Conversations. (teacher Jan Davidson produces educational software) (column)
by Keith Ferrell
Jan Davidson is a teacher. The fact that she does her teaching today from the office of the company she founded, rather than from the head of a class, hasn't altered her deep commitment to her profession. You feel that commitment, a concern for students and a love of learning, both in Davidson's software and in conversation with her.
Davidson's awareness of learning as an environment, as a continuum, shows in her products. Software designed to introduce basic skills also prepares students to use higher-order thinking skills. It's all part of Davidson's vision of education and education software.
"Math Blaster Plus and Math Blaster Mystery," she says, "cover the gamut of math from basic knowledge through analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. In the new Math Blaster Plus, we go through and teach them the facts, and then we have problems where they have to use these facts."
Throughout, the products are designed to help students transfer newly acquired skills to the real world. "In Math Blaster Mystery," Davidson says, "we help kids break word problems into simple steps. Find out what the problem is asking for, identify the information and equations needed to answer it, and find the answer. These are higher-order thinking skills, and the computer is an effective tool for teaching these skills. I don't sit down and say I'm only going to cover analysis in this product and synthesis in this one. I try to get as much out of each product as I possibly can."
Is one curriculum--math or English, for example--better suited for translation to software than another? "I don't think so. Our math products have been successful not because math is easier to do than spelling or reading, but because people subconsciously associate computers and math. As a parent, I may think, ~Gee, computers may help Johnny with math.' But I don't realize how effective they can be in getting Johnny to read. Computers involve reading."
Davidson speaks from experience. "My son learned to read on the computer because he wanted to play with it. Instead of ~See Dick run,' it was ~Press space bar.' To use the computer, you need to read. You can develop some wonderful language-arts products and draw the kids in and get them reading, thinking, and problem solving, without their realizing how much they're learning."
Davidson's products are themselves designed to be used by students, parents, and teachers. "All of our products have editors in them," she says. "We get the students writing, as well as reading. Our reading programs, for example, have tools that students can use to write their own stories and essays, as well as read them."
To use tools such as writing, certain basic levels of educational ability are required. Davidson's products deliberately address all levels of thinking, from drill and practice to problem solving and analysis. The drill-and-practice aspects of Davidson's software may be the most widely known, however, addressing an area too often undervalued by educational theoreticians. By addressing basic skills, Davidson feels, you prepare students for the challenges, and delights to be found in the exercise of higher-order skills. You can't, as it were, take an apple from a tree until you can climb the tree.
"Think of learning as a continuum," Davidson says, "a gradual process. You go through stages, starting with some very basic things like the ability to recall specific information, then go on to comprehension, application, analysis, and evaluation. All these points need to be covered in education. But the one thing I've found is that you can't bring out higher-order thinking skills if you don't have the lower ones. You've got to have something to think with before you can think. You've got to have a basic vocabulary, be able to read at a certain level, have basic language and math skills to be able to do the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation that are so important to higher-order thinking skills."
And technology can take part throughout the learning process?
"The computer can play a role at all levels of that spectrum," Davidson says, "both with lower-order thinking skills as well as the higher-order skills. There's a case to be made for educational software at all levels." And Davidson has developed products that fit all along this continuum.
Davidson doesn't see these levels as segregated. "Word Attack was developed because I was trying to teach Melville," she says. "The kids didn't have the vocabulary for it. The software was one way of getting them up to speed in the vocabulary so we could do the fun, higher-order thinking skills with it. The highest of the higher-order thinking skills is writing, and you can't write without a vocabulary. You can't function in our society without the basic skills."
A generation of students--and their parents--who've moved with the help of Davidson's software from basic skills to reading Melville and solving complex mathematical problems have reason to be grateful that Jan Davidson moved from classroom to boardroom ... without leaving the profession of teaching behind.