If I Could Disrupt TechCrunch (thoughts on parenting and education)

by Moms With Apps on September 19, 2011

I recently viewed the startup presentations from TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. I focused on the pitches dealing with solutions for education, because that subject is most critical to me as a parent. The session left me curious. What would happen if I had the chance to hop on stage…what message would I want to convey?

The Reality of Our Neighborhood School

“I’m the stay-at-home mom of two girls who attend our local public schools in Redwood City, California. We experience first-hand the impact of drastic budget cuts in the classroom. Class sizes are larger, resources seem non-existent, children are easily distracted, and teachers are spending more time managing behavior than actually teaching.

If children who enter the public school classroom were ready to focus, listen and learn – I don’t think the lean teacher/student ratio of the educational crisis at hand would be so devastating.

Parenting Trends I’m Noticing

I believe that part of the solution for education starts with responsible parenting. I believe that parents are becoming more distracted from parenting because of habits we’re forming around mobile technology.

Have you noticed how many in-person conversations are interrupted by incoming calls from a cell phone? Although it can be annoying, unfortunately we’re all growing used to it. But what if you are a child in the formative years, yearning for attention as you try to understand the world around you? What if your view of the world is that Mommy and Daddy’s phones and computers are more important than you?

Human nature would lead you (the child) to fight against it and assert your importance.  As I observe more children acting out to seek attention, and more parents passing off their smartphones to avoid meltdowns, I get concerned.

I don’t think we ever imagined how popular smartphones and iPads would be with young kids. Will families effectively balance this brave new world of educational potential with healthy habits? Are parents still willing to do the “hard work” that is so critical during the early years – or will they be tempted to outsource with the help of a handy device?

Getting on Track by Putting Family First

I would love to see families get over the techno-honeymoon, set boundaries on the gizmos, and free up to focus on the joyful and enriching possibilities for family life.

If we build habits that value teachable moments most often accomplished via eye contact and conversation, we can disrupt the chain reaction of distraction. If we focus on principles of patience, perseverance, and politeness as we send our kids to school every day, we increase our teachers’ chances of getting a “good” class.

Oh how wonderful it would be for teachers to teach, rather than spend creative juices on a classroom discipline policy.

So What’s The Pitch?

For the last two years I focused on supporting independent developers in the apps for kids marketplace. I believe we are in the middle of a Great Experiment – one that involves parents, teachers and developers working together to investigate and validate the educational potential of mobile devices.

I’m advocating a philosophy based on the thoughtful use of technology. I’d like to encourage an app store for children that puts families first – with a strong editorial backbone that explores the balance between inventions and traditions. I want to see more families thriving – so when my kids get to college – they’ll be inspired by peers who solve more problems than they create.

But I’ve run out of time for this particular 3-minute-gig. For more details about a healthy future for apps & kids, we’ll need to catch up over a cappuccino…and I promise to switch off my phone.”

Lorraine Akemann | Editor | Moms With Apps

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebekah/funkifrog September 20, 2011 at 2:30 am

Good article Lorraine.

I’m on the other side of the world in the UK and we have similar problems of teachers managing behaviour rather than being able to teach. I get increasingly worried by the amount of time parents spend on mobile phones either talking or texting, particularly when they are with their children; there seems to be a total lack of involvement with them in some cases which then has a knock on effect of disruption which then feeds back in to the classroom. I am all for technology and love my gadgets but there has to be some kind of responsibility. Children need our time and attention. They need to learn from us so that they can go out in to the classroom and wider world knowing that they are important and special and understanding that they don’t have to fight for attention by being disruptive (which by the way they aren’t even aware why they are being disruptive).

For me I like the app world and the possibilities this brings but we have to be careful we don’t replace communication with passing the kids an ipad or an iphone in the hopes that that can teach them or keep them quiet. This is something I’ve been thinking about for some time since a customer raised a point that she had to read the story from my app to her very young child because I deliberately left out narration. I like the idea of interactivity but sometimes believe that parent/child involvement is vitally important. I enjoyed having books read to me as a child and don’t believe that children of this generation have changed that much.

Sarah Towle September 20, 2011 at 6:06 am

Great post! I agree and would like to add an additional piece that I believe warrants mentioning.

Many of my primary school teaching colleagues are noticing a mysterious lack of verbal skills amongst the youngest (pre-K, K) children of their more affluent families. While these same children are acquiring reading skills more readily, due perhaps to their access to great apps, the theory is that they may also be communicating less with their primary care-givers.

While back home in the States this summer, I was dismayed at how often I observed families out to dinner together but not talking to each other. Rather, each sat focused on his or her own mobile device.

Nothing can substitute for the lessons learned from plain old-fashioned eye-contact, body language and vocabulary development through conversation. These skills and behaviors are essential in our schools, especially as class sizes continue to mushroom, and they must come to school from the home.

It’s perhaps a catch-22 of our new-found profession: While we aspire to provide the best content possible for mobile device, we must also be the most vocal advocates in favor of turning the devices off from time to time, to chat over a meal or kick a ball around together, to ensure that all kids enter school ready to learn.

James Huggins September 21, 2011 at 1:50 am

I couldn’t agree more with you guys. The value of talking to and with children cannot be overstated.

The truth is that all too often the assumption with developers and parents is that technology stifles conversation. Sadly this is often the case, as the content is competing for the child’s attention. But it is possible to design experiences that create a space where creative discussion can flourish. Picture Books have been doing it for years and I think app developers would do well to look closely at other areas where parents, carers and children play together. It’s often as much to do with what a book, toy, game or app doesn’t do, as what it does. This can be often tricky in an environment where users are expecting apps to ‘do’ more and more.

Great article, thanks Lorraine!

kristin keegan September 21, 2011 at 8:39 am

Thank you for a thoughtful post. As a speech-language pathologist working in elementary school and a mother of 2 young children (6 & 4) it is a brave new world we are walking into with a lot to learn. Yes, students are coming in with an immense variety of issues and cuts in funding don’t help service these children. However, I agree, the first line of prevention is good conscientious parenting . It is difficult when schedules are so full. In our house, each child gets 2 half hours of screen time a day (we try for morning and afternoon). Yes, there are tantrums and complaining but as parents we deal with it because this is what we believe. Oh and by the way, our kids are fun to be with when we can sit and hang- play a game or whatever with them. Before I go to far afield, let me just say thanks again for a thoughtful and thought provoking post!

Moms With Apps September 21, 2011 at 8:41 am

Thank you all for your comments, and for putting up with my “thoughts” as they evolve over time. :)

Julie Hedlund September 22, 2011 at 9:45 am

I, for one, am glad you permit your thoughts to evolve. How could they not when all of this stuff is still so new? We have no idea what the long-term effect of this technology will be on our children, so we need to take active roles as parents to see what works and what doesn’t.

For me, it’s been creating a balance that strongly favors “live” family time. Apps and games have their place – airplanes, long car rides and as the occasional treat for downtime, but most of our family time is spent together – not over machines.

On the other hand, when my kids DO use apps, I’d prefer them to be ones that engage them or educate them in some way beyond it being just a video game. That’s why I love your blog. Thanks for doing what you do!

Kevin Yuen September 22, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Lorraine – A very timely and thoughtful post.

Coming from the world of education, I agree with the comments above regarding the necessity for more intra-personal interaction between parents/caregivers and children. Oral language development is at the core of all literacy development. Simply engaging children in “talk” is such an important catalyst for acquiring the necessary language skills for them to become independent readers.

Determining the role of technology in a child’s life will vary from family-to-family, but I think the overwhelming popularity of apps and the iPad amongst children is actually creating a terrific opportunity for parents — a conversation starter. Apps will never replace real-world experiences like going to a museum or the zoo, but they can offer similar opportunities for talk and they have the built-in advantage of having already captured a child’s interest. With my nieces and nephews (I have 8 under the age of 5), before and after they play with an app, regardless of how educational it is (though I prefer the more explicitly educational ones), I try to have them talk about the experience and describe what they did and the features they liked best. It’s very simple, which I think is a good thing. But, having the opportunity for these basic verbal exchanges about something they are excited about provides a chance for me to model language and expand their vocabulary, which ultimately will have a positive impact on their language acquisition, even if they don’t know it’s happening!

Thanks again for starting a terrific discussion and getting us to think more about how we can be improving education and children’s experiences with technology.

Pierre - L'Escapadou September 25, 2011 at 7:22 am

Nice post and comment… As Kevin said, apps are creating terrific opportunities for parents. I often play casual games with my daughters (the last one is “Early bird” but we also played to the Angry ones and a lot of others) and it is definitively a good moment to share. We talk a lot about the levels and how we could solve them, about the characters, we laugh a lot because most these games are funny . I think the format of the iPad is important because we are close to each other in the couch – I mean it is a different experience than playing on a computer or on a console. From an educational point of view, I really think it is a good way to learn problem solving because kids (and me…) have to think how to solve levels and deals with physics since most of these games are physics based.
Of course we play also to “pure” educational apps (like mine the one our family create :-) ), but I just want to point that casual games are really good for parenting and education as well…
By the way, my wife has bought a Wii game where kids must play together to complete a mission, and it seems that it’s a terrific way to learn how to cooperate because they must cooperate or they can’t finish levels.
As of the posts, I think school all around the world are currently not in good shape and there is a lot of reasons but the main one is perhaps not parenting but the missing resources and they way we teach in school which has not evolved since a long time.

Mary Vanslyck April 22, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Lorraine: I realize that this is about Apps but I want to say do more real things and not very structured ones at that. I see at Lake Geneva the children who have freedom to be out for most of the day, swimming, playing and hanging out with friends or cousins. I am old enough to have been able to say no computer games like playstation. I am not sure if parents today can do that, but playing in the yard, building”forts” out of stuff you find, doing classic things like scouts for boys and girls, are all of great value in creating an environment where children can learn and grow.

Moms With Apps April 22, 2012 at 9:12 pm

@hi Aunt Mary – what a pleasure to read your comment on the blog. Agreed, free time to play is “when all feels right in the world”, especially in the early years. –Lorraine

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