Kindlegarten? Not So Fast

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports the persistent power of paper books in shaping children's achievement -- even while controlling for parents' income and education -- across national and cultural boundaries. The Chronicle's conclusion:

Even a relatively small number of books can make a difference: A child whose family has 25 books will, on average, complete two more years of school than a child whose family is sadly book-less.

I wonder what e-book readers like the Kindle will mean to these statistics. On the plus side, a lot of e-books are free and those that aren't are often discounted, so a family with a Kindle might be able to afford more books (assuming they can pony up for the device). But the books aren't as easy to share and you probably don't want your 5-year-old dribbling juice onto your fancy expensive gadget.

Of course, these studies describe kids who grew up before electronic books or readers. It's possible future analysis will show they'll do even better. We don't know what it might mean to grow up in a screen-centered household. I wouldn't be surprised if today's parents (and teachers) sorted themselves into print advocates, screen enthusiasts, and mix-and-matchers. It will be a long-term experiment -- one that would not be approved by some human subjects ethics committee if academic researchers had proposed the idea. But remember the promise and reality of baby videos.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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