BUT DOES IT WORK?
There's one question I've heard from parents and teachers over the last 10+ years (in various forms): "…but do computers really help kids learn?" The short answer is yes. The long answer, replete with anecdotes from at-risk classrooms, independent computer labs, families, and students themselves, is archived here, in journals, and at many places on the Internet. Recently, I experienced a tremendously powerful example of just how important a computer (and the right software) can be in the life of a child.
Jennifer (not her real name) came to an after-school tutoring program for math help. She was about nine years old, bright, middle-class, with stunning curly red hair. However, she was very self-conscious about being big for her age--both in girth and height--and her inability to grasp fractions added to her poor self-image. I tried to help her first in a one-on-one setting, using pie chart graphics and visual aids, explaining as best I could what fractions are, and how to add them. Not only did she not understand my explanations, she seemed not to comprehend what fractions even were. The next teacher who tried had much more experience teaching elementary math concepts than I--and also no effect. The third teacher had a Master's degree in mathematics and could (as I told the students) explain math problems "14 different ways." While other math difficulties were conquered, Jennifer was still at a loss to understand fractions. Her self-consciousness and discomfort were now palpable, and she was having some extremely embarrassing physical manifestations. Her classmates in the regular classroom were happily adding and subtracting fractions, while three highly trained education professionals (as well as her classroom teacher) were unable to get the concepts through to her. A devastating failure was in the offing--with long-term consequences.
Previously, I had suggested that the director consider utilizing math software available at the San Diego Center for Educational Technology. There was a chance that Jennifer might, indeed, be able to make her own breakthrough if she were alone with a computer and free to experiment without witnesses or perceived judgments. I picked Edmark's Mighty Math Number Heroes, explained to Jennifer how the program worked, and instructed that she work through all of the levels. I turned her loose and let her fly.
Without making too fine a point of it, it worked. A few weeks later, working with the regular materials, a fraction lesson came up, and Jennifer exclaimed: "Oh, I LOVE doing fractions!" She has never looked back.