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Ed. Magazine

One on One with Jim Gray

Jim Gray

jim_gray.jpgJim Gray, Ed.M.'94, Ed.D.'99, remembers when he realized that learning and fun could coexist: He was a freshman at Michigan State University with no idea what he wanted to do with his life. During an overseas study program to Copenhagen to get a social science requirement "out of the way," he watched as an older teacher in overalls crouched on a playhouse roof with a hammer in her hand, enthusiastically building a learning structure while the preschoolers played around her. "That image of the teacher and her young students is still vivid in my mind," he says. "They were happily exploring, playing, and learning, and she seemed to be having as much fun as they were." Twenty-five years later, it is no surprise that Gray found his own way to combine education and fun: as director of learning at LeapFrog, the technology-based toy company based in Emeryville, Calif., just east of San Francisco (and home to another kid-centered company: Pixar Animation Studios).

You oversee LeapFrog's Learning Team. What does that involve?
At a strategic level, we advise the company on educational directions, like incorporating more conceptual understanding across the curriculum, 21st-century skills, or environmental science. We write curriculum guides for specific product lines and provide a learning roadmap for the company overall. On a daily basis, we approve the learning design of individual products under development.

Learning design means . . . ?
How well the educational content and goals align with the interaction design and likely learning outcomes.

Give me an example.
One area of research that I'm especially excited about is our new capacity to assess products with studies of actual logging data. Our new connected products like the Tag Reading System and Leapster2 handheld gaming platform log time spent on a book or game level, response patterns, etc., and present it to parents through a secure online website called the Learning Path. In aggregate form, these data can be used to improve product designs and understand how children learn with these kinds of technologies. There's even potential for university researchers to collaborate with us on these studies.

So after a child plays with one of these products, the parent connects the toy to a computer and gets a report explaining what skills were used and what supplemental questions the parent can ask? Why not just let the child play?
Kids like our products because they are fun, but parents also appreciate their educational qualities. We started developing the connected products I mentioned and created the Learning Path as a way for parents to gain insight into what their kids are learning, what they may be struggling with, and their interests. It also facilitates more learning by guiding kids to specific additional activities, online and offline. The Learning Path has only been available for less than a year, and it seems to be valuable for many families.

Do you ever get to work directly with children?
I was hired in early 2004 as research manager to run the lab and in-home studies. We have two onsite kid labs where we test products with approximately 50 children per week. I still spend some time in the lab but wish I could spend more.

Best part of your job?
Knowing my work has a direct, positive impact on the experiences of millions of kids.

You write on your blog that your first job was as a preschool teacher.
I worked as a preschool teacher for a total of five years, for three years while completing my bachelor's degree, then for a year with infants and toddlers at a hospital daycare center, and finally in a "reverse mainstream" early intervention classroom for children with developmental delays at the University of Kansas. That's where I first discovered innovative ways to use technologies with kids, including videotaping them on field trips as a prompt for language and literacy development. I've also taught middle school kids in summer programs and graduate students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Rochester Institute of Technology, plus various online courses. I'm an eternal teacher and student.

You're 6'6". Was that intimidating for your preschoolers?
Believe it or not, it rarely came up. I was pretty quick with a deep knee bend to get face-to-face with them and somehow fold myself into position on their little chairs. As I remember, when they did notice I was taller than other adults, I'd engage them in an estimation game called "can Jim touch the ceiling?"

Would you be as good in your job if you had not had that hands-on field experience?
Probably not, although I hire people with expertise I don't have, so I could manage. I'm actually very proud of the team. They all have at least 10 years of teaching experience, doctorates in education, and passion for their areas of expertise.

On your blog, in response to criticism of too much screen time for kids, you've said that instead of counting minutes, parents should instead take a more balanced approach. What would be appropriate for say, a three-year-old?
I suggest they look at what their child is actually doing in front of screens and take that into account. For a threeyear- old, I would look for physical, cognitive, and social activity. X number of minutes hopping and bending with friends in front of the TV with a Wii game or our new Zippity counts more positively than watching similar educational content from the couch alone. Even then, I would balance that experience with time outside or with blocks or dress-up clothes. I think of this variety as a "healthy toy box" approach to play, similar to a balanced diet of food.

At LeapFrog, do you use any of what you learned at the Ed School?
Absolutely, in terms of knowledge about research, child development, learning, and in other ways. This week I remember discussing primary and secondary emotions in relation to a Tag Junior book for toddlers. I refer often to concepts like "deep understanding" and "authentic assessment" that I learned while working at Project Zero and the ATLAS Communities project. Plus, my professional network certainly reaches back to Cambridge, and I use it when planning activities for my staff. For example, a couple of us attended a recent workshop on causal patterns by [Assistant Professor] Tina Grotzer, and I've had [Lecturer] David Rose and [MIT Professor] Mitchel Resnick as guest speakers.

Do you have children or are there neighborhood kids who benefit from your cool job?
We don't have kids yet, and our extended family is at a distance, but we do have several friends with LeapFrog-age kids, including our favorite five-year-old neighbor and her 18-month-old sister. They visit often for play dates with me and my wife, whom, by the way, I met at the Ed School in the computer lab.

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