During my first postdoc, I worked closely with middle school science teachers. “I love this age,” one teacher said. “They are beginning to think analytically, and it’s really interesting to see that develop.” While middle schoolers (grades 6-8, usually between 11 and 14 years of age) have already achieved more obvious developmental milestones earlier in childhood, children around age 12 are undergoing a subtle, yet substantive change in their cognitive development. As Jean Piaget’s classic theory posits, the “formal operational” stage that begins around this age includes the emergence of the ability to think abstractly and to reason hypothetically. It was certainly true that my approach to designing learning materials for these students had to come from entirely different perspectives than those I designed for preschoolers, who were my main focus during graduate school.
Questions of age and developmental appropriateness come up often as I am now designing mobile learning games and educational applications for kids ages 5-13. How do we design challenging, yet engaging activities for kids of diverse age groups and vastly different stages of development? Which principles of learning must we keep in mind while doing so?
Although I am still quite new to the mobile learning industry, here is a brief glimpse into the philosophy that I subscribe to. When I am tasked with developing a plan for learning, I first assess the target age range of the product (i.e., game, activity, lesson, or application), and then look at the specific corresponding age-related developmental milestones as documented in the research literature. For example, while designing a game involving shape, color, and number for pre-kindergartners through first graders, I relied on my knowledge of geometric and numeric development in preschoolers. I then asked a good friend of mine about the acquisition of color words and concepts in young children, as she studied this very topic for her dissertation. In the event that I was to design an activity geared more toward an older audience (let’s say 11-12 year olds), my approach would need to differ based on the cognitive abilities (i.e., abstract thinking and analysis) and interests of kids in that age bracket. A geometry game for kids this age might involve decomposing 3-dimensional shapes and mathematical problem solving, while the kindergarten version requires simple categorization.
I think it’s fair to say that learning is rarely one-size-fits-all. As the mobile learning space grows, it is my hope that claims ostensibly based in science become more than just buzzwords, and that more attention is paid to known developmental milestones as well as other strongly supported theories rooted in well-designed and executed research.
Picture: by Ernst Vikne