US Capitals for $500

I stumbled upon a discussion recently between Vicky Davis and Gary Stager.  As far as I can tell, the discussion started with an article that Ms. Davis wrote for the New York Times’ series “The Frontier of Classroom Technology“.  The article was about Adaptive Testing and she had made reference to an application for the iPad called “Stack the States”.  The original article talked about applications being a tool to help her son learn the capital cities of US states.  Mr. Stager’s reply was more than what the New York Times would allow as a comment so he decided to respond in a blog post, written in his forceful and convincing manner.

His post brought about a reply from Ms. Davis indicating that what appeared in the New York Times blog was not what she had submitted and had been edited presumably? to fit.  She was looking for a way for her son to “ace” his states and capitals test.  

I was interested in the whole concept.  I remembered a history teacher that I had in secondary school and one of the comments that he had made which went along the lines of “I don’t want you to memorize this but if I ask you about something, I want you to think about and tell me WHY it happened.”  That little bit of advice has been a guiding factor for me throughout my career.  When possible, things should be presented and evaluated in context.  A good friend of mine and I used to lead an evaluation workshop for new teachers where we demonstrated this with two examples:  1) Parts of a microscope versus 2) What do the various parts of a microscope do.  The second approach was much richer, covered the same concepts as the first assessment but allowed for deeper understanding of what a microscope actually is.

I was more than passingly interested in the discussion and so decided to take a look at the application in question.  As I loaded iTunes, I thought of a better idea and did a search for “US Capitals”.  There’s a wealth of them in the Canadian App Store.

Hey, you could even buy some of these things!  So, I played around with “Stack the States Lite” for a while.  I was interested, but not enough to pay money for the full version.  I must admit that it was tedious after a while so I went for another application just called “Capitals” which was a quiz program that presented a state, you guessed the capital city, and then tapped to reveal the answer.  This engaged me for about 10 minutes to get through the states.  I was quite pleased with my results.  I didn’t get Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Washington and South Dakota.  Somehow, I knew the rest of the answers.  I wondered why?  Knowing US States was never part of any history course that I took.  I most assuredly don’t recall memorizing US Capitals at any point.

Now, some of them are obvious.  In Essex County, we have a heavy Michigan influence in the news and there is always legislature coming from “Lansing” so that made sense.  One of my favourite television shows is Law and Order so “Albany” as the capital of New York was just natural.  I had no idea why I would know Tallahassee or Carson City or Trenton but somehow I did.  I played around with a World Capitals application and I was surprised at what I knew there as well.  But, it was more than just a rote answer; I knew a little more about the city than just the name – a little of the history or wars or being named something else previously.

I wondered – is this what is passing as educational applications in schools that are buying portable technology.  While the applications were a little gamey and engaging to a certain extent, the potential of the technology seems to be largely unused.  If technology is a limited resource in a classroom, is educational time well spent doing this?  Or, are there better and more meaningful ways of addressing the same content that goes beyond simple recall.  Is testing (standardized or otherwise) encouraging applications that focus on one thing and one thing only for the sake of mastery?  What about other applications that appeal to a broader use of the technology?

I also wonder what the value of knowing all of the capital cities of the states is?  I guess you could win money on Jeopardy or at a local bar on a bet, or you could be the trivia life of the party.  If I live in Michigan, I’ll know by other means the importance of Lansing.  Laws are passed there; taxes are paid to there; there’s university in East Lansing…  That seems to me to be a more important reason for a Michigander to know about Lansing.

I also worry about the poor educator and person who manages the applications on classroom devices.  If we require a distinct application for every topic we want to cover, how many applications are they going to have to discover and manage?  Don’t we have links to websites to do that sort of thing?  At home, if someone wants to be involved with their child’s education and download appropriate titles, that’s their choice.  I don’t see it scaling in the classroom though.  

Finally, the acid test.  I just had to look for an application to test my knowledge of Canadian Provincial and Territorial Capitals.  No such luck.  Somewhere, there’s got to be a computer science class in need of a project.

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