Mindshapes’ James Peak Defends SpongeBob

Earlier this week, we linked to a study that claimed that watching the SpongeBob Squarepants cartoon makes children perform tasks poorly. James Peak, Educational Consultant at Mindshapes, an interative app maker, thinks that this study should not scare parents off of cartoon characters. In fact, he thinks that used in the right way, they can actually help kids learn. He explains his thoughts in the following Q&A.

EBN: How can animated characters actually help kids learn?

JP: Animated characters are utterly controllable, and in the right hands can be the most powerful educational tool you could possibly imagine. In the classroom, good teachers aren’t fussy about where the learning comes from. I’ve used The Simpsons to teach poetry, pizza menus to teach numeracy, old Dan Dare comics to teach about the use of speech marks in text. It’s how you develop the learning so that it sticks, that really matters. The power of established characters like SpongeBob is in their initial power to enthrall, engage and excite our young people like nothing else can.

They have often invested emotionally in these characters, seeing them as role models or people to have fun with. These characters have our young people’s goodwill. If you then give these characters a new educational mandate, or focus on teasing out both the hard learning –math, reading, science, arts — and soft learning — social, caring for others, building good friendships, watching out for danger– messages already clear and present within the story dynamics, then you will find that children listen, open-minded, and learn without it feeling like learning.

EBN: What about research that suggests that cartoon programs like SpongeBob Squarepants is bad for kids’ school performance?

JP: If you ask 4 year-olds to do any single activity for 9 minutes, their brains are melting. And to get a child to suddenly click from TV watching to executive function tasks is like asking me to get up from dinner and sprint to the end of the room, right now. With no warm up or training shoes I am bound to perform worse than if you gave me a chance to orientate myself. The study leaves much unanswered.

Whether or not cartoons themselves melt kids’ brains, it’s the characters from cartoons, in specifically educating contexts (eg help Spongebob negotiate a complex 2D maze using problem solving, fine motor control) that we can utilize to great effect. They provide lots of motivating force to get children doing learning tasks and activities through active use of apps.

EBN: Why are interactive apps better than TV?

JP: TV is passive, and undemanding in comparison. That said, there are some wonderful educational TV programs out there, like Sesame Street, but they are still passive, as they don’t rely on the child responding. If you stick your kid in front of a TV they can tune out, stare at the remote control or investigate their belly button. Apps gently cajole young people into activity, rather than passivity, and the good ones do it in a way that reinforces learning and asks questions that will build skills and understanding in the user. This dynamic soon creates a cycle of “learning = reward = more learning = more reward”. The best apps are like mini bespoke teachers: they ask questions, demand answers before the user can progress, and work at the child’s own pace of learning.

EBN: Which elements help promote learning the best?

JP: The things that make learning fun are nearly always present and correct in a good app: challenges, games, investigations–as any teacher will tell you, these all have great potential to motivate a child to learn. In terms of development, apps are brilliant for improving fine motor control.