Monday, January 12, 2015

In memory of a hero, a visionary, and a leader: Our grandpa.

It is with immense sadness that I write this in the wake of the passing of my grandfather, Dr. James Theodore Johnson, Jr. at the age of 90. While I knew my grandfather as a man with a sweet tooth who loved golf and the Denver Broncos, he was many things before I entered his life. Of historical importance, he was the navigator on a B24 Liberator for the US Air Force during WWII and was on the 2nd plane to land in Japan after the signing of the Peace Treaty. Of local importance, he was also the superintendent of Bonita Unified School District in Southern California for 17 years. Between these two lines in his obituary, he earned a Ph.D. in Education from Columbia University. In fact, he helped conduct an innovative study in the Denver Public Schools on how to incorporate television into helping elementary school children learn in the classroom. This project was known as the Denver-Stanford Project. In an effort to pay my respects to him as a scientist and innovator in the 1960s, I will share with you the design and results of some of this research.

Something I learned from the beginning of the articles was that in 1963, when these papers were published, there was a great deal of controversy in the field of education about whether parents should help their children with their schoolwork. In fact, the consensus among leaders in education research insisted that parents helping their children with their schoolwork did more harm than good; given that parents are not trained in child development or how to explain new concepts clearly enough, parent help would lead to the child becoming more confused. 

From what I could find, he co-authored 4 papers on this project. Their primary research question was: 

Can television help parents help their children learn?

They chose to test this question in the Denver Public Schools in foreign language classes for 5th graders, specifically learning Spanish. They recruited 6,500 children with the help of the PTA, and assigned their classrooms to be in one of 4 conditions for one academic year: 

1) The parent help condition (experimental) where children saw the instructional videos in class, again at home, and then completed in-home activities with their parents. 
2) Instructional videos in school with 15 minutes of teacher instructed activities following
3) Instructional videos in school and once again in the evening
4) The control condition with Spanish instructional videos in school with no additional teacher or home

After accounting for each student’s grades for the previous academic year, current GPA, IQ, spelling and language ability scores on a standardized achievement test, they looked at which group showed better performance on listening comprehension and speaking in Spanish at the end of one semester and at the end of the year. 

Their findings were simple. The children who learned the most Spanish at the end of the 1st semester were those with only classroom instruction. Without question, the group with parent help demonstrated superior ability in Spanish in speaking and listening compared with all groups without parent help by the end of the academic year. In addition, parents reported an increased interest and agency in participating in their child’s schoolwork in all subjects which may have contributed to their child’s benefit. Important to keep in mind here though is that the study allowed for very clearly defined activities between the parent and the child to facilitate learning, which likely helped the parents immensely. 

We’ve come a long way since 1963, television instruction is used commonly in many subject areas. Certainly more people would agree that children benefit from their parents’ help with schoolwork, even if those benefits are outside of the actual homework content (e.g., time, attention, support, encouragement). That being said, I don’t remember receiving instructional videos in school or homework videos being sent home for that matter. Instead, television in my classrooms were used to show us documentaries about historical events on rainy days. It appears that as television has become ubiquitous in school, our use of this technology in an evidence-based, systematic manner has diminished. 

As is the case with all research, there are limitations to this finding. In particular, Dr. Hayman and my grandfather chose Spanish as the subject area because very few parents would have any prior training or knowledge of Spanish at the time, thus would be learning with their child rather than confounding their learning. Thus, parent help in other subjects where different families would have varying knowledge in the subject (e.g, math, literature) area may produce different results. Another hiccup that arose in the study was that after the first semester, they changed some of the conditions of the study so that the students in the control condition, no additional instruction were dividing among the other groups. This is common in studies conducted in actual schools, because all children in the public school are entitled to an equal education, and by the end of the 1st semester there was objective data suggesting that these children were falling behind. 

Another interesting detail of this study was that the classrooms were assigned to their conditions based upon their teacher’s Spanish speaking ability, or inability, as the case may be. Thus, students in classes with a teacher who speaks Spanish may have had an advantage in this domain from the outset, compared with children placed in the parent help condition because their teacher did not know Spanish. However, Spanish speaking teachers were less common in the 1960s, so there were not enough teachers with proficiency in Spanish, and in any case there were no differences in Spanish speaking or listening scores at the end of the semesters to suggest that having Spanish instruction by a Spanish speaking teacher was advantageous. 

We are all many things throughout our lives. Here’s to the brilliant minds who shaped how we teach our children, who then went on to be extraordinary grandparents. 

In loving memory of James Theodore Johnson, Jr. 

October 1, 1924 - January 7, 2015

For more on Dr. Johnson’s life, see his obituary: 

Hayman, J. L., & Johnson, J. T. (1963). Parents help educate their children through instructional television. The Journal of Experimental Educational, 175-180.

Additional Papers: 

Hayman, J. L., & Johnson, J. T. (1963). Exact vs. varied repetition in educational television. Educational Technology Research and Development,11(4), 96-103.

Barcus, D., Hayman, J. L., & Johnson, J. T. (1963). Programing instruction in elementary Spanish. Phi Delta Kappan, 269-272.

Andrade, M., Hayman, J. L., & Johnson, J. T. (1963). Measurement of listening comprehension in elementary-school Spanish instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 84-93.


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