Alexa Can Help Kids With Homework, But Don't Forget Problem-Solving Skills

Jan 10, 2019
Originally published on January 10, 2019 9:30 am

"Alexa, what's 5 minus 3?"

A 6-year-old boy recently asked that question in a video, which went viral on Twitter with more than 8.5 million views. He leaned over his homework as his mother hovered in the doorway. Alexa, Amazon's voice-activated assistant, delivered a quick answer: 2.

"Booooy," the mother chastised her son.

It's cute, but it raises a question that's been on the minds of many parents and educators lately: How do virtual assistants like Alexa, which are increasingly common in households, affect children's learning experiences?

Clint Hill, an English teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, Va., says in his classrooms he often sees "kids quietly talking into their phones and asking Google or other services: Hey, how do you spell some complicated word that they don't know."

But Hill, who co-hosts the education podcast Schooled Ya!, says he doesn't mind. After all, he uses a little tech help on his grammar once in a while. "I struggle with spelling, and spellcheck on my word processing has been a life saver for me," he says.

"I think being able to use those technological aids is not hurting anybody. I think it's just improving our ability to use our brains for other things," Hill adds.

But some experts say it's not just about learning basic math or spelling.

"One of the best gifts we can give our children is doing that kind of problem-solving together," says Diane Levin, a professor of applied human development at Boston University.

Levin is also the founder of the nonprofit Truce, or Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment. She says it's crucial for children to learn to struggle — even just a little — with challenges.

"They will use those skills that they're learning for all kinds of things that come along," Levin says. "If they are a good problem-solver they'll do better than kids who just go to a screen to get the answer."

How much concern should parents have over Alexa or Siri and their children?

Every new wave of technology, from calculators to TV sets, elicits a panic about its effect on children, and nostalgia over the past, says Dimitri Christakis, the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute.

But he points to the TV shows we remember so fondly, like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. They're sweet and wholesome. And yet, a child watching television is having a completely passive experience.

Because new technology is interactive, "it helps [children] understand how the world works," Christakis says.

"And whereas watching television ... you play no role in the content, interacting with touch screens and for that matter interacting with these voice-activated technologies allows that to happen in spades," Christakis says.

Still, he agrees that this debate is about much more than knowing what 5 minus 3 is. It's also about developing the patience to solve problems.

"That ability to stay focused," he says, "particularly when something is not interesting, is one of the most important developmental skills that children acquire."

In other words, it's not just about having the answers. It's about the work you put in to get them.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There's a video that went viral on Twitter recently. It has a mom sneaking up on her 6-year-old son as he's doing his math homework. And she catches him asking Alexa, Amazon's smart speaker, for help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Alexa, what's five minus three?

GREENE: What's five minus three? Well, Alexa gives him the answer. And his mom, who's listening in the background, chastises him. This is all pretty cute. But it gets at a deeper question, right? As kids have more access to virtual assistance, does that interfere with the learning process? Here's NPR's Jasmine Garsd.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Clint Hill is an English teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, Va. He says in his classroom, this often happens.

CLINT HILL: Kids quietly talking into their phones and asking Google or other services, hey. How do you spell - some complicated word that they don't know.

GARSD: Hill, who co-hosts the education podcast Schooled Ya!, says he actually doesn't mind.

HILL: I struggle with spelling. And spell check on my word processing has been a lifesaver for me. And I think being able to use those technological aids is not hurting anybody. I think it is just improving our ability to use our brains for other things.

GARSD: This is one of the big debates in education today. On the one hand, why deprive kids of technology most adults use every day? But some experts say it's not just about learning basic math or spelling.

DIANE LEVIN: One of the best gifts we can give our children is doing that kind of problem-solving together...

GARSD: Diane Levin is a professor of applied human development at Boston University and the founder of the nonprofit TRUCE, or Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment.

LEVIN: ...Because they will use those skills that they're learning for all kinds of things that come along, where, if they're a good problem-solver, they'll do better than kids who just try to go to a screen to get the answer.

GARSD: Levin believes not allowing a child to even struggle a little for the answers leads to what she calls Problem Solving Deficit Disorder. Dimitri Christakis is the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle's Children's Research Institute.

DIMITRI CHRISTAKIS: There is reason to be concerned but not panicked. And there's also reason to be optimistic and hopeful. It's really about how we deploy these technologies.

GARSD: Christakis says every wave of technology elicits a panic about its effect on children and nostalgia over a more wholesome past. Consider this old clip of Kermit the Frog stuck on an elevator with "Sesame Street's" Count von Count, who is maniacally counting the floors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Count von Count) Eighth floor, ninth floor...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Kermit the Frog) Wait a second, Count. I wanted to get off on the seventh floor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Count von Count) Ten - that's 10...

GARSD: It's sweet and educational. But Christakis points out that a child watching television - it's a completely passive experience. And he says, for children, the interactive aspect of new technology...

CHRISTAKIS: It helps them understand how the world works. And whereas watching television, of course, doesn't allow that to happen because you play no role in the content, interacting with touchscreens and, for that matter, interacting with these voice-activated technologies, allows that to happen in spades.

GARSD: Still, he agrees that this debate is about much more than knowing what five minus three is. It's about developing the patience to solve problems.

CHRISTAKIS: That ability to stay focused, particularly when something is not interesting, is one of the most important developmental skills that children acquire.

GARSD: In other words, it's not just about having the answers. It's about the work you put in to get them. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.