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Marshmallow Computers

July 14, 2010

There’s a famous study conducted by Walter Mischel having to do with kids and marshmallows. In the experiment, kids were given one marshmallow and were told they could get a second if they waited (unsupervised) for 20 minutes.

The experiment was an attempt to measure impulse control in children as they age. Those with better impulse control scored better on aptitude tests later in life.

Now, what if we gave these kids computers instead of marshmallows?

The New York Times has an article pointing out the flaws in One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit organization that tries to give laptops to underprivileged kids. A noble cause, but does it make the kids smarter? Economics professor Ofer Malamud says no.

Malamud is the co-author (with Cristian Pop-Eleches) of a study that investigated educational outcomes after low-income families in Romania received vouchers to help them buy computers.

In a draft of an article that the Quarterly Journal of Economics will publish early next year, the professors report finding “strong evidence that children in households who won a voucher received significantly lower school grades in math, English and Romanian.” The principal positive effect on the students was improved computer skills.

Said Malamud,

“We found a negative effect on academic achievement. I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they weren’t surprised, given their own experiences with their school-age children.”

Basically the kids goofed off on the computers instead of doing their homework on it. Which brings me back to marshmallows. If you leave a kid in a room with a marshmallow and give him a deadline for the reward, you’ll get completely different results than if you plunked him down and told him, “Now, don’t eat this marshmallow for 4 years, and you’ll get a diploma and a college scholarship! Probably!” That obviously isn’t going to work. This generation needs more instant gratification.

There’s a variety of reasons lower income kids aren’t getting as good grades as their higher income counterparts. The parents might not be able to give them as much of their time because they are working their asses off to make ends meet. A computer isn’t a study buddy, and these kids in tougher financial situations need and deserve to escape from it all for a little while into video games.

So how about some sort of software to block goofing off? (bolding mine)

Catherine Maloney, director of the Texas Center [for Educational Research], said the schools did their best to mandate that the computers would be used strictly for educational purposes. Most schools configured the machines to block e-mail, chat, games and Web sites reached by searching on objectionable key words. The key-word blocks worked fine for English-language sites but not for Spanish ones. “Kids were adept at getting around the blocks,” she said.

This makes me think of the article I posted recently about using points and achievements in games to direct behavior. These kids are going to play games because they are kids and it’s fun. The more you tell them to stop, the more they are going to want to play. We need to be using that trait to their advantage.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. jcartermarketing permalink
    July 14, 2010 12:50 pm

    this is really interesting. I understand why the children who received the laptops did not see an inflation in their grades. and isn’t interested how far technology has come and how children have adapted to the new technologies – getting around blocks! I wish I knew how to do that when I was a kid.

  2. July 14, 2010 2:41 pm

    Video games could be a powerful learning tool if they were developed by people who didn’t just say, “Hey, KIDS love VIDEO GAMES! Why don’t we just make some shiny graphics and add in some math and voilà!!!” What about learning history through an MMORPG? I’m envisioning a game that a teacher could set up for his or her students so that they can play together in pairs or teams and the teacher can track their progress individually; quizzes and tests can be built right into the program as quests or achievements, which would be more puzzle-based–having to figure out the answer–than, say, based on kills. I think of all of the people–including myself–who are well-versed in the universe of their favorite game and think that, yes, if designed by people who understand what good games are, it could be very successful.

    Of course, people would post guides all over the internet telling how to beat the game, but there would be ways to minimize that, at least–and you’d still have to go through the gameplay, which means you’d still be learning. With paper homework, you can just look everything up on wikipedia and never really learn anything.

  3. July 15, 2010 7:16 am

    Nice post 🙂

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