January 18, 2007

Schools need to meet the needs of 'digital natives'

Article published Feb 19, 2006 in the South Bend Tribune. Once again, I did not write the following article, but it is applicable to my life (and probably yours.) I don't know if I am a digital native or a digital immigrant. I'm more native than many people I know, but I still think I emigrated from a different society. I love what technology can do, but when you have to call a high school student on a Sunday afternoon to ask him how Bluetooth on your Macintosh can communicate with Bluetooth on your Moto phone, you're immigrating, I think. I learned how to create a ringtone and send it to myself wirelessly. Those words are so modern. It's a modern world. That's what Mr. Craig is getting to in the following article. I like it. I think you will. If nothing else, it will make you think. I hope.

Schools need to meet the needs of the 'digital natives'


I have worked in education for 27 years, 12 as a teacher and the last 15 as an administrator.

Fifteen years ago, when I left the classroom, it was quite accurate to assume that while all of my students came from different socio-economic backgrounds, with different experiences, opinions and views of the world, they were a lot like me in terms of how they learned.

However, just very recently, we see in our classrooms a phenomenon that is quite unprecedented. Our kids, for the very first time, are not at all like their parents, or their teachers, in how they learn. The difference is technology, how it is used, thought about and how skills are acquired.

Mark Prensky, in the January issue of Educational Leadership, uses the term "digital natives" to refer to kids today. These students are fluent in the acquisition and use of the tools of technology. They have an intuitive understanding of the digital language that enables the use of digital tools as an extension of their brains. They are able to learn new technologies at a speed most adults cannot comprehend.No adult who has ever watched a child pick up a digital device and instantly operate it, without instruction, a manual or a class, can help but marvel at just how this is possible.

Why is it that for the first time in history, our children are so very different than us?

We adults are described as "digital immigrants." Just like someone who learns a foreign language later in life rather than growing up with it, we will never have the same intuitive understanding our children do. This has nothing to do with intelligence, and everything to do with how one learns.

We view each new device as a new challenge to be learned, often painfully. Digital natives do not. Rather, they see each new development as a continuously evolving and improving facet of their lives that is something to be used, not just figured out.

What does this have to do with school? Everything.Our students enter school buildings in Niles every day. These buildings -- the youngest being 40 years old -- were all designed in the same way, with classrooms meant to facilitate instruction the same way it was conducted 100 years ago.

Our schools are long hallways with a series of isolated boxes opening into the hallways. Each box was sized to accommodate exactly 30 student desks and a teacher desk. There is an electrical outlet in the front and one in the back. This was all you needed when effective instruction meant the teacher talked and the students listened.

Over time we have, of course, added things. Now, there is a phone, some computers, an overhead projector, some screens, some bookshelves, some tables for group work and lots of power strips, extension cords and other space eaters.

There's not much room left for students. The problem is that it has become a very ineffective learning environment, and becomes more so every year.

We are able to show modest increases in test scores because we have become much better at doing things the way they have been done for 100 years -- not at all because we are doing things differently. We are at the end of that improvement rope; its time to change.Step back for a second and think about our students' lives. They spend their day in school listening to lectures, answering questions, watching subject-matter movies, reading print on paper documents, handwriting their work with pencils and pens, lugging around textbooks and being told not to communicate with each other -- after all, in a standing-room-only classroom with 30 students and a teacher, that can be too disruptive!

Recognize the picture? It's exactly the same environment I went to school in 40 years ago.

Then the bell rings. When the day is over at 3 p.m., our students leave their "museum" life, and become instantly immersed in their digital lives. They communicate with cell phones and instant messaging, experience interactive media with DVDs and iPods and play video games.

Do you know what a blog, a wiki or a podcast is? Ask your kids. Their minds are operating at a speed and level in this technological world that is absolutely unlike anything we digital immigrants can comprehend.

Now comes the dark side. This dual existence is rapidly rendering education as we know it to be ineffective, or worse.All of us can remember falling asleep during a history lecture, doodling during algebra or hiding in French class to avoid being called on. School was, at times, boring.

Today, multiply this experience by a thousand. The fact is, more and more bright, otherwise motivated, talented kids are becoming disengaged by the old-fashioned school process. Their digital-native minds don't work the old way. They are bored out of their minds.

I have experienced this with my own children. My oldest is a freshman. She gets straight As, plays sports, joins clubs, is respectful to adults and loves her friends and most of her teachers. Any adult would say this is a kid who should be able to accomplish anything.

There is a problem. She hates school. Absolutely detests it. Dreads each day. Why? She is a true digital native and, as such, is bored to tears with the way that we are running school in our 40-plus-year-old buildings that were designed 100-plus years ago. Her mind doesn't work that way.

I can remember, years ago, hearing from my parents that TV "dulls the mind and turns your brain to Jell-O." To digital natives, school is in fact what is dulling the mind. Show me a workplace using the tools we have to use in school and I'll show you a place that is soon to be out of business.This isn't an instructional issue. It's not about "the basics." It's an engagement issue. We have to teach a different way to have kids become engaged in school. We have to have a different environment to do that.

The plans for the future of Niles Community Schools embraced by the citizen's committee and recommended by our board of education call for much larger classrooms, large- and small-group meeting and work station areas and security for our students. Fully $8 million of the $105 million is dedicated to technology tools, to make our buildings a 21st century workplace instead of a 19th century antiquity.

The costs of having schools that have been rendered irrelevant to the digital natives of today are too staggering to comprehend.

You may hear the sentiment "If it was good enough for me, it is good enough for them."

"They" are not "us" any longer. We can mourn for days gone by, but this will not change the reality of what is happening out there.Please join in making the future of our kids and community our top priority by creating a school system that is in touch, in tune and ready to engage today's students in effective education.

Vote "Yes" on Feb. 28.

Jim Craig is a Niles, Michigan, resident. He and his wife have four children who are all enrolled in Niles Community Schools.

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