The material or the digital?

The idea for this post came to me as I was cooking dinner. There was much less risk in writing the idea on a piece of paper than getting out the laptop, or even my phone, and exposing either to heaven-knows-what from my fingers or on the counter. Also, you don’t need to charge paper and pen.

Book or iBook?

Arts & crafts or Minecraft?

CDs or Spotify?

How many parents are already regretting the new game system/tablet/phone Christmas gift? How many hours have your children stared into the glowing screen, working hard on their dowger’s hump? As my husband and I are trying to think about how to manage time spent with the new Wii, I’m reminded that in a world filled with screens — and still filled with books and paper and pens — both/and is really the answer to all of the questions above.

The research: One of the first research projects that I participated in as a doc student was about fourth grade students making memoirs. I use the verb “making” there because that’s what they were doing: making 3-dimensional representations, often built on/in a box, of their memoirs. It was as cool as it sounds. Students spending over a month thinking, collecting, developing, drafting, drawing, crafting, and designing their story.

One goal of the project was to try out some thinking that usually happens in digital spaces (like the screen you’re currently looking at) using material objects (like actual photographs, yarn, paper, boxes, stickers). The research team, which included the classroom teacher, was curious about how that type of thinking would ‘translate’ into the physical space of the classroom. Important to note was that computer access was far from given for this group of students at an under-resourced school. And, of course, these students were supposed to be prepared to write a personal narrative for the Texas standardized test[PDF] at the time. We were also hoping, then, to encourage the thinking and writing that could support them in accomplishing that very narrowly defined, non-real, and yet oh-so-necessary, task.

The work those kiddos did continues to inspire me, shape my thinking about what’s possible in classrooms, and reminds me that the tools we use matter. They taught me that the tools for learning and thinking matter, AND the process and metacognition that happen matter TOO. So while the different tools — digital or material — matter, what’s as important is the type of conversation (including selftalk) around those tools that highlight the thinking that can happen while engaging with those tools.

Yes, kids should be reading real books. Why? Because our brains do different things when we’re reading a physical book than when we’re reading a book on a screen. The research is relatively new, but it seems that we humans have hijacked the spatial parts of our brain to help us comprehend a complex text. That’s why you always knew which ‘quadrant’ of the book that one fact you were looking for when you were studying was. Your brain remembered where it was in 3-dimensional space. So reading real books for complex texts and ideas where we need to build comprehension appears to be a smart choice for paper books. So kiddos need experience with that. Practically, I might suggest that early chapter books be all paper. Help kids brains build up those spatial pathways for building comprehension across longer, more complex texts.

And they should use iBooks and apps that are books too. Have you seen Morris Lessmore? It is beautiful. And it taught my children to interact with the iPad. And that it was okay to be scared and make friends and be gentle. I snatched up the physical book when I ran across it at a bookstore too. Both the app and the book have been read and loved and both helped my children develop a sense of themselves as readers and thinkers through the conversations and explorations we’ve had around both the app and the book. (Moonbot Studios is a great place for high-quality book apps!)

That’s really the big point. They are learning what kinds of readers they are, with both physical and digital books, because they have opportunities to engage with all kinds of texts.

Another thing I remember most clearly from that first research project was how powerful it was to have children handling things. We (that would be the research team, including their amazing teacher) had the students bring in 3 objects and a picture that would trigger memories for them. I still remember watching the care with which they handled these objects and pictures. How they would get lost looking at them, turning them over in their hands. How I engaged in conversations with them around these objects. These objects and pictures became the things that triggered the memories that turned into the writing that became the final memoirs.

So, yes, arts and crafts are important. Manipulating material stuff in space and testing it, trying it out, discovering how to make stuff with physical limitations represent the idea in your head. Essential. And building worlds in the sandbox of Minecraft where the laws of physics don’t quite apply? Yes to that too! If you mess up, you just start over, no harm no fowl. You don’t run out of the cool stickers or get glue all over something. There is a risk that you’ll waste you’re time with a plan that won’t work out, but the risk is different than in the physical world, and that’s okay. Kids, in case you haven’t heard, need to learn how to manage risk, frustration, and disappointment.

Both/and. Physical and digital. So keep the picturebooks and buy an iPad with more storage.

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