Alexa Helps With Homework, But Problem-Solving Skills Are Key How do virtual assistants like Alexa affect children's learning experiences? Some experts say easy answers delivered by technology can hurt the development of problem-solving skills in kids.
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Alexa Can Help Kids With Homework, But Don't Forget Problem-Solving Skills

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

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

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/683009762/683862016" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.

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