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Thinking Lessons
New research investigates whether computer games can turn children into better learners

Harvard Graduate School of Education
January 1, 2004
A story from Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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About Ed. magazine
MIND GAMES

Lexia VS, the first mind-improving software package from David Stevens' research team, contains five visual-spatial games. Each game develops a different set of cognitive skills, and becomes progressively harder as the child masters each level. It's all done at the press of a button: the child uses a standard video game controller to move objects around, ask for hints, and check answers.

Cubes
Cubes

In Cubes, players study a stack of colored blocks balancing on the back of a tortoise (which helps to orient the blocks in space). The object is to figure out what the blocks would look like if viewed from a variety of perspectives.

Tangrams
Tangrams

Tangrams, a version of the familiar Chinese puzzle, presents different geometric shapes that must then be assembled from a set of simple tiles.

Flips
Flips

Flips is similar to Tangrams, except that the child builds mirror images of the original shapes.

Spatial Delivery
Spatial Delivery

In Spatial Delivery, the child's job is to deliver a package to its destination, winding through city streets and office corridors with the aid of a map.

Waterworld
Waterworld

Waterworld displays a floating array of spheres decorated with a multitude of colors and designs. The child attempts to reproduce that pattern—eventually from memory.

Students interacting with video games at Lexia Learning Systems  
Students interacting with video games at Lexia Learning Systems
(© 2003 Lisa Kessler)

David Stevens, Ed.M.'96, Ed.D.'00, was beginning his second year of third grade when it dawned on him that he was not like the other students in his class. The assignments were just as incomprehensible the second time around, his new classmates just as far ahead. Reading was still a struggle. There followed a long succession of special tutors, posh Washington, D.C., schools, and psychologists, one of whom told Stevens that he had homework phobia.

"I went through all the classic misdiagnoses of a kid with learning troubles," Stevens recalls. For years, he felt compelled to charm essays out of other students and steal exams from teachers, just to maintain a D average. Then, in his senior year of high school, his troubles vanished. "For the first time in my life, I was coming to class prepared, I could do the assigned reading, I was writing my own history papers," he says. Stevens went on to major in philosophy and intellectual history at the American University of Paris, where he reinvented himself: Instead of the class clown, his earlier persona, he was now a scholar and an intellectual.

What caused the metamorphosis? While Stevens doesn't rule out natural causes—the kind of maturation that often turns teens around—here is what he thinks happened his senior year: Harry Wachs, a child development specialist at George Washington University, made him smarter. "In my case," Stevens says, "some of the basic cognitive abilities that help kids do well in school, especially visual-spatial abilities, may not have been fully developed." Over a period of months, Wachs gave him exercises aimed at helping him to perceive patterns, to visualize and mentally rotate objects, to reason logically. That treatment may be what ratcheted up his thinking skills to the point where reading and understanding a book, or organizing his thoughts on paper, ceased to be an ordeal. After college, Stevens returned to Wachs's clinic as a therapist. There he witnessed similar transformations in nine- and ten-year-old versions of himself. "I saw miracles," he says with a rare certainty.

Today, at age 35, Stevens is on a quest to make those miracles available to millions of schoolchildren whose parents can't afford one-on-one therapy. It is a contentious goal. Only a handful of studies back the idea that "cognitive interventions," programs designed to sharpen thinking skills, can help children learn better in school. But at Lexia Learning Systems—the Lincoln, Massachusetts-based educational software firm where he is the director of advanced research and design—Stevens has distilled what seem to be the best principles from the most successful programs, and he and his colleagues are building a cognitive intervention of their own.

“Everyone knows how engaging and addictive computer games can be,” Stevens explains. “We're trying to marry those qualities with principles of cognitive science and then get kids addicted to working hard, thinking hard, and thinking complexly.”

Unlike other such programs, which are usually administered by experts in cognitive science, this one is a set of computer games. "Everyone knows how engaging and addictive computer games can be," Stevens explains. "We're trying to marry those qualities with principles of cognitive science and then get kids addicted to working hard, thinking hard, and thinking complexly." If Stevens's vision pans out, students from age eight through adulthood, with or without identifiable learning difficulties, will sit down at a school computer a few times a week and game their way to better grades.

But first Stevens must prove that his approach works—that a piece of software can actually propel students to higher levels of thinking and higher academic achievement. And that takes careful research. "To make our case that this is worthwhile, we'll have to be able to overcome the skepticism of teachers and parents," he says. Above all, Stevens will have to overcome his own skepticism. "Doubt is part of what fuels me to study this question methodically," he says. "It keeps me rigorous. And if my research isn't rigorous, then it will be dangerous."

Ambitious Plans
Designing software to make kids smarter has been on Stevens's mind since the early 1990s. As a therapist in Wachs's clinic, he spent endless hours setting up colored wooden blocks and parquetry tiles in geometric patterns for children to match, or flip, or reassemble. "As I sat there doing repetition after repetition, I'd say, 'Boy, how can we automate this?' That's when I started thinking about software."

By 1996, the end of his first year at the Ed School, his thoughts had germinated into a full-fledged business plan for developing a software-based intervention. But when Stevens approached venture capitalists, they saw only dollar signs. "They'd look at my plan, which called for all this testing and a long research and development process, and say, 'Forget this. All we need is the fact that you're a Harvard graduate with an idea for improving intelligence, and we can go far.' I wasn't interested," Stevens says. He had entered graduate school for one reason: to learn methods for studying the mysterious changes he had observed in himself and in his young patients. Rigorous testing was the soul of Stevens's plan.

Meanwhile, as he surveyed the literature on cognitive interventions, Stevens gained confidence in his basic premise: Intelligence is malleable and can be systematically improved. The first half of his premise generates little disagreement. David Sousa, M.A.T.'61, author of How the Brain Learns and a frequent lecturer on the topic of brain-compatible education, notes that the past 20 years of cognitive research have all but banished the idea that intelligence is fixed at birth. "There's a large body of evidence to show that intelligence is more fluid than we once believed," Sousa says. Depending on the environment in which the brain develops, "you can get smarter, or you can be dumbed down." Under the right conditions, then, intelligence should flourish. The big question for Stevens was whether it was possible to engineer such conditions.

As he began research for his doctoral thesis (a reinterpretation of the theories of the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget), Stevens found the literature strewn with failed cognitive interventions. But he also uncovered a few programs that apparently had sharpened children's thinking skills across a range of subjects. Kindergartners who completed RightStart, a math-readiness intervention, for instance, excelled in math and music. Another intervention, Cognitive Acceleration for Science Education (CASE), which targets "general thinking skills," enabled British schoolchildren to outperform their peers even two years later on achievement tests in science, math, and English.

Among the other promising interventions was one Stevens knew well. His mentor, Harry Wachs, had teamed up with another researcher, Hans Furth, to design a curriculum called Thinking Goes to School. Part of the program's mission was to "develop the habit of creative independent thinking," a goal it pursued largely through games—movement games, visual games, auditory games, logic games. In connection with his doctoral research, Stevens visited a Pennsylvania school that had tried the curriculum in the early 1990s. How had the students fared? Poring over school records, he noted a pattern of significantly higher scores on tests of academic achievement and cognitive ability, including IQ tests, up to four years after the program's end.

“Cognitive skills are only part of what it means to be intelligent in the world. Students must also believe they have the right and the obligation to understand things and to make them work better.”

Those results eased, but did not erase, Stevens's doubts. "Was it the cognitive training itself that made the difference, or was it the culture created in the classroom?" he wondered. Some psychologists, including Lauren Resnick, M.A.T.'58, Ed.D.'62, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, believe that students gain intelligence through socialization. "To teach people to be smart—and I think all the research points to the possibility of that—you can't just train cognitive skills," Resnick says. "Cognitive skills are only part of what it means to be intelligent in the world. Students must also believe they have the right and the obligation to understand things and to make them work better. They need a toolkit of social skills, like knowing how to ask for help and when to ask questions. And they've got to develop the habit of behaving intelligently all the time." Interventions like CASE, Resnick argues, succeed because they create environments that foster such habits and that "treat kids as smart every day."

But such environments are notoriously difficult to build and sustain. Even though the state of Pennsylvania designated Thinking Goes to School a model program, the curriculum never caught on outside the one district. Indeed, with the notable exception of CASE, which is now widely taught in Europe, most of the effective interventions had been phased out. "It became clear to me how daunting it is to change the culture of a school," Stevens says. "With software, you wouldn't have to." Whether such software could succeed independent of classroom culture was one of the many questions Stevens hoped to test, if only he could find a backer who understood the importance of research.

In early 1999, while still working on his doctorate, Stevens introduced himself to Jon Bower, president of Lexia Learning Systems. "I gave him the two-minute pitch I had given so many times that even I wasn't interested in it," Stevens remembers. "To my surprise, he kept saying, 'Sure. Of course. That's right.' It was mind-boggling. Here was a software company interested in results, interested in doing research, just 20 minutes from my house, and they wanted to take on my project." Bower also knew of a likely funding source: the Advanced Technology Program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a program set up to underwrite high-risk, high-payoff research.

By March 2001, Stevens had in hand a grant for $2 million, the promise of $800,000 more from Lexia, a team of experienced educational-software developers, and a plan for creating a radically new cognitive intervention. Now all he and his colleagues had to do was build it.

A Visual-Spatial Gym
On a rainy July morning two years later, a wiry nine-year-old girl in a red fleece pullover sits at a computer—no, bounces, on a big plastic exercise ball—in a testing lab overlooking Lexia's tree-lined parking lot in Lincoln. Chewing on her tongue as she grips a video game controller, the girl clicks psychedelic colors onto spheres that hover against an aqueous background. Of all the visual-spatial games in a prototype software package called Lexia VS, Waterworld is the girl's favorite. Why? "Dunno. Just is." What level is she on? "Nineteen." Which is more fun, Waterworld or Super Mario Brothers? "Waterworld," she replies and goes back to her bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.

The girl in red is one of 23 elementary students who have given up a good part of their summer to test Stevens's theory that playing mind games on a computer will help them think more abstractly, solve problems more effectively, and, perhaps, breeze through school. Under the ethical guidelines of Lexia's clinical research, Stevens can promise nothing. The parents have agreed to let their children participate because all the children have learning difficulties—ADD, Asperger's, bipolar disorder, nonverbal learning disability, and vague diagnosis of dyslexia—and nothing else has worked. "Even though our software is designed to help almost anybody," says Stevens, "it's going to make the most sense to teachers and parents of kids with special needs." That's why Lexia devoted its first two clinical studies—one in the summer of 2002 and one this past summer—to those who struggle hardest.

Lexia VS, the software now undergoing tests, is what Stevens describes as a “visual-spatial gym.” Each of its five activities works a different combination of “muscles”: visualization, visual memory, mental rotations, visual tracking, spatial orientation, multiperspective coordination, and other skills—22 in all.

In this morning's session, eight children ranging in age from seven to fourteen have been taxing their brains for an hour without flagging. In fact, it must be the quietest video arcade on earth. Soon the children will break to toss a ball around in the drizzle. Afterward, they will return for another hour's work. After 30 such visits, each child will face a battery of cognitive tests. Their scores will be compared with those from tests they took before their summer "workout," as well as with scores from a control group—children who didn't go through the "treatment." Stevens will then have one more piece of evidence to bolster (or, possibly, confound) his hopes of transforming children's learning.

Lexia VS, the software now undergoing tests, is what Stevens describes as a "visual-spatial gym." Each of its five activities works a different combination of "muscles": visualization, visual memory, mental rotations, visual tracking, spatial orientation, multiperspective coordination, and other skills—22 in all. And like a good trainer, the software sets the bar according to the trainee's skill level. "When the child succeeds, it branches upward," Stevens explains. "When the child gets frustrated, it drops down or provides more help." One activity is based on the Chinese game of tangrams, where players assemble tiles to match a given geometric shape. As the shapes grow more complicated and have to be reconstructed from memory, the player soon feels the burn. That's true of the other games as well, whether one is following maps to navigate through city streets and office buildings or reassembling stacks of cubes from different perspectives. For adults seeking confirmation of their visual intelligence, VS can be quite humbling.

What do visual calisthenics have to do with school? A great deal, says Stevens. "Visual-spatial ability—how we understand and manipulate what we see—is fundamental to almost all school learning. In science, you can't understand how the solar system works, say, unless you can visualize the interrelationships among the planets. In math, you need to picture what a fraction means, or what it means to carry a remainder. To understand a book, you need to build a mental model of what you've read, and add to it as you go along." But, says Stevens, even though visual-spatial skills figure prominently in aptitude tests and are closely linked to success in many professions, schools neglect teaching them. That's one reason he developed Lexia VS first.

Not far behind VS on the testing curve is Lexia RE, a collection of games for developing "receptive and expressive communication"—skills that help people work together and understand one another's points of view. Modules for two other cognitive areas—logical reasoning and auditory imaging (the ability to process and analyze sounds)—will soon follow. Stevens and his team chose those particular areas because research has identified them as keys to academic success. The combination also makes sense for another reason, according to Michael Shayer, a professor of applied psychology at the University of London and the co-developer of the CASE program—the abilities don't overlap. "These are relatively independent aspects of processing, and should contribute different things to a subject's mental processing, so they are likely to produce a large effect on general intelligence," he says. Eventually, all five cognitive areas will be integrated into a single suite of brain-building software.

The Acid Test
Now, in the fall of 2003, Stevens is beginning to witness what he has sought all along: results. After having analyzed the data from the first summer's clinical trial, he can see that the children made strides in four out of seven visual-spatial tests. They fared the best on the Stanford-Binet Pattern Analysis—a test that involves duplicating stacks of different-sided blocks—skyrocketing from an age-equivalent of 9.8 years to 12.9 years. Scores also shot up on a different block-construction test, as well as on tests of paper folding and mental rotation. (On the other three tests, the children achieved high or perfect scores both before and after.) Early data from this summer shows another encouraging result: Nonverbal IQs rose from 96 to 103.

Parents have noticed changes too. "A better sense of direction." "A sudden interest in chess." "More patience with building sets." "A neater bedroom." "Much more into reading." "Dramatically increased reading fluency." To Stevens, comments like those mean at least as much as test scores, because they suggest that the children are using their new aptitudes in daily life. "That's the key to preserving the skills," he says. And if those skills can help children play chess or find their way around the neighborhood or read a book, might they also help children do better in school? "We won't know until it actually happens," Stevens says cautiously.

The acid test is in progress. Several Boston-area schools have installed Lexia VS in their computer labs and agreed to try it out on students for two-and-a-half hours a week throughout the school year. For the first time, the software's success will depend not on lofty measures of cognitive ability but on the nitty-gritty yardsticks of academic performance: grades, achievement tests, and teacher observations. Much is riding on the outcome. "If the software doesn't work, Lexia won't ship it," says Stevens. And if it does work? "Then Lexia will give us two more years to complete the project." That decision—thumbs up or thumbs down—will come in March 2004, when the federal grant runs out.

At the prospect of success, Stevens drops his guard. "We'd hope to gain momentum as schools begin to see the value of this approach," he says. "They'll see test scores improve, they'll see more children learning without struggling. The next step will be to train teachers in how to reinforce the software by applying some of these principles in their classrooms. The real goal here is to have thousands of schools using the software." As David Stevens looks ahead, you can almost see the doubt lifting from his face.

About the Article
A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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