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Family at the Center of Innovation in Early Learning

Family at the Center of Innovation in Early Learning

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October 24, 2017 | Ron Spreeuwenberg
Lisa Guernsey, Director of Education Policy at New America, joins the Preschool Podcast to discuss the impact of technology use in family environments



#67: Lisa Guernsey, Director of Education Policy at New America, joins the Preschool Podcast to discuss the impact of technology use in family environments.FamTech “helps us remember that families are at the heart of learning. We have to recognize where today’s families are - more connected than ever but also awash with almost too much information. How can we use new tools to help parents connect together?"

Guernsey recommends we consider the "3 Cs" framework with regards to decision making with technology and children: “Content, Context, Child”. Guernsey asks, “is this content appropriate for a child? Are we having moments of real conversation while this child is engaged with the tool?" It helps children to have peers and teachers alongside technology, and to talk out loud about what they’re seeing within an app. The individual child contribution matters greatly in their interaction with tech (especially important for children with autism, children who’ve experienced trauma, children who speak 2 or 3 languages etc). Hear Lisa Guernsey's great advice this week on the Preschool Podcast..

CALL FOR PARTICIPANTS: New America is currently looking for participants for their survey Integrating Technology in Early Literacy. Please take a few moments to complete their survey to give the community and state leaders around the country new insights on the changing digital landscape and identify which innovations are having a positive impact. New America's map is an excellent resource for families and educators who use digital tools to promote children's language development and early literacy skills.

Read Below for a Full Transcript


HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #67 - Lisa Guernsey.
Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Fri. Oct. 20, 2017

Lisa GUERNSEY: Families are at the heart of learning and they too are using all sorts of new tools. We can think about the tools that are helping parents to just simply kind of feel like they're connected to the ecosystem of learning that's happening in their own community and just may need some help to make sure that those connections really become meaningful for them.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.
Lisa, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

Lisa GUERNSEY: Hi there, Ron. Thanks for having me.

SPREEUWENBERG: So Lisa you are part of New America. Let's start with – what's New America all about?

Lisa GUERNSEY: We are a different type of think tank. We’re based in Washington D.C. but also have offices in Chicago, in New York and California. And we have a section called our Education Policy Program where we focus on how to look for innovative and evidence-based approaches to helping students succeed across the age spectrum. So we have an early and elementary education group and start at birth in our work there, all the way up to look at college, career, workforce and apprenticeship.

SPREEUWENBERG: And what was the driver behind New America, and this education focus in particular?

Lisa GUERNSEY: Well certainly many of us here on the ed. policy team are concerned about divides between students and children and families who have very few resources and may not be in very well served communities, versus those in affluent communities who have a lot of access to various educational opportunity and mentors and teachers who really help them succeed. So equity is at the core of a lot of what we do. And we think about that through the perspective, though, of innovation, how to do some things a little differently, how to maybe change the way we're thinking about our systems, our schools, the way teachers work etc.

SPREEUWENBERG: Okay. And so what's the connection there, between this question of equality and equity and innovation and technology?

Lisa GUERNSEY: So we have a group that I lead, called the Learning Technologies Project. And within that we're trying to tackle this question of what we're facing in a digital age, in a technological age in terms of what students need and whether they're really getting what they need, whether families are really getting what they need. We're seeing some troubling evidence right now that, in fact, technology may be exacerbating divides – the more get more and the left, in some ways. And so we're trying to approach that head-on by not badmouthing technology or saying that it's some sort of evil, but instead recognizing that there are good and bad things about the different tools that we use and we need to be really intentional and purposeful about what we're doing when we're using those tools. And also taking a much more human-centered approach. There's a saying that we have in some of our work that we need to be looking at things that are human-powered first and technology-assisted second. So technology absolutely has a big role to play, but it’s secondary to the power of human beings to be working and interacting together to help children.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, I was reading about that in the notes about your book you've coauthored [with Michael H. Levine], Tap, Click Read [Growing Readers in a World of Screens]. And I really like that idea because oftentimes people who have negative feelings towards technology – especially in the education space – it's good to focus the conversation with them more about the fact that it can be human-centered and it's humans that are actually driving the use of the technology. And so from a practical perspective, how does that play out in education?

Lisa GUERNSEY: Right. So there are many ways that you can look at this. We have a couple of projects here that are helping us to understand better what it means to really be kind of human-centered. We focus, for example, on how to engage and empower families in in this new age. But using the tools that they are often using themselves in families are very well networked. No matter really what their income level they're using all sorts of different digital media through their smartphones. And there are some new approaches to not just sending them information or trying to kind of get them on board with some sort of a new program, but really interacting with families and parents to understand what they need or to help them connect more with what their teachers are doing in a child's preschool or in kindergarten.

So we have been doing surveying across the country as well as in-depth interviews with various program leaders to better understand how those tools are being used by today's families and where they're working and whether or not.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's really cool. And if I'm taking that a step too far, let me know, but is sort of the idea that the tools or technology are there as a medium to build relationships, partnerships between families and educators, as opposed to sort of just a one-way street of sending information, for example?

Lisa GUERNSEY: Yes, you got it. That's right. Relationship building is really at the core of a lot of this. So we've seen some neat projects coming out of… let me give you just one example: in Pittsburgh there's a project called Message From Me which uses video as well as apps and different ways to connect with family through their smartphones. And what it does is it takes children's own desire to showcase their successes by taking a moment for kids to broadcast a little message to mom and dad about what they did during the school day. So they can pull open the app with the help and guidance of a teacher and take a little video of themselves – maybe with their buddies, maybe they just built a block tower in the dramatic play center – and then can upload that video and send it out to mom or to grandma or to their dad so that their parents can get this adorable video message about what they're doing that day.

We've heard from teachers that parents love this because they feel much more connected to what happened during the school day, but they're also seeing their children's own excitement come through these videos because the kids are the ones who are there on screen. It's their excitement; it's their voice; it's them saying, “I want to really, really want to have a playdate with Billy today.” It's those moments that the kids and the parents and the teachers get really excited about. So that's just one example of many different, new approaches that we're seeing that are taking place out there.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's cool. And I think there's also evidence to say that when children reflect on things they've done, whether there's certain learning activities or things that were taken out in the classroom. If they talk about those things that's actually beneficial for their development, as well. So there's even that aspect. And that’s talking to the human aspect. And while it’s delivered through technology there's also these other side-benefits.

Now you talked a little bit about some information gathering you've done. I think I read that you did a family engagement survey, and this was part of an early-learning in the digital age toolkit project. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you learned through that?

Lisa GUERNSEY: Yes, and in fact it's really good timing to be talking about it because we're about to update this project. So in 2014 and ‘15 we sent out a survey across the country through many different channels to try to get a sense of what some of these new innovations were that we saw bubbling out, bubbling up out there around the country. We wanted to make sure we weren't just hearing about what a friend told us, but to really get a better sense of what's happening from Seattle all the way down to Florida and everything in between. And we plotted the answers to that survey on a map – that's a free interactive map that you can use to go a little bit deeper. You can read profiles about each of those programs, you can find out what evidence they're collecting to determine whether their approach is really having a positive impact or not. In many cases I should say that these are very new programs and they're at the early, early stages of collecting evidence and they recognize that. But we're trying to track who has some evidence that things are working, and what is that evidence and what does it look like?

So you can get all of that on this on this map that you can find at www.NewAmerica.org if you just search for “early-learning in the digital age”. But we'll also be updating it with a new survey that we just opened this week that is available through our blog, and we'll be sending it through many other channels as well, and that's www.EdCentral.org. And that survey will update the profiles of about 37 different profiles on the map right now. We want to make sure that those programs are still running and operating and find out more about whatever evidence they are collecting. But we also want to put some of the new innovations on the map. We know that a lot has changed since 2015. So that survey will be open until the end of December, and we're excited to gather even more data from out in the field.

SPREEUWENBERG: That sounds very cool. I'm going to check that out myself and would encourage listeners to as well. We love any programs where we're getting more information about what's happening out there and sharing that. So thank you for that. And taking a closer look at early-childhood education, what is your feeling personally, or at New America, about where we're at right now with education levels and resources about technology and digital tools in early-childhood education?

Lisa GUERNSEY: Well we are at a place where things are really spotty and uneven in the way various approaches are applied. But the good news is that there's a real desire on the part of educators to learn more and to be thinking about their use of tools and developmentally-informed ways so that they're not just sticking an iPad in front of a kid and it's basically the equivalent of flashcards and the child has really no interaction. That's what we want to avoid. We don't want to use technology to make things even more impersonal for children and even less connected to the real-life learning that they can have.

So there's a real realization of this that I've seen in interviews with early educators around the country and in the various forums that I go to, where folks are not shunning technology anymore. They recognize there may be a place for it but they want to really think hard about how to use it well, and that means that sometimes you don't use it. Sometimes you really recognize that face-to-face interaction at that moment is the most important. But other times you do. There's some guidance that's come from research that can be helpful in this space, and I boil it down to the three C's: that the research is showing us that Content really matters; the Context really matters; and the individual Child really matters – Content, Context and Child.

And when you take that framework and then apply it to the decisions you're making about how to use tools with young children, you can go a little bit deeper and ask yourself, “Okay, is this content appropriate for a 4 year old? Is it helping me engage with them in new ways? Is it getting them excited about learning? Are we having moments of real conversation? Are there moments that can transfer to the playground, to the field trip that we go to the pumpkin patch, etc.?” And then certainly the context of this incredibly important research continues to pile up, showing how much it helps children to have both peers and teachers with them as they're navigating through new digital media experiences and to really kind of talk out loud about what they're seeing and who to really work together and do some joint learning together.

And then the individual child piece that is incredibly important and yet is one of the most under-researched. We have everything from young children who may be on the autism spectrum, to children who have experienced trauma; to children who are experiencing maybe two or three different languages that they're all trying to learn at the same time. And that needs of those children are going to be different; the needs for their families are going to be different. So it really goes back to the human power piece of this. We have to really connect with those children and their parents to understand what they really need, and to tune into those kids.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, that's actually sounds like a really useful framework and very simple, the “Content, Context, Child” and putting that framework around how we're going to use the technology. Are there other resources, or do you have any other advice, for early-childhood professionals or teachers for them to improve their technology literacy while also balancing all this other stuff they have going on in their professional and personal lives?

Lisa GUERNSEY: Yes, it can totally feel overwhelming. I get it – in my professional life it feels overwhelming, and in my parenting life, because I'm a mom of two kids. But yes, one thing that's been very helpful to me and that I see blossoming around the country is that our public libraries really want to step up and help. And often the children's librarian at a public library is a great resource. There's a concept out there now in in the world of technology media with young children called “media mentorship”, or being a “media mentor”. That's somebody who really can help parents navigate all of the different tools, can help early educators think more intentionally about the technology that they're using. And those media mentors are gaining training to be able to get to those three C’s that we talked about, certainly, but also to help families to make some good critical judgment on what's going to be best for their kids, or, “Oh, wait, if I want to use this particular program or this e-book creator app, what's a good way to do it?”

So check with your public library. See if there's someone there who is interested in mentoring. See if there are some ways you could partner – for those who are childcare professionals, center directors and others, there may be some really nice partnerships that can build through even the storytime hours that libraries offer. There can be ways to, certainly just in the regular early literacy skills that those librarians have, are wonderful to tap into. But many of them also are building new skills in some questions of how and when to use technology appropriately with young children, and they can be a good resource for you.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's a really good idea, because I'm thinking, of course, the first thing I'm going to do to learn about something is go to Google and search for it. But on the other topic of human-centered first you're suggesting to go talk to a human about some mentorship in using technology. So I like that idea, that's great.

Lisa GUERNSEY: So I do feel like we learn so much more when we can be face-to-face. We can use lots of tools to get us there. I have met some of the most wonderful people first through online chats or through email or through reading about what they've done. But there's just nothing like having a really deep connection, especially in your local community and being able to do that face-to-face work with them.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, 100 percent. And sometimes we forget all these great resources that are available to us, right? Who would have thought of going to your public library for something like this? But it's a really great idea.

So just changing direction a little bit: In a recent financial times article the president and CEO of New America Anne-Marie Slaughter asked us to consider a new technology term, called “fam tech”, which is kind of similar to some of the things we've been talking about, and that stands for “family technology”. Why do you think that Anne-Marie brought up this term to distinguish “fam tech” from “ed tech”, which is already sort of an existing technology space for educational technology? How's fam tech different, do you think?

Lisa GUERNSEY: Right. So what that term does is help us remember that families are at the heart of learning and that they too are using all sorts of new tools, and that, as I was describing earlier, we do have to recognize where today's families are, that they have their smartphones with them. They're also juggling all sorts of responsibilities. They are in some ways more connected than ever and yet also awash in almost too much information. And so we can think about using new tools to help parents connect with each other so they can digest more of, again, this a sea of information, but in a way [and] in a context that's really useful to them. We can think about the tools that are helping parents to just simply kind of feel like they're connected to the ecosystem of learning that's happening in their own community.

And so the examples that I mentioned earlier that we’re putting on the map are some of what Anne-Marie is talking about she’s talking about “fam tech”. It's just a recognition that there are so many things that parents want to do for their kids, and that they can use new tools to do so and they may already be well on their way in terms of using these things and just may need some help to make sure that those connections really become meaningful for them.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, 100 percent. And it makes so much sense because even places like Harvard's Center For The Developing Child, a lot of their effort and resources is going towards understanding the importance of family in education, right? So I can certainly see sort of where the lines start to get very blurred between “ed tech” and “fam tech”, because almost all ed. tech now has to have a component of keeping the families engaged in interacting with them.

Lisa GUERNSEY: Yes, absolutely, right? And in a way it's long overdue that we recognize the power of families and the power of parents. There are new surveys and new survey data that's been coming out over the past year or so that really point to how much parents want for their children and how much they really recognize that they have an incredibly important role to play. It's just that they're so stretched. They're so pressed for time, lot of the time. So it doesn't help to make parents feel guilty at all. But it really can help to help them feel kind of connected to each other.

I'll give you one other just very sweet example that's come up in my research in the past couple of weeks: In Springfield, Massachusetts there's a texting program called 413 Families, and it was originally intended to just help parents with very young children receive messages about, let’s just say, a story hour at their local library or whether there's something happening at a local health clinic and something that might be useful to them. But they recognized that the families also had a lot to offer; it wasn't just about getting all of this new information. And so they asked families to send in and ask them about literacy and how they did some reading with their children and what their favorite books were, and asked them to send a photo of them reading with their kids. Well, more than 100 photographs arrived of these beautiful images of families: parents, aunts, uncles sitting together with their kids reading. And they've made this delightful slideshow available on their website where you can see how engaged and how just warm and loving these interactions are between the families and their children. So it was a really empowering moment for families of all walks of life to be able to show, “Look, we really are engaged. We want to be working with our kids,” as well as to strengthen the ties between community institutions and the parents.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's an awesome example. Lisa it's been wonderful having you on the show. Thank you so much for all the work you're doing at New America. If I'm listening to the podcast [and] I want to go learn more about New America or the work you're doing, where would I go to get that?

Lisa GUERNSEY: So the main site for New America is www.NewAmerica.org. And within that you'll find the Education Policy Program, and under Education Policy is the Learning Technologies Project. And a lot of what we talked about today will be available through that. So thank you so much, Ron, it was great being on the show.

SPREEUWENBERG: Thank you, Lisa. It's been really exciting, all the stuff that's happening in this space. And thanks for coming on the show.

Lisa GUERNSEY: Have a great afternoon. Thanks again.


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