Professional Learning

The Trouble with Mr. Bighead: Reconsidering the Effectiveness of Educational Software

A former student reflects on the only classroom accessories that consistently make a difference: the teachers themselves.

June 27, 2007

The beeping, blinking world of educational software took a blow recently when researchers released their findings from a $10 million study charting the effectiveness of technology in the classroom. It appears computer-based products such as LeapTrack, SmartMath, KnowledgeBox, and other favorites don’t actually have the positive impact so many users had hoped for, at least when it comes to test scores.

This isn’t the first time technology has failed to measure up to its space-age promise. There’s a long tradition of "latest technologies" being trotted out as educational cure-alls. As Todd Oppenheimer notes in his book The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved, educators had similarly high hopes for the revolutionizing powers first of radio, then moving pictures, and then television. Those earlier technological advancements also sounded great on paper but bombed when it came to dramatically speeding up the learning process, deepening students’ understanding, or improving test scores.

Time and again, we learn what we half-suspected all along: All the bells and whistles and electronic beeping in the world can’t take the place of a skilled, enthusiastic teacher. And just like the books and chalkboards of yore, these new systems are only as good as the teacher who wields them.

These findings come with economic implications, of course. A recent New York Times article lists the cost of a single "Curriculum on Wheels" box (another of the latest techno-teaching solutions) in the $6,800 range. But perhaps more troubling is the side effect of some of this software. It seems that introducing these animated, click-and-learn systems into the classroom rewires kids’ brains and rearranges their expectations, creating a passive audience of students who want to be entertained and expect their teachers to be more animated than the Mr. Bighead character leaping on the screen.

As someone who can’t enter a television-enhanced bar or restaurant without being driven to distraction -- no matter how boring the programming (hello, golf!) -- I can fully sympathize with the rewired students. As for Mr. Bighead himself, I understand his charms: I have childhood memories of his old-time analogs, from the puppets (Big Bird) to the cartoon characters (Yuck Mouth) who took up permanent residence in my brain with their catchy, semieducational songs belted out from my television. (Still, thirty years later, when my get up and go has got up and went, I hanker for a hunk of cheese.)

But there’s a key difference, a topically academic distinction, between the cheese-and-cracker-wagon-wheel-rolling Timer of my childhood and the Mr. Bighead of today. Timer, Big Bird, and Interplanet Janet were government-funded glimmers of education slipped in between the Saturday-morning cartoons I watched at home. But Mr. Bighead is the star of a commercially sold and dubiously educational cartoon slipped between lessons of the school day. One is education masking itself as entertainment, while the other feels dangerously close to entertainment masking itself as education.

And even if Mr. Bighead’s catchy sing-along “Money, Souls, and Soil” rap does manage to teach a few kids why Europeans immigrated to America, is it worth having him otherwise rob the teacher of the classroom’s focus and attention -- which were hard enough to win even before Mr. Bighead came onto the scene?

When I think back on my own school days, some of my crispest, clearest memories are of my teachers. Mrs. Sieg, who always wore her long, white hair in a trademark teacher bun, totally transformed me in fourth grade with the book The Once and Future King. Mr. Beans, my third-grade teacher and a complete bicycle-safety nut, taught me the hand signals for "left," "right," and "thinking about stopping." And Mrs. Cooper’s infectious obsession with the Mayan Indians, which ate up most of sixth grade, is the reason for my still-burning desire to visit the Yucatan.

Maybe it’s true, as one teacher in the Times article said about her charges, that “the kids are so into the video games. We have to entertain them, or we lose them.” But it’s hard to imagine Mr. Bighead developing a fantastic -- which is to say human -- obsession with the ruins at Chichen Itza and all the kids getting fired up about Mayan architecture as a result.

Maybe technology will one day become so advanced that it will be possible to duplicate the inspirational, transformative powers of a trained, thoughtful, and inspired teacher. Maybe, in the not-so-distant future, software will be intuitive enough to notice when an unexpected topic sparks a kid’s interest, and then simultaneously guide that student through a chain of related topics. Maybe they’ll find a way to make educational software that’s both affordable and demonstrably effective at improving student performance. Until then, I’m entirely satisfied with my Mr. Bighead-less, teacher-taught education.

Evany Thomas is the author of The Secret Language of Sleep and the blogger behind Extended Cake Mix.

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