Part 1: Screen Time


“Screen Time” is a huge topic of discussion and often times a sore point for families these days. Most parents aren't sure how to approach this because there is an endless amount of contradiction in terms of what is considered best practice. On one side, "experts" tell us that screens basically rot the brain, while "experts" on the other side of the argument call for as much screen time as we can give our kids to prepare for the future. Now that we are faced with a situation in which we will need to facilitate learning from home on a large scale for an indefinite amount of time, I wanted to provide a snapshot of the ways in which I manage screen time with my son at home.


Just like there are no true widespread rules for everyone regarding nutrition (since we are all biochemically individual) there are no hard and fast rules for how kids learn best or for educational levers like screen time because every learner is also unique. Screen time can be divided into a variety of categories but let’s just use production and consumption time as our primary foci. I find that parents typically try to limit consumption time and promote production time but sometimes the line between the two can be blurred. YouTube and Netflix, for example, have replaced television watching to a large extent these days, and that can actually be beneficial (Below I am including the steps to enter into the back end of the Netflix database to build a library of shows and documentaries that you think could be valuable on the consumption side for the kids...and yourself). Let's start with a general look at some of the ways the kids consume media first.

Consumption (This includes watching and listening):



1) YouTube/Twitch: My son (Sam) watches some things for leisure..like Minecraft videos or gaming vids and he’s not alone. The video game streaming site Twitch.com was purchased by Amazon a few years ago for nearly one billion dollars. While we don’t hear about the cognitive benefits of playing and watching games and eSports in the mainstream media, there is plenty of research out there to confirm them. I’ll be posting a dedicated blog article about this soon.


Sam also watches things like Ants Canada because he loves studying ants. This is really a personal decision per family, but YouTube can be a phenomenal educational resource. Just keep the device logged into YOUR Gmail account and you will be able to track the entire history of vids your child sees. Block channels that are inappropriate or just subscribe to channels that are "approved" by you and limit watching to those channels. Examples of channels that I personally enjoy for their educational and entertainment values are:


Some of My Favorites:

The Action Lab

Slow Mo Guys

Mark Rober

TedEd

Kurzgesagt

Brave Wilderness

Papa Jake

Klesh Guitars

Baz Battles


2) Brainpop.com (Some free vids, but a subscription is needed for site-wide access). Find out from your child's school or district if they have a license to gain you free access.





3) Netflix: First, go to the Netflix site and log in. To access the "hidden" netflix content.. visit this link. To see the Science and Nature category for example.. You'd go here.

Basically, there is a master link: www.netflix.com/browse/genre/XXXX

and you simply change the "xxxx" to the 4 or 5 digit code attached to the genre or category you want to browse from the link above. Once you see something you want the kids to watch, you click on it and then hit the plus sign to "add it to your library.” Now you can limit the kids to watching the "my list" vids in either their profile or yours..however you want to set it up.


3a) As an add-on, take a look at K12movieguides.com

They have some cool questions that allow you to “Turn Any Movie Into a Learning Opportunity” (their tagline).



4) Outschool: “Where Kids Love Learning” (We can call this interactive consumption).

I don’t have much experience using Outschool as a resource with students but I have some friends who have used it with their kids. If nothing else, there are lots of options as there are over 10,000 small group-chat video classes!


*One example is Video Game Design Ages 7-10



Production (This includes apps and games where there is strategy, engineering, higher-order thinking, codebreaking, designing and other active learning and thinking happening...this is not a complete list.):


1) Apps and Games:

Birdcage

Monument Valley

Monument Valley 2

Rovercraft

Guess the Code

Clockwork Brain

Robot Factory

Puzzlemaker (Discovery Education)

TinkerCAD (3-D printing lessons and design tool for kids)

Codakid

Code Combat

Code Kingdoms

Tynker




Hybrid: Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox, Multiplayer Games


Fortnite and similar games aren't really strictly one thing or the other. There is a great deal of strategy and ingenuity involved and both watching and playing can also be as entertaining as watching Saturday morning cartoons in 1982. There is weaponry involved though so like many other things, this is a family decision. For games like these, I limit my son's time to anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour per day on school days. He gets to have more screen time overall though, as I like to mix up the different types. As long as he is balancing time with friends, outdoor time, indoor non-screen time and indoor-screen time, he can have 2+ hours of screen time per day with extra on weekends or rainy days. One of the most entertaining moments I’ve had with students was tasking them with teaching me to play Fortnite in real-time. We entered the game together and they needed to keep my character alive. They were only allowed to give verbal instructions and could not commandeer my controller.


One game my students and I love is Mushroom Wars 2. There is a campaign-style quest that can be tackled over time and you can also set up matches against people from around the world. We also sometimes play each other in 1v1 (One versus one) matches at home. There are a ton of games out there like this, so again, choose something that both you and your child are interested in or have them teach you how to play a game they love to play.



Another favorite of mine is a game that requires two players and provides a similar type of user communication interaction is:

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes


Here is an excerpt from a Reddit post by u/Hopeful_Tom:

Without giving away any major spoilers, to win as the person defusing the bomb, you will need to describe in incredible detail and at incredible pace what you’re seeing on the screen. Then you’ll have to follow the instructions given to you by your teammates, and hope they got it right. Potentially working fast to flip the bomb over or read off additional information. The cognitive load can pile up fast, which just makes it more fun and exhilarating. As the bomb-tech with the instruction manual, you’ll have to take in information and quickly parse what type of puzzle you’re dealing with (there are a good variety); then, you’ll have to find that section of the instruction manual in your packet. Once you understand the parameters of the specific puzzle, you’ll have some decoding or matching to do and then will have to intelligibly (easier typed than done) relay that information to your partner without any visual aids.



Below is a sample chart.. It is customizable. For instance, maybe one child has more interest in games like Fortnite than they do in watching shows right now. They could easily spend 50% of their Screen Time allowance on Fortnite and the other 50% on a blend of Educational Production items. That is totally up to the parent. At the end of the day, the most important thing to have is communication and rules that are in place because they make sense. Be upfront and direct regarding the rules and communicate expectations in a straightforward way with your child(ren). Screen time will become a friend rather than a foe.



Coming Soon: Part 2: Board Games and Card Games




www.STEMPassport.com





I've been disappointed by the general quality of the STEM gift buying guides that I've seen so far this year, so I wanted to create a simple list of products that I've personally curated and used with my students. These are not arranged or ordered in any given way and I do not receive any compensation for referring you to any of the products listed! I'm pressed for time with some projects I am working on, so this list will just act as an introduction (with links) for you to use when shopping for the budding scientists in your life! In most cases, I have included links to the original websites as some items are not available on Amazon.




1. Fairy Tale STEM Kits (Lakeshore Learning): These engineering kits are based on familiar stories and come with everything the user will need to practice their problem solving skills. These are really easy to use and there are also DIY versions you can put together, but I've used these particular sets with ages 4 through 12 very successfully! (Buy Online Here)


Play Impossible Game Ball: This is one of the hottest new products that I've been using over the past few months. Kids (and adults) can compete against themselves, friends, and the forces of nature, using this clever physical science / technology integration product. This can be played either inside or outside and carries weight in various educational and therapeutic settings. (Buy Online Here)



Specdrums (Sphero): Aside from liking clever product names and enticing tag lines, I have been loving the new batch of products that bridge sensory information with technology. By assigning sounds to different colors and slipping on these rings, kids can create beats and music by touching various objects in their indoor/outdoor surroundings. Sphero also makes some pretty cool robots! (Buy Online Here)


Rock Tumbler and Refill Packs (MindWare): There are dozens of these out there to choose from and I don't necessarily think this model by MindWare is any better than other models, but I like MindWare as a company and linking to their site may lead you to some other amazing products in the STEMosphere. My students have enjoyed making necklaces, key chains and other gifts out of polished rocks, and this acts as a fantastic geology teaching tool to boot. Buyer beware.. rock tumblers are not silent machines and they must run through several weeks of tumbling to polish rocks. Maybe this can be that crunchy, bumpy night time noise-making machine you've been looking for! (Buy Online Here)




Marble Run (MindWare): This is another product that is made by a variety of companies, so you can search for the best pricing if you are interested in it. This is another fantastic tool to use for creative engineering in your force and motion units. My students have enjoyed using these sets on their own, in groups and with me. I typically apply gamification principles with these kits by creating challenges based on roller coaster height and/or the speed at which the marbles will travel from the top to the bottom. Finished products are mesmerizing to watch in the same way that Rube Goldberg machines and domino rallies are. (Buy Online Here)



Suspend Family Game (Melissa and Doug): Lately I've been using some mathematical reasoning puzzles with my students that resemble hanging mobiles with numbers added to help them create balanced equations. This product is a similarly simple, but effective and fun way to introduce some foundational physics concepts to kids. I love the concept and design. It may not be as iconic as other games in the dexterity category (like pickup sticks and Jenga), but in your house, it could be! (Buy Here Online)



Air Burst Rockets (Spangler Science): Forget about stomp rockets...and forget about tinkering with combustion engines. These rockets use a brilliant propulsion technology that only requires a strong bicycle pump to launch rockets up to 1000 feet into the air. These aren't made by Spangler Science, but that is where I purchase them. (Buy Online Here)



Perplexus (Spinmaster Games): There are a number of different puzzle options on the site to choose from. They range in difficulty, so beware! I have never completed the "Epic" version, but have completed some of the others , including the "Classic/Original" version. This is like the marble roller coaster and the Rubik's Cube blended together and it can be addicting! (Buy Online Here)




Math Perplexors Logic Puzzles (MindWare): Now that we are in the age of information, it is more important than ever to teach kids (and ourselves) how to effectively process incoming information. Practicing the art and science of abstraction will help kids distinguish between important/relevant and unimportant/irrelevant information as well as helping them to focus on fact checking! Logic puzzles are a mainstay in my teaching practice and they are fun to do as a family too. (Buy Online Here)



Turing Tumble: A marble roller coaster, computer programmer and a logic puzzle book got together... and the Turing Tumble was born. This award winning game actually has an interesting story behind its creation that you can read on the site if you are interested. Kids can use this screen-free pinball/plinko style game to learn pretty advanced computer programming concepts. For those interested in coding, I like to point out that there are a number of computational thinking skills that kids can work on to support the learning of various coding languages. This is one of the many products that helps with that. There are sixty levels of logic gates ranging from fairly easy to extremely difficult. I love using this product with kids, but be mindful of frustration points. As a parent, I typically go through these levels with my son, providing assistance when necessary. (Buy Online Here)




Brain Builders (Keva Planks): Most educators I know have heard of and use Keva Planks in one way or another in the classroom. While there are many different sets to choose from, I absolutely love products like this one that help kids convert 2-D designs to 3-D structures. This type of practice is also useful for architecture units, video game design and various geometry applications. There are 30 puzzle cards that allow kids to progress through varying levels of difficulty. (Buy Online Here)



Big Bucket of Science (Spangler Science): For the young (or old) chemist in the house, this is seriously a bucket of fun. For most people, the snow powder and magic sand alone are worth the price of admission. The test tubes are reusable and (fun fact) are actually

2-liter soda bottles that were never "inflated"... You will forever be the cool relative or friend if you buy this for a youngster in your life. (Buy Online Here)





Bubble Thing: Everyone loves bubbles.. and these pictures are pretty accurate when it comes to the sizes of bubbles you can create using the right mix and wand combo. I use bubbles for mixing experiments, wand engineering lessons and other lessons centered around the states of matter. The possibilities are endless. I am including an Amazon link because that is the best place to read reviews and to choose the best wand and bubble solution mix. I have used this particular one and a few others. You can also make your own with some dish soap, baking powder, guar gum and some other secret ingredients! (Buy Online Here)



Circuit Maze and Laser Maze (Think Fun): I have a special place in my heart for leveled puzzle games that incorporate additional scientific principles. With beginner through expert challenges and an easy startup time, these games can provide hours of challenging fun. I am going to include these strategy games in my upcoming Board Game review which highlights a series of games that help strengthen critical thinking skills, but I needed to also give them a shout out here. (Buy Online Here)



Twangled (MindWare): If you think twister gets people tied up in knots, wait until you see this game. I use this game in combination with a really cool Harry Houdini puzzle game (listed after this) that I found to help kids develop their skills in solving "sequential puzzles," which require a highly specific arrangement of moves or actions in order to be solved. (Order Online Here)



Houdini (Think Fun): Growing up, I was obsessed with Harry Houdini. I was so happy when I came across this brilliantly designed brainteaser of a game and I've been using it to confound my students ever since. Aside from this being another sequential puzzle game, it also teaches some extremely valuable lessons in visualization and overthinking. I like to combine this with EEG wearables to work on focus (this will be described in an upcoming blog post) in a way that kids can self monitor. (Buy Online Here)


That's a wrap! Thanks for reading! If you have any questions about any of these products or if you are looking for something in a particular category, don't hesitate to contact me! If you are interested in products for ages 2 through 4, I have some great brain building suggestions!


rob@stempassport.com














In case you haven’t noticed, we are living in an age of endless information with unprecedented access to technology that helps create and disperse that information. Regardless of what your family or child’s school screen time or technology policies are, the hope is that most of us now recognize that we need to support the ability of children to filter and process incoming information in a variety of ways to achieve desired thinking and learning outcomes (and to avoid others). The way in which it is best to do this is something that draws disagreement between practitioners and theorists though (queue in mood enhancement with diminished 7th chord on piano), which has led us into a longstanding battle that everyone continues to lose. Spoiler Alert: I don’t mince words when it comes to my opinions on the education system, so those who are sensitive to strong, well-informed criticism of district and statewide policies, stop reading now!


Julie Dirksen, principal of Usable Learning and author of “Design for How People Learn,” believes that at its core, learning is about strengthening the connections between certain neurons and that it is safe to say, “the neurons that fire together, wire together.” This supports the idea that learning is about patterns of activation that represent things like concepts and actions. One term we can use to broaden our understanding of this idea is “neural computation,” which refers to the hypothetical information processing performed by networks of neurons. Neural computation is an integral part of a broader position known as the computational theory of mind, which for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to as computationalism. This intro is meant to set up the argument that critical thinking skills can be taught explicitly and that strengthening critical thinking skills at an early age pays dividends in the long run when it comes to maximizing the efficiency of the time spent pursuing high levels of mastery in various areas of study.



With the concept of computationalism in our back pocket, I’d like to move on to two limiting factors we encounter when working with our students so that they may act as springboards to dive into effective brain building practices we can use in the classroom. The first of these limitations applies to all people in varying degrees and it is an issue is of time versus effort. Simply put, it is that there’s only so much brain strengthening that can happen at any one time regardless of intention or intelligence. Ryan Holiday offers a unique perspective on the related phenomenon known as ego fatigue, or ego depletion in his book, “Ego Is The Enemy.” Ego depletion isn’t a new concept as it has been on the research radar for studies involving addiction for a long time, but it often isn’t recognized for its implications in the field of education. Dirkson, mentioned earlier, believes that in order to make learning persistent, it needs to be spaced, or reactivated and strengthened over a period of time. In general terms we can say that the amount of time over which to practice, and the total quantity needed, depends on the complexity of the task and the amount of time between practice and performance as well as the time between performance opportunities. The second issue can be thought of as being in the same family as the first, but it is more an issue of time versus capacity. Dr. Dror from Cognitive Consultants International HQ (CCI-HQ) offers some keen insight with his view is that there is a mismatch between what the brain can take in and what it can maximally process throughout the day, He believes that for learning to be successful it must conform to the architecture of the mind. This means training or teaching must take into account constraints on the information processing capacity of the individual. The takeaway for teachers is that it isn’t necessarily what we teach, it is what the learner learns. It’s also not what we say, it is what they hear that matters. Tightly regulated schedules, especially ones that try to cram in excess information processing for the sake of covering content during instructional time, are particularly wasteful.



Having aired these two issues, I’d love to take computationalism out of our back pocket to apply its concepts to our equation in order to find working solutions. Before we can do that, there is another serious overarching obstacle that needs to be broken through first though. The obstacle is one of the main drivers of the epidemic our school system is currently facing. In short, it is the disagreement that I referenced earlier over how students become masterful learners. Before I go on, I’d like to recognize that this is not a theorist versus practitioner issue, but instead a large scale disagreement between two mixed sides and I’ll be very clear about which side I support.


Clark Quin from ChiefLearningOfficer.com wrote a great piece explaining ways in which our cognitive architecture is much better at pattern-matching and meaning-making than it is at performing via rote pathways. One main point he makes is that all too often, learning leaders fail to understand that information need not always be in student’s heads, as long as it is on hand. Ultimately, this means that what students really need to know is how to access information and how to decide if that information is useful to help solve a problem. One of the first steps to help students practice this, is to immerse them in as many contextualized problem-based learning scenarios as possible during the K-8 years. In contrast, the current educational system allows years of wasted opportunities to go by unaccounted for by focusing instruction on the retention of surface level content knowledge and low level understanding.


Practice Makes Perfect?


In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from Stanford and the University of British Columbia showed that guiding students to autonomous, iterative decision-making while carrying out common physics lab course experiments significantly improved students' critical thinking skills. It was found that by iterating, making changes and learning about experimental design in a more deliberate way, students came out with a richer experience. This was quantified by a twelve fold increase in their likelihood to think of and employ ways to improve their data, and a four fold increase in their likelihood to identify and explain the limits of their predictive models based on their data, over the control group. These students were also still applying these same critical thinking skills a year later in another physics course.



I think studies like this support the idea that practice can lead to lasting positive benefits when it comes to students being successful at using critical thinking skills in experimental design. The practice that is needed has two components though. First, teachers need to practice effectively facilitating experiences. This will make space for the students to practice building the skills. Another beneficial side effect of changing the way we view “teaching” subjects like science in this way is that it allows us to observe and diagnose student misconceptions of how the world around them works. By the beginning of Pre-K, many children have already created models of understanding that are remarkably hard to extinguish if they are wrong. Ideally, we want to make sure there are valid models to begin with, so that students can refer to them during problem solving and in their attempts to develop a deeper understanding of concepts, but this is often not the case. The reality is that children often start school with individualized gross misconceptions that can go undiagnosed for years, thereby leading to a weakened patchwork of understanding when a strong foundational understanding is needed most. The longer misconceptions linger in the minds of our students, the more profound their effects are on prohibiting their ability to progress towards mastery in complex contextualized problem solving scenarios. By giving students ample opportunities to make mistakes through practice, we increase the likelihood of both us and them detecting and remediating their misconceptions and lapses in their flow of understanding before they become problematic. In a future post I’ll get into the benefits of diagnosing and addressing common student misconceptions in science in elementary and middle school.



There are some teachers and cognitive scientists that have doubts about the possibility of us being able to teach children a general set of critical thinking skills. One of their main arguments is that exercising critical thinking in one field requires different skills than the critical thinking skills needed in another. While this is true, it is only true in so much that it refers to recruitment and application of critical thinking skills for a particular task, and not the skills themselves. In other words, it is simply stating the obvious but misunderstanding what it actually implies about dynamic thinking and learning. This flaw in the mindset of the practitioners and theorists who deny that students can undergo training to strengthen skills like reasoning and deduction is most likely directly related to our current research belief model, which education theorists specialize in (therein propagating the problem). Practitioners (teachers, instructors, facilitators etc.) who hold this belief may also be bogged down by the limitations of our current research model due to having a high level of confidence in the perceived expertise of certain cognitive scientists; or they simply may not have reached the level of experience or mastery needed to understand neural computation and the trajectory involved in the development of critical thinking, which I’ll discuss briefly later in this article.


For context, a quick and common example of the thought process of a person on the deniers side of the critical thinking crisis would be someone believing that intelligence is based less on reasoning skills and more on the ability to take in and retain information. As much as I wholeheartedly disagree with that statement, I suppose it is understandable for a person who is considered an expert in the field of education, based simply on their knowledge and ability to reproduce that knowledge, to believe this. My short response to this is that it is important to remember that our tendency to assign courtroom logic to teaching practice by thinking that ideas aren’t valid unless they’ve been supported or proven through conventional research studies, is fatally flawed. In many (not all) schools districts, I also see pedagogical decisions being made by superintendents or administrators who have never achieved high-level mastery as front-line educators. I don’t mean earning a particular degree or holding a particular title, I mean actually becoming an expert in teaching through experience. Until we have schools where expert teachers are making decisions regarding how we teach our children, we will continue to fail to progress.

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