New Evidence Shows Digital Media Can Enhance Early Math Learning

New research shows the PBS KIDS Transmedia Math supplement helps four- and five-year-olds learn important math skills. But it’s not technology alone that does the job -- strong curriculum and supports for teachers make the difference.

November 20, 2013
CATEGORIES Out-of-School Learning, Research & Studies, Students, Tools

Here at Common Sense Education, we review products that are intended for the PreK-2 audience, so it is heartening to learn that new research has demonstrated that with the right technology, strong curriculum, and supports for teachers, the very young can achieve measurable learning gains. The new study is on the effectiveness of the PBS KIDS Transmedia Math supplement and it shows that children who used it made significant gains in math skills like counting, making shapes, and recognizing patterns. Videos and interactive games featuring characters like Sid the Science Kid and Curious George teamed up with books and foam shapes to give children a variety of supports to build math skills.

It’s newsworthy that children made real gains in just 10 weeks, especially since the study targeted children from low-income areas of New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. Research shows low-income children are often less prepared for school than their higher-income peers. Fewer than half of low-income 3- and 4- year-olds attend preschool.

Just as important, the new study shows that when early educators received a thoughtful curriculum and guidance for integrating media along with new digital tools, students learned more than when the teachers simply received new technology by itself.  Education Development Center and SRI International teamed up to conduct the rigorous, randomized-control study. The study is part of Ready to Learn, a partnership among the US Department of Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS.

“This study helps us better understand how digital media can support early learning,” said EDC Vice President Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology and a coauthor of the study. “Children from traditionally underserved communities were able to build key math skills when given engaging digital content, practice on and away from screens, and support from wise adults. As a result, they are better prepared for kindergarten.”

Teachers learned new things, too. The study found that teachers grew more confident and comfortable both with teaching early math and with technology. “One of the things that it impressed upon me -- in teaching shapes, they wanted you to teach the geometric properties of the shape -- not just this is a square, but this is a shape with four equal sides and four corners,” observed Asuba Maa, a veteran pre-kindergarten teacher at Union Washington Day Care Center in East Harlem, a mostly low-income, Latino neighborhood.

During the pilot, teachers received an interactive whiteboard, three Chromebook laptops, and access to a sequenced selection of videos and games from four PBS Kids television shows. They also received a teacher’s guide and traditional classroom materials -- math-related books, crayons, dominoes, interlocking cubes, number lines, and pattern signs -- for use in large- and small-group activities built into the curriculum.

Maa’s students went from playing the Cat in the Hat’s Huff-Puff-a-Tron on laptops and a smartboard, to building trains from milk cartons and fire trucks from tissue boxes as they learned about rectangles, triangles, and other shapes. In the block area, he noted, “Their building got more elaborate. They had more understanding about shapes.”

The benefits are still paying off this year, Maa said. Recently one of his “scholars” held up a folded napkin and said, “It’s a square.” Then he released it so the fold opened and said, “Now it’s a rectangle and it has two squares in it.” The boy and Maa went on to make more shapes from it by folding it different ways. That the child was able to make connections between the different shapes Maa credits to his own deeper teaching about geometric properties.

Both the researchers and teachers observe the program works as a tool, not a substitute, for a classroom teacher. “It’s a great learning tool and I enjoy using it,” said Maa. “It’s a great partner. The smartboards, the laptops, are an extension of who I am and what I do.”

If this high-quality study peaks your interest, you can find more at the Department of Education’s “What Works” Clearinghouse. The site sifts through all the research out there so you don’t have to. It includes only those studies that were rigorously designed and breaks down the results in easily digestible ways.

In addition to the PBS math curriculum, DOE’s “Teaching Math to Young Children” is a great start for guidance on how to go deeper with learning so kids are ready to learn when they get to kindergarten.

We've curated top-rated apps, games, and websites for young students onto a list called, Fun Foundations for Pre-K and Elementary. Do you have favorite apps and sites that you've seen help young students aquire skills? Let us know by logging in and commenting below.