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Shiny textbooks: great design, poor teacher

Staff writer |
Adding shiny colors and drawings to a textbook to attract children's interest may do just the opposite - make it harder for them to learn.

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Researchers found that 6- to 8-year-old children best learned how to read simple bar graphs when the graphs were plain and a single color. Children who were taught using graphs with images on the bars didn't learn the lesson as well and sometimes tried counting the images rather than relying on the height of the bars.

"Graphs with pictures may be more visually appealing and engaging to children than those without pictures. However, engagement in the task does not guarantee that children are focusing their attention on the information and procedures they need to learn," said Jennifer Kaminski, co-author of the study and research scientist in psychology at The Ohio State University. Kaminski conducted the study with Vladimir Sloutsky, professor of psychology at Ohio State.

The problem of distracting visuals is not just an academic issue. In the study, the authors cite real-life examples of colorful, engaging, and possibly confusing bar graphs in educational materials aimed at children, as well as in the popular media.

When the authors asked 16 kindergarten and elementary school teachers whether they would use the visually appealing graphs featured in this study, all of them said they would. Intuitively, most of these teachers felt that the graphs with the pictures would be more effective for instruction.

The findings apply beyond learning graphs and mathematics, the authors said.

"When designing instructional material, we need to consider children's developing ability to focus their attention and make sure that the material helps them focus on the right things. Any unnecessary visual information may distract children from the very procedures we want them to learn," Kaminski said.

The graphs in the training phase involved how many shoes were in a lost and found for each of five weeks. Half the students were presented with graphs in which the bars were a solid color. The other students were shown graphs in which the bars contained pictures of shoes. If there were five shoes in the lost and found, there were five shoes pictured in the bar.

Then, the children were tested on new graphs in which the bars were either solid-colored or contained pictures of objects such as flowers. However, the number of objects pictured did not equal the correct y-value for the bar.

All of the first- and second-graders and 75 percent of the kindergarten children who learned on the solid-bar graphs appropriately read the new graphs.

However, those who learned with the more visually appealing shoe graphs did not do nearly as well. In this case, 90 percent of kindergarteners and 72 percent of first-graders responded by counting the number of flowers pictured. Second-graders did better, but still about 30 percent responded by counting.

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