Educational or Edutainment

You wouldn't give students a slot machine - right? I ask because I was watching a TEDx Talk from Tristan Harris, who describes how we spend our time with technology. Harris says that many of us use our phones like shot machines: "Every time I check my phone I'm playing the slot machine to see, 'What am I gonna get?'"

I ask because we want better for our students. We don't want them to be passive consumers of technology. Yet there are so many apps out there that say, "Education, Kids 5 & Under," and we download them because we trust that label (or because we don't trust ourselves).

Computers can come in the form of educational, developmentally-appropriate technology for your students, or they can come in the form of edutainment (slot machines). And the truth is that it's still a slot machine even if the app description says, "Teach your child about the wonders of technology, random number generators, and probability with this fun and educational app perfect for kids five and under!" To help avoid these slot-machine-type apps, I've come up with a list of 5 checks to help us decide if an app is educational or just edutainment.

The North Carolina Teacher Evaluation Rubric says that a distinguished teacher will "stay abreast of emerging research areas and new innovative materials and incorporate them into lessons plans and instructional strategies."

Additionally, in North Carolina, our Professional Teaching Standards state that teachers should:
  • Know appropriate use; and
  • Help students use technology to learn content, think critically, solve problems, discern reliability, use information, communicate, innovate, and collaborate.
While I don't necessarily think that one app or technology has to fulfill all these learning goals, I do think that we need to be aiming for apps that give our students more than just something to passively sit and consume. Here are the five questions I ask for the apps I use with my students:
  1. Is the child programming the computer, or is the computer being used to program the child?
    This idea comes from Seymour Papert's Mindstorms (p. 5). If you're using the app with the intention of pouring knowledge into the child's head, if efficiency is the name of the game, or if the app repeats some tidbit until even you are tired of hearing it, it's probably edutainment. Look for apps that give children real agency - trust them more than a computer!
  2. Is it hard fun or FUNFUNSUPERFUN?
    This one comes from Mitchel Resnick's 2004 article on edutainment. Resnick writes that edutainment producers, "view education as a bitter medicine that needs the sugar-coating of entertainment to become palatable." If the app has to (sometimes literally) scream FUN at you then it may not actually be that fun for kids. Even young children enjoy a challenge. And real fun, hard fun as Papert calls it, comes from doing something that you're passionate about, not something that a computer tells you to be passionate about because it's going to pay off in exploding stars and rainbows.
  3. Is it playful or just playable?
    Yes, little Bob can sit and play that one app for hours, but that doesn't mean it's playful. He is able to play it - it is playable - and that's about it. Early childhood teachers know what playful looks like. It's the child rolling that car down the ramp in block center again and again while talking animatedly with his friends about the name of his car, where the car's going, how fast it can go, how to make improvements, how to make a larger crashing noise, etc. Playful technology involves this kind of iteration - rerunning an action, making changes, getting ideas from friends, and getting closer to a desired result - rather than mindless repetition.
  4. Is the child creating or coloring inside the lines?
    If the app has one use and one correct answer, it is most likely edutainment. Coloring book apps are edutainment. Handwriting apps also fall in this category. I also don't love coding games for this reason. Yes, they're teaching some excellent executive functioning skills (planning and problem solving) but there's not much creating with technology going on to get a character from Point A to Point B. I think coding games can be used thoughtfully - but I would still put them in the edutainment category.
  5. Is it social time or quiet time?
    I'll be the first to admit that I've used technology this way. Especially when a parent is running late for pick-up, it's just easier to pass the student the tablet while we're waiting at the end of a long day. No judgement! But most of young children's screen time should be spent socially with a peer or an adult. If there's nothing on the screen to have meaningful conversations about, then it's probably not worth the time.
Sometimes it's not the lack of technology that makes our teaching jobs harder. Sometimes it's the sheer number of available apps that can leave us doubting ourselves. Am I giving my students enough opportunities to use technology? Will they be prepared for a technology future that I can't predict? Like anything in education, technology is an area where we just need to trust what we know to be developmentally appropriate and respectful for our students. We need to aim for more educational uses of technology and moderate our use of edutainment in our classrooms.

Have recommendations for great educational apps - either for coding or other areas of learning? Leave a comment below or email me at!

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