Sunday, January 1, 2012

Thoughts about how students learn in the 21st century

This is probably not news, and likely others have articulated it, but I think there is a key difference in the way that digital natives (thank you Marc Prensky for the lable!) learn in a classroom from the way that I was expected to learn in the classroom, and with the addition of technology, this difference becomes more distinct.

When I was a student, teachers presented material in a sequence. First A, then B, then C.  I was then asked to analyze why A came first, B second, and C third.  That was the depth of thought I was expected to master; rarely was I asked to synthesize a D that might happen next, but that would be the logical next step in the maturation of a thinker: to get to a hypothetical outcome and rationalize its existential prospects.  Learning was a sequential pattern of cause and effect paired with analytic and synthetic thought processes.  But school was about the teacher controlling the sequence and the time.  The teacher determined what was taught and when and in what order based on his or her logical understanding of the material.  Textbooks are organized the same way.  Regardless of the authors' intent to highlight thematic recurrance of historical events, or causality, textbooks fall back onto chronological progression.  Within the theme of, say, social justice in America, textbooks will always talk about Nat Turner before John Brown before carpetbaggers and sharecroppers before Jim Crow, before Plessey before Brown before MLK. I've not seen one mix this order up, which is too bad...

The difficulty faced by teachers confronted with digital natives is that little in their life is sequential.  The traditional classroom expectation is that students will be able to sit still and focus on one series of sequences delivered by the teacher in a class period. But they are wired to be what we older folks would call "distracted," but I'll call "tangential."  They have the ability to follow a tangential thought, then cycle around to their original topic.  So for instance, in my classroom of iPad equipped juniors, we can be discussing the role of the manor system in the early middle ages of European development. I actually do this through playing a game that simulates life on the manor and how it grows into a kingdom... In the course of that game, which allows for a sequential growth, students have free time while other teams take their turns. In those gaps, I've seen students go to Words With Friends, because the word "manor" might work. or "serf," or any of the other vocabulary words that come up in this game. They check Twitter, they look at facebook, and on either post their progress in the game, maybe talk a little trash, maybe ask some questions.  Then they look at their English class blog to see how the readings from Beowolf might connect to life at that time. They then return to the conversation, make their moves, discuss their outcomes, explain their reasoning, then the game moves along.  Playing the game and discussing the manor system causes them to make other connections to other parts of their life, "leaving" the classroom as they follow their tangents, and ideally bringing a deeper understanding of the material.

Now I'm not naive enough to actually think that this is going on for all my students all the time.  Some are not fully engaged with the game, or the concept of the manor system, and drop in and out. Some are tweeting in ways that have no relevance at all to the material.  Some are doing homework for another class.  But I am naive enough to think that this all evens out in the end.  Rather than think of this day in isolation, I think of the course as a whole.  I tell them at the beginning of the year that there is something for everyone in this class (AP World History) but that doesn't happen everyday.  So there will be days when I lose some students for a time, and days when I keep some students for a time, and I'm ok with that, because I know no successful adults who are perfectly engaged with every aspect of their lives every day.

But to return to my point, I'm having to shift my expectations for what is a "good" student.  In my experience as a student, teachers yelled at students who were doodling, who were "disengaged", having side conversations (even if they were about the material); silence and attentiveness were golden, even if the minds behind the attentive eyes were blank.  I have to acknowledge that students are capable of following a tangential thought and returning to the "main focus" of the class, and hopefully are gaining a more complete application of the material in the rest of their lives. So I adjust to understand that what they are doing isn't necessarily "off topic" behavior.  It isn't that they are being rude, or disrespectful. They aren't necessarily bored or "distracted" in the traditional sense.  They are seeking to make meaning of the material, connect it to the rest of their lives, and thus embed it.
So, I can adjust my teaching to incentivize this behavior. Offer extra points for using relevant vocabulary words in their online games, set up my tweet deck to register #manorgame tweets and credit students for doing this. I can follow their English teacher's blog or Twitter feed so I can pull in references to the novels they read and create an Edmodo or Facebook group to allow for a cross-discipline discussion that can't happen in the "real" world because of the limitations of our brick and mortar, 19th century schedule.

School for teachers is becoming Darwinian. Teachers have to adapt or die off.  Adaptation is hard for me and requires a new way of thinking about the use of my 45 minutes when we are together as a group.  But the choice is to do this and acknowledge the differences between the way I was trained to view school, or try to bend 25 individuals to my way, my older way, my linear way, my incompatible with the 21st century living way.

Seems like a no-brainer to me...


  1. Excellent post!! Yes, adaptation is the key word!! We are, in essence, life-long learners!! Thank you!!

  2. Mr. Whit! So glad to have found this; it is like I am back in Globes and I love it (though I still have trouble with Loose and Lose...).

    What a wonderful post, and I completely agree-- in a world where technology is so prevalent and readily available it is a no-brainer to use these technologies to your advantage in the classroom. Whether its facebook/ smartphones/ or technology in general, it is essential to remind people of the social nature of humans! It seems like your extra credit is encouraging a dialogue that, in essence, extends outside the classroom, and hopefully, comes back to the classroom as participation. If teachers can find a way for technology and the classroom to exist in harmony, I think they might be amazed by how students they encourage to engage not only in the material, but in the social world of the classroom.

    I remember a question you asked me once...what would I say to people who asked about what my high school was all about....and after graduating and being a "real person", I think I would say that it taught me to think (amazingly not everyone from HS comes out like this). What I really mean is that it engaged me and forced me to learn how to participate in a thoughtful, educated manor, something which I fear social media might be slowly removing from our society. Without teaching the productive side of social media, it seems socialization might not be for wild animals raised in captivity, but also for our youth!

    SO with that I say thank you. I think thats around 200 wds, an acceptable response length :-) Looking forward for more to come. ~MS