Once upon a time, when the internet was just a twinkle in the eye of the US Department of Defense and a tablet was something you took for a headache, prophetic Canadian critic Marshall McLuhan announced that “the medium is the message.”
In a world enthralled by “new media” like TV and LP records, it was a phrase that caught the popular imagination - even if no one was quite sure what it meant.
Today we could translate McLuhan’s insight as “The device can make all difference.”
Content that we consume on one platform, in other words, will be experienced in a very different way on another platform. It will be processed differently by our brains. And the implications of that for the way we learn - and specifically for the way children learn - may be profound.
Science has increasingly validated McLuhan’s catch-phrase.
A study of pre-schoolers and storytelling, presented this month to the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) 2018 Meeting, is a perfect case in point.
The research looked at how children’s brains processed the same story content delivered on three different media: an audiobook, an illustrated storybook with audio voiceover, and an animated cartoon.
Their aim? To discover which medium engaged kids’ brains most fully, promoting comprehension and encouraging reading readiness.
Lead researcher Dr. John Hutton used the language of “The Three Little Bears” to summarise his team’s results:
The audiobook was “too cold.” The animation was “too hot.” But the illustrated book was “just right!”
Researchers found that the audio-only version activated kids’ language networks, but stimulated less overall connectivity. In other words, said Hutton, “there was more evidence the children were straining to understand.”
The animation stimulated both audio and visual perception networks, but resulted in even poorer comprehension. “Our interpretation was that the animation was doing all the work for the child,” Hutton said. “They were expending the most energy just figuring out what it means.”
Animated stories may be too hot. Audiobooks may be too cold.
The “Goldilocks” situation - the one that was just right for the three- to five-year-olds subjects - was the illustrated book. The static pictures served as clues, or “scaffolding,” for kids to make sense of the story’s language. And the storybook was also the medium that promoted the highest integration of brain functions - which is a fancy way of saying “learning.”
Storybooks develop children’s cognitive muscle to create their own mental images - and encourage them to reflect on the meaning of a story.
Hutton warns that “kids who are exposed to too much animation are going to be at risk” when it comes to developing these vital literacy skills.
And in case you were wondering why researchers didn’t look at a fourth “platform” - the old-school one of a caregiver reading a book to a child nestled in their lap - well, apparently you can’t fit all that into an MRI machine.
But researchers were clear that the emotional bonding and physical closeness when parents read to their children builds in “a whole other layer” of enrichment. That’s especially true when adults engage in what researchers call “dialogic reading” - prompting children with simple questions (“Can you see the mouse?” “Does that porridge look yummy?”).
McLuhan, it turns out, had his story straight.
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