Whadja Do In School Today?

Every parent of a four or five year old knows the drill. Your child comes home after pre-kindergarten or kindergarten. “Whadja do today?” you  say with eager anticipation, thinking of all the friends your child must have made, the stories your child heard, the songs your child sang, the projects or dress-up or phonics or math, or…well, anything.

“Nuffin,” your child says, wandering out of range to avoid further interrogation.

You know your child did a whole lot more than “nuffin.” But how can you find out so that you can build on what the teacher did each day?

One answer is something our group at the Success for All Foundation created utilizing Investing in Innovation (i3) funding with partners at Sesame Workshop, Sirius Thinking, and Johns Hopkins University. We call it Home Links. Home Links are 10-15 minute videos, akin to short television shows, that parents and children watch together, 4 evenings a week. Each show uses content from Sesame Street and animations we have made with Sirius Thinking, so they are a bit like Sesame Street shows themselves, with one huge difference: the content of the shows reflects the activities that children and teachers were doing that day in school.

The Home Links give kids reinforcement and extension of vocabulary and skills they learned that day, and that’s important. But more important, they tell parents what’s happening in school. When a show contains skits about fall, the letter V, counting to five, and singing traditional songs, the parents know that all of these things are happening in school. Our surveys found that 96% of the time, a parent, grandparent, or other relative watches with the child. At the end of each show there is music and movement, and parents tell us they dance with their children, and they love the closeness and fun. But parents also now know how to support their children’s learning. If the topic is markets, they know to point out interesting things when they next are at the market with their child. If the letter is T, they know to point out things that begin with T. If the math segment is on shapes, parents know to ask children about shapes they see in daily life. Home should not be another classroom, but it’s the ideal place for a child to learn that the things he or she is learning in school are important to his or her parents and exist in his or her community. It also helps children understand that knowing about and learning about those things brings pride and builds curiosity.

Home Links are sent home on DVDs each day. We are now looking for funding to make an online version so families can download Home Links to digital devices such as phones and tablets.

Right now, Home Links are being used in approximately 300 preschool and kindergarten classes already using our proven Success for All whole-school approach. In the future, we hope to disseminate Home Links to preschools and kindergartens whether or not they use Success for All.

When this happens, more and more parents won’t have to ask, “Whadja do in school today?” They’ll know. And they’ll know how to build on what they find out.

And that ain’t nuffin’.


The Investing in Innovation (i3) program is a federal competitive grant program at the U.S. Department of Education, within the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII). It provides funding to support local education agencies or nonprofit organizations in partnership with LEAs and/or schools to expand and develop innovative practices that can serve as models of best practices and to identify and document best practices that can be shared and taken to scale in the areas of improving student achievement or student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing high school graduation rates, or increasing college enrollment and completion rates.

More information on the i3 program can be found here.

More information on Success for All Foundation’s grant Around the Corner: A Technology-Enhanced Approach to Early Literacy can be found here.

When Every Student Has a Computer at Home

The history of technology in education is one of schools running to catch up with technology developments outside of school. Learning from our past follies in this area, perhaps now it is time we anticipate how ubiquitous computer access can be achieved and then exploited to benefit all children.

Computers have been used in schools since the early 1970s, and today there are at least a few in virtually every school, and most students now have access at home. But, the fact that not all students have their own computers at home limits instructional uses of computers in as well as out of school. A teacher cannot, for example, assign homework requiring a computer if only 20 out of her 25 students have working computers at home.

A number of developments are about to change this. One is the rapid adoption of smart phones and tablet computers, which are making electronic access more common and less expensive at home. The second is the impending extinction of the paper textbook, which may soon create an enormous economic incentive for school districts or states to give away inexpensive computers to students, so that they can replace paper textbooks with cheaper e-texts.

When every student has a computer, the educational uses of technology can be transformed, especially if innovators seize the opportunity to create exciting, interactive software rather than simply converting linear textbooks into their electronic equivalents.

Ubiquitous access to computers could solve one of the key limitations on educational computer apps, the fact that devices available only during the school day conflict with the structure of school, which typically has teachers and classrooms designed for group teaching, not individualized, self-paced work. As a result, actual use of computers documented by research is far less than what advocates or providers might hope, and this may explain the limited impacts of computer-assisted instruction on reading and math learning.

If teachers could assign daily homework on computers, students could on their own do work that fills in gaps in their learning. Students performing ahead of the class could go into advanced topics. Just as kids play games not only with the computers, but also with others virtually anywhere else, if students have just read an assigned book or learned about a given topic, they could engage in guided discussions online about that book or topic with e-pals anywhere in the world.

Ubiquitous computers at home could enable students to watch video content at home linked to topics they are learning in school. Why take class time to show a video when it can be viewed as homework? This opens up new uses for already-produced as well as new educational programming while also offering teachers more time on task in the classroom.

Despite the rapid approach of ubiquitous computer availability at home, I am not aware of much research or development anticipating this eventuality. There are thousands of educational apps, games, videos, and other content being created each year, of course, but is anyone weaving these into complete approaches to reading, math, science, or social studies instruction and evaluating the outcomes? It is time for the education R&D infrastructure to jump in with both feet to ensure that we are not just creating new products for young consumers. Guided by research and a mission to improve outcomes for kids, we can shift the market’s focus to effective tools for students eager to learn in the technological world they are already inhabit.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin