Thoughts Outside the Assignment

May 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

PBS is awesome.  This is a truth I have known my entire life.  I grew up watching fabulous programming like Sesame Street, Electric Company, and 3-2-1 Contact.  Later, when I deigned to hang out with my parents, it was brilliant British comedies like Are You Being Served, Keeping Up Appearances, and Waiting for God.  And now I am a parent myself, and when my kids were little tykes, guess what they watched?  Yep.  PBS.  Sesame Street is still around, surround by more great content (except Caillou – Caillou is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me).  So the idea that Digital Media* New Learners of the 21st Century was amazing was not really a surprise.

The assignment here was to share my reaction to one of the programs highlighted in this video, and I will get to that eventually.  But what I really found more interesting and useful was the wonderful insight from experts that was interspersed in the vignettes. So much so that I was inclined to go view each of the in-depth interviews with those people to hear more of what they had to say.  And THAT is really where the awesome content in this video is.

The other day I was scanning Facebook and came across this:

tech bikes

It’s totally how it worked for me.  Yes, we had phones – landlines, mind you – but we didn’t really use them.  We went out and banged on doors to see if our friends were home.  Clearly I lived in a different world than today’s kids.

Today’s kids live under a cloud of questions.  But the big one seems to be, “What does it mean to be literate?”  There is the standard reading and writing literacy that I grew up with, and indeed, those are important skills each and every child needs – even in this connected world in which they live.  But there are now multiple types of literacy, and Nichole Pinkard, of the Digital Youth Network said it best when she intoned, “Literacy has always been defined by the technology available.”

According to John Seely Brown, co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, our kids live in a world of rapid change.  What they learn today may not be relevant in the very near future.  The concept of memorization is a 20th century skill, and we need 21st century tools to prepare our kids for the 21st (and beyond) century.  So how do we remedy this?  We need to meet young people where they are learning.  And where is that?  In the digital world.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that our school systems have some problems.  We are lagging behind other nations in results, our buildings need updated and our methodologies need modernizing.  There are other issues at work here too, though.

Dr. Brown talked about the how overlooked the importance and power of play is these days.  I have to agree with him.  While they have to learn their ABCs and 123s, at the end of they day, they are still kids, and they need to play.  It is their first form of learning, but it doesn’t have to end the minute we send them to school.  Brown offers that play is relatable to any subject.  It is a sense of feeling over knowing, using logic and it gives us a sense of how things work (or don’t) that we can attach to personal experience – in a sense, “tinkering brings thought and action together.”

Another of the experts offering sage insight during the video was James Gee, Professor, Arizona State University.  He posits that assessment and testing are what drive our schools today.  Gee feels that we teach the way we do because of the tests that we have.  This is kind of a Captain Obvious statement when I think about my own kids preparing for their SOLs right now.  The concern here is that we will be producing kids that are incapable of deeper thinking and problem solving unless we change the tests.  Because without change to the tests, we can’t change how we teach.  I was with him here because I hate standardized testing and the amount of importance we place on it.  But then he hit a homerun.  He gives an example of a teacher providing lessons in Algebra for 10 weeks, at the end of which there is a test to assess the learning.  Now let’s look at the kid who has played Halo for many, many hours and beaten the game.  Would you test that kid on Halo?  No, because the learning is implied by his success in the game.  He theorizes that we have more faith in the system of learning that the child playing Halo encountered than we do in the system the kid taking Algebra did.  Yes – a thousands times yes!  If ever there was an example of the proof being in the pudding…

So how do we improve learning?  How do we make it more appropriate and applicable to the world our kids live and learn in?  It’s a tall order.  Diana Rhoten, of the Institute of Play (also involved in the Quest to Learn program) thinks there are not enough positives examples of using digital media tools in the schools to get to the content that we so dearly want our kids to learn.  She also feels we need to apply more interest-driven learning, which is not a new concept, rather one improved/expanded upon by the sheer number of technological advances and new empirical evidence around learning.

Brown thinks fixing the systems will come from teaching our kids how to create context for themselves.  Allow them to build scaffolding ( a term that came up several times with many different speakers) and accelerate what they already know to increase their performance.  How empowering.  I mean really, we spend so much time telling kids we know they are capable of something, isn’t it time we let them learn that about themselves?

Everyone is interested in something.  Kids are naturally curious.  They are natural learners.  I cannot think of one encounter with a child where they just sat in a room and did nothing, cared about nothing.  So we need to hone that with making sure they have the tools, physical, traditionally emotional, and even slightly intangible, to allow them to succeed in that interest, in their learning, in life.

Today’s kids want to be heard and seen by a wider audience, one that stretches beyond their classroom.  They want their work to have meaning and be relevant, even if they don’t have the vocabulary to express this.  We need to empower them, give them ownership of their learning and their work for this to happen.  Assignments and projects have to be given in a broader context for these desires to be fulfilled.

The key to all of this is balance.  Balance between the peril of being always on and the need to creatively use these tools of everyday life.   Balance in the way that kids are connected – making sure the context, the environment are right – to make them unstoppable in the quest for accomplishment.  Balance in how they are learning.  Provide them with situated and embodied learning.   Ensure kids can be problem solvers with the information they already know.  Make sure they know the facts, yes, but more than that.  Make sure the know how to USE the facts.

Technology is everywhere.  Digital media is everywhere.  Digital literacy is a must.  This is the world our kids live in and our schools should reflect that.  (This is a paraphrase from Christopher Lehmann at the opening of the video.)  What do we want from our schools?  What should they be?  This needs to be a conversation that extends beyond the individual communities schools serve and takes place at the national level.   John Dewey said, “If we teach today’s kids the way we taught them yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow.”  Truth.

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