Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part One)

Too often, computers are pitted against books in the mythology of contemporary education reform. Computers are often understood as fundamentally transforming and disruptive technologies irreversible in their effects -- for some, those effects are liberating -- the magic box. For others, these devices are threatening -- the reason why Johnny (or Mary) can't read, the reason why we can't have meaningful conversations with our kids. So, how do we move beyond these polarizing frames? Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens offers us one compelling model for what a middle-ground response to these issues might look like. It's authors Lisa Guernsey from New America and Michael H. Levine from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, are trusted voices on issues of children and media; they've done serious research and they've written about it in a public-facing way. They are very good at translating academic findings into something that can be processed by educators and parents who are concerned about the young people in their lives. They avoid alarmist or celebratory framings and get down to what's working, and what isn't, about the contemporary media environment. As this interview makes clear, we can no longer make simple decisions about how much screen time is okay for children when so many vital processes of the culture are now taking place within digitized environments. We can not lock down classrooms as computer-free zones in a world where many young people still lack access to both technological infrastructure and mentorship outside of school. We can't easily separate out what it means to read printed texts from what it means to engage with digital media at a time when more and more of us are reading books on our Kindles and other tablets.

Tap, Click, Read makes valuable contributions to our understanding of what constitutes literacy in the 21st century, contributions directed at parents, teachers, policy makers, technology designers, and fellow researchers. If you fall into any of these categories, you probably need to engage with their arguments.

I am very happy to be able to offer some glimpses into their thinking through this three-part interview. And they were nice enough to provide a range of links to other cutting edge research in this space. So, don't be afraid to follow one of those links, as long as you come back and finish reading the interview. :-)

If you want to learn more about this project, you should definitely visit their rich web site which also helps connect interesting parties to an array of different resources they can use to apply these insights or take action in support of educational reforms. So, in this case, read, then tap and click.

You begin the book with a very noble statement: “We cannot allow technology to exacerbate social inequality instead of opening more opportunities for everyone to succeed.” So, break this down for us. What do you see as the heart of the problem? Is the concern with access to technology per se or something more than that, whether understood in terms of literacies or mentorship or opportunity? And what might be some positive steps we can take -- as parents, as educators, as a society -- to address those concerns?

Great question! There has been a good deal of discussion about a “digital divide,” in education and youth development circles. Because the focus is often on hardware and software, we believe that this focus largely misses the mark. While equitable access to technology is still a worry, especially in the lowest income households, access to quality professional development, programs that train “media mentors” or provide opportunities for adults and children to engage jointly in media production is in our view a more important priority.

Recent work by scholars such as Susan Neuman and Vikki Katz on the phenomenon you first coined as a “participation gap,” are showing that children in their pre-school and primary years need engaged adults--parents, relatives and educators to provide normative experiences in the mastery of digital content and tools. In our book, especially in the concluding chapter, we lay out a series of action steps that parents, educators and communities can take to help prevent new divides. Among the most important ones are to invest more in community assets where technology can be more seamlessly connected to children’s natural passions such as libraries and afterschool centers. We also need a massive effort to prepare teachers of young children with the latest techniques to embed in their practice and centrally to invest much more heavily in high quality early learning and parent education programs.

Let’s start with a deceptively simple question: What do you mean by reading? What is it that we want young people to be able to do that they are not able to do under our current configuration of schooling?

Not simple at all!

Reading and more generally, “literacy” as a construct is getting more expansive with every passing year. Someone who is not steeped in early literacy research might think that literacy means reading print. But even the traditional definition of literacy has always meant more than that: It means reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Children need help in becoming skillful at all four of those skills and they can use media tools of all kinds to do so. And in addition, as children grow up in a world of information overload and constant messaging, they will also need to learn media literacy and critical literacy. Those two concepts are still relatively new in elementary education, but if you think about it, those ideas go hand in hand with teaching a child about what it means to be a writer or media creator and why it is important to look closely and ask questions about what a writer is trying to say.

A number of groups have done important work defining what a new set of 21st Century literacies and skills should look like for children and youth (The National Council of Teachers of English,The National Association of Media Literacy Educators, Asia Society and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are among the best known groups). A common thread across the groups is that learning and knowledge development is now highly networked, socially constructed, and globally applied.

Educators of young students have always understood the need to consider the ‘whole child’s’ growth and development: a challenge moving forward is to prepare teachers to teach critical thinking and inquiry skills using new and old forms of media. Kindergarten teachers doing real-alouds commonly ask students "What do you think happens next?" But they do not always ask the corollary question that builds students' media literacy skills: "How do you know? Where in the story do you see signs or evidence of what you suggest?

Often critiques of the impact of media on learning and reading make a series of normative assumptions, frequently grounded in norms of middle class, white, suburban family life. But you cite recent research which factors a more diverse range of families into the equation. What does this research change in our understanding? How might schools shift from seeing bilingual families, for example, in terms of the cultural assets they provide children rather than what are often perceived as “literacy deficits”?

This is a fundamental question that every educator and advocate for a more diverse and sensitive educational system must urgently ask. Both the Cooney Center through its Aprendiendo Juntos Council and New America through its Dual Language Learners Work Group have new research initiatives underway to delve into the deep cultural assets that reside within language learning communities and especially in the diverse families who have recently immigrated to the US.

In Tap, Click, Read we explore the overlooked assets that reside in both the language and culture of low-income Hispanic-Latino families as seen through the lens of contemporary research on the uses of digital media for learning purposes. We include findings from a national survey conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Stanford University on how Hispanic-Latino families define educational media use in the home, as well as an analysis of research by our team and scholars at Rutgers University on the role that national policies on low cost broadband access are playing in getting modern technology to low-income homes. Our book includes recommendations based on this research on ways to improve parent engagement programs, school-home links, media design, and new public-private partnerships to more effectively meet the needs of ELL’s.

And one of our key messages is that Spanish-speaking families have real strengths and assets to share with their children: By having conversations with them in Spanish about the world around them, they are building a base of knowledge and literacy that will make it easier for their children to learn English as well. This is the case, of course, not only for Spanish-speaking families but also for any family that speaks a non-English language at home. We should be helping families enable their children to become truly bilingual, not just in speaking but also in reading and writing.

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.