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Educational Philosophy

Cognitive and Psychological Principles for Educational Project Design

Shadow Element

“Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone.” Oscar Wilde

Educational software has to be fun. If a kid doesn’t spend the time using a piece of software, it’s irrelevant how much educational content it has. Anything that engages a kid—that he thinks about a lot and to which he dedicates his time and energy—can be turned to educational advantage.

“You mean like girls?”

Teaching is hard. It requires patience, understanding, empathy, and compassion. And it requires deep insight into both how children learn and how to make the process engaging. Thus great teachers are rare and the demand for them is high. To solve our urgent education needs, technology is being used to compensate for perceived educational inadequacies and to augment the offerings of existing institutions.

Study depends on the goodwill of the student, a quality that cannot be secured by compulsion. Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, 85 A.D.

When used well, we believe computers can help children learn in an effective and enjoyable way. But it’s not the hardware that’s going to do that. It’s a combination of the quality of the people who create and present the instructional materials and the manner these materials are integrated into the classroom. It’s the content—not the machine. And like all educational content, a computer program can either disappoint with boring drudgery, or it can inspire a thirst for knowledge and fulfill the promise of technology which makes learning interesting and accessible.

There’s nothing magical about computers. They don’t transform poor content. And there’s a lot of educational computer programs that aren’t well suited for their medium—we’ve seen many programs that would really make better books or video documentaries. There are benefits to presenting content on computers. Primarily, computers allow the material to be adapted to a particular user. They allow the content to be easily updated. And they can allow the user to do something—to be active, to use tools, to communicate with others. However, if the user’s interaction is reduced to the electronic equivalent of turning pages or answering multiple choice questions, then why bother presenting it on the computer to begin with? It’d be cheaper, easier to use, and probably more satisfying as a book, a video, or a board game.

There has been a lot of research done in the areas of human cognition and learning acquisition. Great strides have been made in understanding how people learn and how they solve problems. But very little of this hard-won knowledge has been applied to the design and creation of multimedia educational products. Papers are written and theories are advanced and tested, but somehow these ideas don’t make it beyond academia.

One curriculum-based software program after another is released without any innovative thought being given to effective teaching using computer-based materials. The animations may be cuter, or a new face might be grafted onto a standard “drill and practice” model, but the underlying assumptions about cognitive processes remain unchallenged, even when they’ve been proven ineffective in educational research.

In children’s software, educational and entertaining are two sides of the same coin.

We work hard to understand and advance the latest research in these fields. Olga Werby, Ed.D., has a doctorate from U.C. Berkeley in online education. And we directly apply theory and empirical studies to the development both of the human/computer interfaces and the educational materials we produce.

While there are many cognitive and psychological principles that we embrace, there are a few that have become the pillars of our work in this area. These are:

  1. Learning should be fun. It should invoke a sense of joy and wonder and make people happy while they’re learning. To be effective, it must be engaging.

  2. Learning should be authentic. An Authentic Activity has an external meaning that students can understand and embrace. If an activity has no purpose other than to get a passing grade, what is learned will be quickly forgotten.

  3. All people perceive and learn things differently. These differences should be recognized and supported, especially in computer software which can accommodate and adapt to them.

  4. Learners should be given as much freedom and control over what they’re learning as reasonably possible. The ability to make a discovery and construct personal meaning is empowering. It makes the subject matter relevant and it encourages studying, developing a life-long thirst for knowledge.

  5. Educational projects should be constructed so that they support novice learners and allow them to act beyond their current level of ability. As novices become experts, the “scaffolds” should gracefully fall away and not interfere with students’ growing expertise.

We recommend that any educational project rely heavily on these five principles.

More Educational Projects

See the Writing page.

More Educational Theory

See the Papers page.

Kids Online Network Project Frames

The Kids Online Network was an ambitious project requiring a large number of technical and graphical assets combined with educational theory. Designed for prereading children, this hybrid CD-Rom and Internet product posed a complex educational design challenge.

Case Study: The “Field Trips” Series

Frog and Fern Fronds from the Field Trip to the Rainforest product.
1-bit illustrations for the Field Trip Series

Olga Werby’s lush illustrations pushed the primitive 1-bit display technology used by computers when the program was first released. The displays were only capable of rendering either solid black or pure white pixels. Grays are achieved by dithering between the black and white pixels.

An octopus from the Field Trip into the Sea product. Commercially released in 1990, “A Field Trip into the Rainforest” and “A Field Trip into the Sea” are the progenitors of a whole genre of children’s educational software. Since then, hundreds of titles have been released based on this concept. Kids are invited to explore the flora and fauna of different ecosystems and make connections between the living things found there, using a hypergraphic database approach—which we believe to be the first of its kind. The Field Trip series has been a substantial hit for Sunburst Communications, winning numerous awards. Since its release, it has been continually updated and is still a big seller.

Case Study: Knowledge Universe

Knowledge Universe embarked on an ambitious project to deliver online educational content tailored to the learning styles of each student. They needed to be able to serve, in a browser, a large collection of non-customized content derived from a variety of other sources. But they needed to provide consistent navigation options and branding. Pipsqueak designed an interface for this project which, in part, floats over the pages of educational content and allows students to easily annotate the page or navigate the system.

Knowledge Universe Floating Interface

This floating interface element solved a tricky problem where consistent user interaction was needed over a wide variety of webpages from various sources.

Case Study: Spectrum Lightbox Exhibit

Color Sculpture with Hidden Words Visible with Colored Filters

Color sculpture containing hidden words which become visible when viewed with colored filters.

Chabot Exhibit Composite

Pre-fabrication visualization of the exhibit in situ.

Chabot Space and Science Center asked Pipsqueak to design a kid-friendly spectrum and lightbox station. It was located in a corner alcove between two sun-lit windows. Pipsqueak designed a multi-station activity cube with light table, built-in telescope, and an embedded hood with both laser and white light sources being modified by a prism. We also created a similarly themed mural for the adjacent wall panel, and a color sculpture which has hidden messages which become clear when viewed through colored filters. All design projects have constraints. The particular issues of usability by a young audience, ruggedness, safety, and size made this a particularly interesting design challenge.

Spectrum Exhibit Schematic Drawing
Mural of the Sun and the Electromagnetic Spectrum for Chabot Space and Science Center
Chabot Spectrum Exhibit Rendered on Black

Case Study: Patterns of Nature

Portrait of Ned Kahn

Ned Kahn creates museum exhibits that visualize forces of nature. We’re big fans of his work.

This project was created to accompany a set of exhibits created by the wonderful Ned Kahn demonstrating natural forces. A particular challenge was creating educational materials which could be used by kids from 6 through 18 years of age. The solution included a large set of photo cards for all ages together with different sets of grade-specific instruction sheets each featuring age appropriate card activities designed to use the photo cards.

Patterns of Nature Cards

Case Study: Dinosauria Game

Dinosauria Board Rendering
Dinosauria Topper

Triceratops Dinosaur Sliced for Text Flow Dinosauria is a mathematical logic game developed for middle school students. A set of environment cards are shuffled and dealt out into a grid. Then players try to place dinosaur pieces onto the grid, following the logic table “rules” for each dinosaur and grid square. For example, an environment grid piece might say “only one carnivore on this space” while a dinosaur rule might be “needs to be no more than only one space from water.” Each dinosaur has several rules associated with it, and complexity points—the more complex the set of rules for placing a particular dinosaur, the more points it’s worth. Each time a dinosaur is placed into Dinosauria, the game becomes more complex—the set of potentially conflicting rules increases. In order to place a large number of dinosaurs, the player needs to use strategy—is it better to place lots of little plant-eating dinosaurs or one big meat-eater? Variations allow for user manipulation of the environmental grid as well. While fun to play, Dinosauria is specifically designed to teach the standard logical operators (And, Or, Not), introductory set theory, and logical thinking skills.