Children can transfer skills from tablets to the real world

Children can apply the skills they learn on a tablet to the real world – that’s the finding of a group of researchers from Swinburne University of Technology.

While at one level that might seem self-evident, it’s apparently not to those who decry the use of technology in education.

The study used the ‘Tower of Hanoi’ puzzle, which involves moving discs between pegs so that they line up in order on a different peg, using the smallest possible number of moves.

The children practised the puzzle on a touchscreen app, or with a physical version using wooden pegs and discs. The researchers measured how many moves they took to complete it, and how long they spent doing it.

Some of the children practised the puzzle several times on the tablet before trying it on the wooden version. This allowed the researchers to see if the kids’ virtual practice could improve their skills in the physical world.

The children all needed a similar number of moves to complete the wooden puzzle, regardless of whether they had practised using the virtual puzzle, the physical puzzle, or a combination of the two. From the first to final attempt at the puzzle, all the children also improved their speed.

For me what this validates more than anything else is that ‘solving puzzles’ – whether the puzzle is wooden blocks, a maths equation, or an essay – is all about approach. It’s about knowing what to do first and seeing a logical sequence of following actions. And it doesn’t matter whether those skills are learnt virtually or in the real world – they’re the same skills. The virtual world is not going to teach you the manual dexterity required for some activities, but it can completely teach you about how to deconstruct a problem.

The researchers are clearly worried that their research not be misconstrued as meaning all games are good. But they point out that ‘screen time’ cannot be seen as a catch-all that should be inherently limited when it is possible for children to learn through the use of tablets.

None of this is ground-shaking stuff. But given how much parental angst is devoted to children’s screen time, it is certainly worth noting that the right apps or games can make that screen time a powerful learning tool for the real world.

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