 - Basically, you tap on the screen, and where you tap some random letter, number, shape, or color appears.  OK, so this has a few features like Tap Tap Baby, but it's basically a touchscreen experiment that looked like it might work, but it doesn't.  The main problem is that the object appears under your finger, so your finger consistently obscures the object.  Also, the objects end up being too jumbled to be made sense of by baby.  I'll bet that a later version of this could be made into a 5 star app, though.

NOOK kids - 2/5 - we've used it to read The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.Way worse than iBooks or Kindle, it loads in landscape mode and takes tapping to make it portrait, difficult to navigate, no bookmarking, extremely poor dictionary.

 

Older reviews (written June 28, 2010)

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Top Recommendations (for my son, age 4)

KidCalc: One of the very best educational apps I've seen, all seven games on this early math game/tutor are great.  Counting Cards, Counting Puzzle, Calculator (which serves more to teach than to do calculations), Number Tracing, Math Puzzle, Flash Card Challenge, Count Snowflakes.  He's played with them all a lot, and learned a lot. 5/5

Martha's Dog Party (PBS Kids): excellent, well-reviewed app teaches vocabulary through "Chow Time," "Doggie Dress Up," "Martha Says," and "Pop Quiz" games.  Limited in the amount of vocab it teaches, but quite excellent as far as it goes. 5/5

Google Earth: it's Google Earth, on your iThing.  What else do you need to know?  A fantastic teaching tool for all ages. 5/5

iChessPro: *love* this chess app.  Wonderful as a teaching tool, offers several different boards, shows where pieces may be moved, the easiest computer setting can be easily beaten, simple interface, but powerful--overall, a very well designed app.  Played on this thing quite a bit. 5/5

iBooks: the iPad's built-in book reader is far superior to the Kindle reader.  Endless fun playing with fonts, text sizes, looking up words in the dictionary, etc.  Some good books are free to download, like Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh. 5/5

Preschool Connect the Dots: excellent way to teach the *order* of numbers, letters, etc.  Also teaches vocab in five different categories.  Kid loves this, plays it a lot. 5/5

123 Color (KidCalc): a fantastic coloring app.  You don't color in shapes manually; you simply choose a color and pick a space to fill in, and the space is filled in instantly.  Its primary educational use is not to teach art or colors, I think, but instead both matching/searching and the order of numbers, letters, and colors.  Also, since some maps are available (for purchase), you can use this to teach geography.  This is one of those apps, like Solar Walk, that couldn't be done as well on anything other than the iPad. 5/5

iWriteWords: hands down the best penmanship app we've been able to find.  Teach the spelling of upper- and lowercase letters, both individually and in the context of words, as well as numbers.  As a bonus, there's a neat little ABC song app built in, with the sheet music, BrillKids folks will like it.  We've probably played with this more than any other app.  I've never got him to practice penmanship so much before this app. 5/5

Build a Word (Word World): really simple, quickly exhausts the characters from the show. If your kid is a "Word World" fan like mine, he/she is gonna love this. Teaches spelling in a fun way you're familiar with from the show. 5/5

Solar Walk: this is the best app ever.  Maybe the best piece of software ever.  It's hard to explain exactly why this is so cool.  It's brilliantly designed.  It makes it easy to explain a zillion important but difficult-to-explain astronomical concepts, having to do with scale in terms of time and space, relationships, orbits, etc.  That sounds very dry, but this app is a totally beautiful eye candy.  We got it just today but my kid has been playing with it for something like an hour, and I've been letting him. 5/5

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Recommended (for my son, age 4)

Teach Me Kindergarten: teaches simple addition, subtraction, spelling, and Dolch sight words.  We've done this a while but stopped.  Not sure if it was because new apps came down the pike, or because it's not that compelling.  Pretty good but not the best. 3/5

Art: free and huge.  Main complaint is that there aren't enough routes into the images; you have to go through and select your own favorites to show to a child, from a huge database of images. 3/5

Art Authority: somewhat pricy art app, only marginally better than the free "Art" app.  Presentation/graphics rather better, as are the sets of "Major Works." 3/5

Cookie Doodle: billed as "educational," its educational value is very limited.  The kid loved it though.  Free. 3/5

Kid's Zone (Motion 9 Studios): Another "grab bag ed" game, with ABC & number learning, a drawing pad, a matching game, and a dozen kid-loved videos.  Free version has annoying ads, pay version is a buck.  Got a fair bit of mileage with us, especially the videos. 3/5

Speaking Spell: an iPad version of the popular old "Speak and Spell" game of yore.  Kind of imbecilic, considering all the bells and whistles that more advanced software makes possible, but still strangely compelling.  Lots of mileage with this, which has maybe taught my son more spelling than any other app, with one exception. 4/5

StarWalk: even better than Starmap, better design, from the makers of Solar Walk (the best app ever). 3/5

Tunebook: I bought this for myself, but my son has got quite a bit of use from it.  The tune player is the best interpreter of ABC code I've ever heard, especially harp and banjo (though I haven't listened to recent versions of other software).  Allows exploration of different instrument sounds, speed, and volume.  Requires an interest in folk music ;-) to appreciate. 3/5 (as educational software for kids; 5/5 for fiddlers like myself)

Nota Lite: kind of neat for purposes of demonstrating how played on the online keyboard notes match up with sheet music, but this got old fast for us.  Not very well designed; there are better virtual keyboards. 3/5

Music Drawing, Virtual Sheet Music: we got a lot of mileage out of this after going most of the way through "Music for Little Mozarts" book 1 and its dry erase magnetic staff/board.  This does the same thing, only better.  Easy to show different note lengths, and play immediately the notes that you put up. 4/5

Virtuoso (Peterb): I think this cost a little (?) but it is a great online keyboard.  Nota Light has one advantage over it, namely it puts sheet music up of the notes that you play.  This doesn't do that, but it's cool nonetheless.  The piano sound is great. 3/5

Word Magic: we haven't played this much but it seems like a pretty good one to me.  Teaches spelling by prompting students to supply the missing letter.  Well designed but, for whatever reason, not that compelling to my boy. 3/5

"Toy Story" (Disney Digital Books): retelling of the "Toy Story" movie.  Highlighted words as they are being read.  Worth getting, but not worth writing home about. 3/5

BrainQuest Blast Off, Grade 2 (workman): if you like BrainQuest, you'll probably like this.  Quiz game, combined with spelling practice.  Categories include science, social studies, language arts, math, and "grab bag."  For each category there are multiple-choice questions, a (for a 4-year-old) difficult "gaps" app which has you answer a question and then finish spelling the word(s) by choosing letters to fill in the gaps, etc.  Pretty hard for my 4-year-old, but he insists on playing it, with my help.  He'll really love this in another year, I bet.  Wish they had some for slightly younger kids, this is the youngest they had. 4/5

Super Why (PBS Kids): quite good language arts practice, especially good for spelling.  Quiz/puzzle games. 4/5

Spell Blocks with Sight Words (Cocos20): this could be so much better just by ordering the words more systematically and starting with simpler words--excellent concept and good execution, though. 3/5

iAzbuka (iAttractor LLC): this Russian language Cyrillic alphabet tutor is wonderful in its simplicity.  We love it.  Only problem is that it only teaches the alphabet. 4/5

TicTacFree: the best Tic-Tac-Toe game I could find for the iPad.  Couldn't want more in a Tic-Tac-Toe game. 4/5

Flag2Map: one of the better geography games out there, good for learning the map of Europe.  Match up both maps and capital cities (with a purchased extension) to European countries.  Nice design, forgiving of mistakes. 4/5

3D Body Systems Quiz (and 3D Musculoskeletal Anatomy Quiz): as it says, it's a quiz, pretty pictures of the body parts, but it's basically just a multiple choice quiz.  Not bad if you've already studied these things.  Not so great for learning them in the first place. 3/5

Math Magic: not as good as KidCalc, but one of the better simple arithmetic tutors.  Good design.  Not so much play yet. 3/5

Periodic Table (Kevin Neelands): we liked this and clicked around a fair bit on it.  Even if you don't know what's going on, you can learn a lot just from watching what happens as you click on different elements. Obviously it's meant for high school and college students, but aspects of this can be used to show elements to littler kids. 3/5

Telling Time (My Turn Mobile): four different ways to learn to tell time: free play lets you move the hands, and the time is read automatically; a "which time?" multiple choice quiz, a "set the clock" game, and a more advanced "how long?" game.  We haven't had it long but so far it's looking like one of the better ones. 4/5

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Recommended for smaller kids

Baby Flash Cards (Baby Cortex): nice, simple, though the pix are a cartoony and not realistic.  Not sure of how much is here, because we didn't use it.  iThings have lots and lots of baby flashcard apps, no kidding. 4/5

Fruits & Nuts, Vehicles, Vegetables (Kindergarten.com): excellently conceived flash cards, should be appealing to the BrillKids.com crowd.  I'm sure we'll be using either this or something like it with our #2. 5/5

5-in-1 Kids Pack (Bacciz): incl Match, Mystery, Tap, and "Timed!"  Sort of a grab-bag. 3/5

Preschool Adventure: eight different skills/concepts are taught (colors, numbers, shapes, coloring, body parts, matching, sounds, and alphabet "typing").  Seems like there's a lot here, but just OK. 3/5

Alpha Baby Free (Little Potato Software): those of you with babies are probably going to love this.  You simply tap on a blank screen and up pops various numbers, letters, and shapes.  How could baby fail to learn from this? 5/5

Pet the Animals: good toddler app, you stroke an image of an animal and it makes its characteristic "ahh, that feels good" sound (like purring). 4/5

My First Phrases (Smart Baby Apps): a Doman-style phrase book--very similar to Little Reader.  My boy still likes this.  Only complaint is about the occasional language problems, such as the omission of articles from sentences. 4/5

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Not Recommended (for my son, age 4; some may be good for older ages)

Children Color & Draw Artistic Springboard (Tipitap): digital drawing/coloring program.  We didn't get much out of this, probably because he just isn't ready for it and isn't interested in exploring this sort of art activity.  For what it is, though, it doesn't look bad.  Rating reflects usefulness to us, you might love it. 2/5

Video Science (ScienceHouse): simply too advanced for age 4, no matter how many early science readers he's absorbed. 1/5

Kidzstory 2, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf": the version is fine, but this is overpriced for a simple little story; doesn't even highlight the words when they are read.  Don't waste your money. 2/5

Math Cards: just wasn't interested in this.  On the face of it it's not that different from one of the games in, e.g., KidCalc.  But it's just not that compelling in design.  Not bad, really, just not as good as the others. 2/5

Mars Globe HD: I wanted so much to like this Mars globe.  Probably its worst fault is its slowness and jerkiness, and there are some design problems as well.  Not bad, just not good enough. 2/5

Chess (Chess.com): fine for chess players, but not as a teaching tool for little kids.  We played around with it a fair bit, until we got a better app and never went back. 2/5

Chess Free (Optime Software): not only is this a very simple (i.e., feature-poor) app, it has a distracting ad at the bottom of the screen, which my boy always wants to click on.  If you want to teach chess, find something better. 1/5

Starmap HD: very cool, lots of features; advanced for this age, but we got some use out of it for looking at constellations.  Only problem is that it does just what StarWalk does (at this age anyway), and StarWalk is better. 2/5

123 Writing free version: don't know if the paid version of this is better, but this is basically just a painting app with some dotted lines to fill in.  Doesn't correct work.  iWriteWords shows how it's done; this is comparatively a waste of time.  Tried it once. 1/5

TapTyping: we looked all around for a good typing tutor for preschool, couldn't find one.  This is maybe the best I could find, but it is still just a version of the plain old type you're used to.  Might be good for older typing students, but not for our preschooler. 1/5

Touch Next HD: wanted to like it, as it seems well-designed and I was able to waste some time on it myself, but it's not a good app for little kids, especially ones who don't like to be tested. Covers numbers to 30 and to 100, Elements, and "Shogun." 1/5

neuKidsDraw: just another drawing program.  No teaching features; could be good for kids who have mastered drawing programs, but mine hasn't. 1/5

Numbers Game (BidBox): a lame attempt at an app to teach the numbers in various languages (including Turkish?).  Doesn't even say the names of the numbers out loud, or teach what the numbers are in the first place. 2/5

History:Maps of the World (Seung-Bin Sho): nice app for high school and college, not for little kids. 1/5

4th-6th Grade Vocabulary (SuperKids): couldn't find a lower-grade level vocab program.  We're not quite old enough for hangman, and the lack of pictures on the flashcard app pretty much doomed this one. 1/5

Vocabulary Cartoons: jury's still out but my guess is that this vocab is too advanced even for my little boy.  The overall concept is fine (flashcards of cartoons, not unlike reading the PlayBac Publishing "Vocabulary Power" books). 2/5


Manifesto of Very Early Education (version 1)

I have been "pre-homeschooling" my two boys, H. (almost five years) and E. (seven months).  It has been an interesting journey.  I have picked a few very general principles, which I thought it might help me--and perhaps other parents in similar situations--to write down.  You might call this my credo, or manifesto.  Feedback and pointers are welcome.  If you want to disagree with a principle, and convince me otherwise, I'd love to have sources (such as books or essays) to convince me otherwise.

Basic principles

1. Very small children are capable of learning much more than most people realize.  When they do, they can benefit significantly for the rest of their lives.

2. In the coming generation, societal awareness and acceptance of very early learning might well change on a massive scale.  If it does, it will be because the Internet (I think of online videos of babies reading) makes it possible for people to bypass the institutions that, formerly, could make dissemination of information about this subject difficult.

3. Those who dogmatically insist that play, and play only, is the work of childhood sadly misunderstand the virtues of early learning.  Play might very well be the work of childhood--whatever that really means--but it is hardly inconsistent with significant early learning, which need not occupy much of your child's "play" time.  Besides, done right, learning feels like play.

4. The education of very small children must be, above all, individualized. You must approach it with creativity, careful observation, and forethought, constantly adjusting what you do with your child.

5. Reading to children is the most important component of any early learning program.  Most of our academic knowledge can be gained from books.  Those who are in favor of copious reading by parents to children are not, therefore, wholly opposed to early learning.

6. Teaching young children can be viewed as a time-consuming, enjoyable hobby--probably the most rewarding and beneficial one you will ever have.  Your old hobbies and interests can take a back seat for a while.

7. Early exposure to facts and concepts, like early exposure to nursery rhymes and the language itself, makes them much easier to remember, relearn, and use later on.

8. Flashcards, like presentations, handheld apps and old-fashioned concept books that teach the same things, can help teach huge numbers of basic concepts to little children.  It is silly to dismiss them.

9. Your main task in the hobby of early education is to delight your child with learning.

Attitude

10. As much as you can, try to take a cheerful and positive approach toward learning, at all ages.  Don't treat learning as a chore; if you, the parent, approach it right, it can be lots of fun for the child.

11. Do not force a child to learn, especially in the earliest years.  If he resists, try another approach to the same subject, or change subjects.

12. More positively stated, seek out those subjects, books, educational videos, and other educational tools that especially appeal to your child.  There's almost always something your child will be enthusiastic about.  If you always focus on those, he'll be constantly learning and still not get tired of it.

Study habits

13. There is nothing wrong with trying to get a child to start on a regimen of learning of some kind (e.g., learning some subject, learning to read, a foreign language, music, etc.), but with little ones, it requires careful design and forethought, and your approach definitely should depend on the age of the child.

14. Babies are easy.  Most of them are happy to be exposed to anything new at any time.  So you can pretty easily make your own schedule.

15. With babies, be sure to stop a session when, or before, they start to look away from whatever you're doing (book, video, whatever).

16. Preschoolers are harder to manage than babies.  At a certain age (around age two), they start having definite tastes and moods, and you must exercise all your powers of creativity, foresight, and patience--and sometimes, you must do some research or preparation in advance--if they are to continue to enjoy some subject.

17. You do not, in fact, have to adopt anything like a schedule, or attempt to inculcate many habits, in order to teach your child a lot.

18. If you do adopt a schedule, then you should always approach it flexibly.  If your child is tired, disengaged, wants to do something else, etc., do not insist on doing something just because it's on the schedule.  Teach your child to tell you, "That's enough," or "I'm tired of this."

19. Be ready to take breaks from any type of educational activity, lasting days, weeks, or even months, when it becomes clear that your child needs the break.

Reading to children

20. A fruitful way to think of early education is: reading a lot to your kids, much earlier than most people usually think of doing so.

21. Two of the best times to read to children are at mealtime and at bedtime.  This is because you have a "captive audience" and the children know that it's time to sit still.

22. If your child does not seem to want to read anything, you probably have not tried the right books.  Especially past age two or so, children have definite tastes, and you must learn them if you want to read much to them.

23. But children do go through phases where, for a few months, they are simply "cool" to the idea of books.  That is fine; they are still game for other things.  Try again in a few weeks.

24. Classics are classics for a reason: they appeal to children.  Yours will not like all classics, but they will probably like them in a much higher proportion than they like the average library or bookstore book.

25. Easy versions of classics for older children often make excellent reading, and prepare children to appreciate the originals later on.

26. Get well acquainted with the kinds and subjects of books for children.  As there are age-appropriate books for children on almost any subject, especially after they are past the simplest picture books, there is no reason that you cannot introduce a child to almost any subject.

27. I prefer to buy books over checking them out of the library (though we do both).  This gives my little learners a greater interest due to the fact that we own the books, a resource to consult at will, and a sense of accomplishment as we look at bookcases filled with books we've read.

Early reading by children

28. Babies can learn to start reading.

29. Babies frequently like and even (when exposed to them appropriately) demand to be  shown videos, flashcards, and other tools that teach them to read.

30. Copious anecdotal evidence indicates that it is possible to start children learning to read at amazingly early age, and if you continue a gentle, positive program for a few years, they can be reading at amazingly high levels as preschoolers.

31. Parents who say that their children mysteriously "taught themselves" to read have frequently done things that, unbeknownst to them, taught their children to read.  It is possible to do similar things deliberately, and get the same results.

32. The ability to learn to read at an early age does not require high intelligence.

33. Expert criticism of early reading programs is based, ironically, in ignorance.  I have yet to encounter a single expert who is both critical of baby reading and has significant experience with the phenomenon.

34. There are several different methods of teaching little ones to read which can work.  If you don't like videos, or they seem ineffective with your child, or if you don't like making paper flashcards, you can try another approach.  Parents who have successfully taught their children to read early have frequently tried several approaches (not all at once, of course).

35. Many people with early readers read a lot to their children, while moving their finger under the words.  This should be the core of any method, whatever else is used.

36. If your child seems stuck at the word-memorization stage, try presenting words in groups, based on phonetic relationships.  You can effectively teach the rules of phonics, as I did to my son.  (I explain how in my essay on early reading.)

Principles about subjects

37. History is difficult to teach to very young children because they lack the concepts that enable them to understand, or care about, the stories that make up history.  The best way to introduce history (apart from systematically introducing historical concepts, e.g., with flashcards) is to read the easiest sorts of history picture books, which explain even the simplest concepts.

38. There is a remarkably large amount of basic information that very small children can be taught, and understand, about science.  Most science learning should be supplemented with "hands on" experimentation; there are many excellent books that have "basic" experiments that even preschoolers can appreciate.

39. However distasteful this may be to some educators, memorization of many math facts is key to true "math literacy."  Some such memorization can begin in early childhood; however, one should not expect small children to be able to understand very much of mathematics from an early age.  They may catch on faster later, though.

40. Some people successfully teach children foreign languages at an early age.  It's easy enough for children to learn their first language; at the same age, a second is not too hard.  It's important to remember, however, that many of the methods we use with older students simply will not work with little ones.

41. It is a great idea to put maps on the walls, keep a $20 globe near the dinner table, and just randomly look at and talk about these resources.  A child can learn phenomenal amounts about geography just doing this.

42. Precocious ability in music and art can be encouraged, especially if the parents have a great deal of time and patience, but not guaranteed.  Precocious artistry is a different phenomenon from precocious reading and knowledge, which is something available to any child whose parents or caretakers have used appropriate methods.

When children reach school age

43. A lot of people are opposed to early education simply because early-educated children are different, and for some people, being different is bad--especially when it comes to education and the management of education.  If being part of the crowd is important to you, you probably should not engage in early education, because early-educated children do tend to stand out.

44. Probably, the best way to leverage the gains made in a successful early education program are in a highly individualized educational program--such as homeschooling.

45. While I intend to homeschool my children when they reach school age, I respect the constraints other families have that makes this impossible for them.

46. The mainstream track of mainstream schools typically lack resources to challenge and engage children who have been taught to read, and have otherwise learned a lot, in very early childhood.  Parents who are not homeschooling must coordinate carefully and thoughtfully with school districts, schools, and individual teachers, to ensure the best possible educational experience for their children.


My response to the CFCC's FTC complaint about YBCR

[All: here is my letter in support of Robert Titzer and Your Baby Can, in response to this scurrilous complaint by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.  I encourage you to send the FTC similar responses, citing your own personal experience and, if you have it, linking your videos of your child reading at an advanced level while still a preschooler. --Larry]

Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20580

Re: the April 12, 2011 complaint of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood about Your Baby Can, LLC, and Dr. Robert Titzer

April 15, 2011

To whom it may concern:

My name is Dr. Larry Sanger.  My Ph.D. is in Philosophy and I have been involved in developing reference and educational websites for most of the last 13 years.  I am co-founder of Wikipedia (feel free to Google me) and started, or helped start, Citizendium.org and WatchKnow.org, among others.  As of this writing, I am professionally engaged in designing a free, non-commercial website intended to teach children to read.  I am also in the process of starting an online survey of early reading, with a colleague who has a Ph.D. in Psychology.  My work is all free and currently supported by the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi (though I am located in central Ohio).

I am interested in issues about baby reading--as it is sometimes called--because my own son first started learning to read at age 22 months, partly with the help of Your Baby Can Read. Now, shortly before his fifth birthday, he can read and understand chapter books intended for children six years older than he is; for example, we recently were occasionally switching off reading The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles at bedtime (Scholastic's Book Wizard puts it at grade level equivalent of 7.3).  I chalk up his advanced reading ability partly to our early experience with Dr. Titzer's Your Baby Can Read. Since 2008 I have occasionally corresponded and talked to Dr. Titzer, and I have found him to be helpful and honest person.  I find the complaint against him and Your Baby Can to be scurrilous and without adequate basis.    Writing to you was my own idea; I did not consult with anyone, or ask anyone's permission, before writing this.  I simply want to make sure justice is done on these issues.

While there is at least fifty years of research about precocious readers, meaning children who begin to read before entering kindergarten, there isn't much of it all together,  there is a complete lack of peer-reviewed studies of extremely precocious readers, or children who begin to read under the age of three.  (On the lack of research, see a blog post at http://j.mp/gYbRq9 by Dr. Timothy Shanahan, chair of the National Early Reading Panel, answering a question that I submitted.)

To help remedy this deficit of information, I wrote and posted, free of charge, a 140-page essay titled How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read (http://www.larrysanger.org/reading.html).  This was written with extensive input from a wide variety of people, from critical experts as well as people who design products for early readers.  My essay is, to the best of my knowledge, the most complete, careful, and unbiased discussion of the issues raised by baby reading methods and programs, of which Your Baby Can Read is one.  It includes a review of the literature about early readers.  As a trained and critical philosopher, I tried to approach issues in an open-minded but critical fashion, conceding points to those critical of baby reading methods when warranted, but also subjecting expert opinion to critical analysis, and in the end, rejecting some of it.  Anyway, if the FTC wishes to evaluate the general claim, "It is impossible to teach babies to read," this essay may help.  The claim may seem obviously true, but in view of the actual experience of thousands of people, it is neither obvious nor true.

The complaint by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood rests mainly on one basic claim: that early reading methods like Your Baby Can Read cannot teach babies how to read.  If this claim is refuted, the complaint is entirely undermined.  Now, in deciding whether to pursue the case, the FTC indeed should evaluate this claim.  Several points might help you in this evaluation:

1. The most relevant question, one completely ignored in the CCFC's complaint, is not whether babies can read in the most stringent sense as well as, say, first graders.  It is in fact a misleading canard to insist that children who have memorized words like "hi" and "elephant" at age 12 months cannot really read by stringent definitions of reading, which would include being able to sound out new words phonetically and understand and answer questions about whole stories.  That might be true, but it is unfair and uncharitable.  Children who have memorized many words by sight have made an important start on reading.  Accordingly, the far more relevant question is whether children can get an enormous head start by beginning to learn, with programs like Your  Baby Can Read, while they are babies.  The answer to that question is, unequivocally, yes. This was my experience, as well as the experience of many others: we have daily experience of our children benefitting from being able to read to themselves throughout their preschool years.  This experience is completely ignored and dismissed in the complaint.

2. Search YouTube for videos using searches such as "baby reading", "toddler reading", "preschooler reading", "two-year-old reading", "three-year-old reading", etc.   If you watch enough of these, you can get an idea of how children who use programs like Your Baby Can Read progress.  My own boy's progress is documented on video at http://www.larrysanger.org/reading.html .

3. As bizarre as it may sound if you have never encountered it, the phenomenon of children being taught to read as babies is, in fact, quite old.  Glenn Doman (How to Teach Your Baby to Read) was the first to make a movement out of it, back in the 1960s.

4. It appears that many people, including the CCFC, were unduly impressed by the TODAY Show expose about Your Baby Can Read. While no doubt well-intended, this expose was extremely biased, second-rate journalism.  My point-by-point response to the program is here: http://larrysanger.org/2010/12/today-show-reviews-ybcr/

The complaint cites various "experts."  The fact is that genuine expert opinion about baby reading is hard to come by.  I have tried rather hard to find a critical expert who would declare that she, or he, has extensive experience with children who were taught words in babyhood.  I have not been able to turn up any.  In other words, it appears to me that the people who are called experts have no expertise in the specific phenomenon under examination--extremely precocious readers.  They are experts about the psychology of reading, childhood development, reading education, and so forth--but not on baby reading.

Dr. Titzer's not irrelevant academic training, together with his extensive experience with children who have used Your Baby Can Read--children who for example phonetically sound out words even before their second birthday, or who are reading at a third grade level before their fourth birthday--arguably qualify him as one of the leading experts on the topic.  One has to wonder whether the so-called experts found by the TODAY Show have ever met a single one of such children.

Another actual expert, whom you may want to consult, is Dr. J. Richard Gentry, an education expert and author of Raising Confident Readers. In his regular Psychology Today blog, he has written two very relevant columns, which I commend to your attention:

  • "Are Commercial-Product Claims that Babies Can Read Overblown?" (December 5, 2010)  http://j.mp/hO4AUi (Gentry's answer is yes.)
  • "Digital Media and the Future of Beginning Reading: Brilliant Babies--at the Computer--Reading Words!" (March 28, 2011) http://j.mp/fjL6hx

While I do not count myself an expert on the subject, I have done a great deal of writing, research, and thinking, and have personal experience with the subject.  I am available to the FTC as a witness or consultant in evaluating the CCFC's complaint.  Without taking time to analyze the entire thing, suffice it to say that it is full of many common fallacies and mistakes, so much so that it lacks credibility--as I can explain in depth, if needed.

Finally and significantly, I would like to point out that Your Baby Can Read is the subject of several upcoming studies.  It would behoove the FTC to wait for the results of these studies before taking any action.  You can justify a neutral stance by reference to the sheer amount and quality of anecdotal evidence.


Update on WatchKnow Reader progress (April)

We are hip-deep in the initial building phase of the project.  We've got a demo going (nothing suitable for public consumption yet though) and made a lot of adjustments to the plan.  The whole plan of making an elaborate, complete demo turned out to be well justified; basically, it has turned out to be very important to make one "perfect" presentation before making the code that will allow me to replicate this forty times over.

So here's the deal.  There will be at least eight slides per "cluster":

  1. The word, written large (in various fonts), sounded out very slowly, and displayed karaoke style (in various colors).
  2. Sounded out faster.
  3. Blended, but slowly.
  4. Blended at normal speed.
  5. A high-quality, illustrative photograph (with the blended word as voiceover).
  6. A sentence including the word, which usually either defines the word or gives some basic fact about it.  Again, displayed karaoke style.
  7. A brief video (with the sentence as voiceover).
  8. Just the word, blended at normal speed again.

For each set of words and media, there will in fact be seven different presentations, based on selections of these slides: Sound It Out Slowly (which shows all the slides); Sound It Out Quickly (which shows the quick sound-out and then the word); Let Me Sound It Out; and then Audio Flashcards, Silent Flashcards (the words are not read to the user), Audio Sentences (illustrative sentences only, no words), and Silent Sentences.

I had something of a brainstorm a little while ago, which has meant a whole bunch of rethinking of stuff: if we're going to have videos of someone reading the words, why not show the videos on the same slide that the word occurs?  And why not make the audio track of the video the voiceover for the word?  Well, we've tried it out, and it works great. I think it's going to be especially great for babies and toddlers, who learn much more when they can see a face saying the word, with lips moving.

Another feature I'm adding is, for some words, multimedia dictionary entries: when you click on some words in the sentence slides, the sounding-out will be done on a pop-up, which will include the other content from a cluster (illustrative picture, sentence/definition, and maybe video).  It will be written so that, even if I have no visual media, I'll still be able to produce short, kid-friendly definitions.  H. loves clicking on words in our ebook reader programs, to look them up in the dictionary; I think making a kid-friendly version of that feature, with pix, is just what is needed to teach vocabulary.  We're also adding various handy options.

We've already done a lot of work, but we have a huge amount of work in front of us.  Once a single cluster is finally settled & debugged, we need to make it into a whole, perfect presentation.  And to do that, well, we have to write an authoring tool.  I have been working on requirements for that during the last couple of days.

Sometimes friends and family ask me why all this time and expense is necessary--why not use PowerPoint?  There are a couple reasons.  First, of course, not everyone has PowerPoint.  But the main reason is that we have to start from scratch if we want to have the main features, the "killer" features, that will make Reader potentially the best system  for teaching reading online: sounding out words while displaying letters (or groups of letters) individually, integrating that with video, including pronunciations and dictionary, and quickly and easily making new presentations that are all interlinked wiki-style.  In the end this will be basically an authoring platform for making a children's multimedia encyclopedia--something I've wanted to make since I was working on Wikipedia.  We're starting with a reading tutorial, but when we're done with it, I'll be able to jump pretty seamlessly into putting my old powerpoint presentations (like this one) on this platform, interlink them, spruce them up with dictionary definitions, add automatic quizzes...it should be pretty cool.