Wired Up: Tuned out
Today's digital-media natives need a school environment that both challenges and channels their tech-savvy brains.
Jacob is your average American 11-year-old. He has a television and a Nintendo DS in his bedroom; his family also has two computers, a wireless Internet connection, and a PlayStation 3. His parents rely on e-mail, instant messaging, and Skype for daily communication, and they're avid users of Tivo and Netflix. Jacob has asked for a Wii for his upcoming birthday. His selling point? "Mom and Dad, we can use the Wii Fit and race Mario Karts together!"
Most likely, your schools feature classrooms full of students like Jacob. Peggy Sheehy knows what that's like from firsthand experience. "Outside of school, our children are bombarded with digital input-and they have been since the day they were born," she says.
An instructional technology facilitator at Suffern (NY) Middle School, Sheehy knows how technology has fundamentally changed the world our students live in-and perhaps our students themselves. "Compared to us, I believe their brains have developed differently," says Sheehy. "If we teach them the way we were taught, we're not serving them well."
New research backs up Sheehy's hunch. Children's brains do behave differently from adults, according to brain scans taken by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. In these images, involving more than 200 subjects ages 7 to 31, children were much more likely to have connections between brain regions close together while older subjects were more likely to feature links between parts of the brain that are physically farther apart.
So the challenge for administrators and their teams can be simply stated: How can schools change to teach 21st-century skills to a generation of digital-media natives? What does it mean for teaching methods and curricula-let alone how schools are set up for these modern students?
Wired Kids in a Wireless World
There's no question students today live in a different world than most of us grew up in. Stats put their media activity (surfing online, playing video games, text messaging their friends, and, yes, even reading) at 6.5 hours a day. And that's outside of the time they spend in school each day. More than a quarter of that time, kids are "media multi-tasking." Imagine a 13-year-old doing Internet research for a history paper, instant messaging a friend, and listening to music all at the same time, and you'll get the picture.
Recent reports from the Pew Internet and American Life Project show that 93 percent of youth ages 12 to 17 go online. Of those kids, 55 percent use social-networking sites (like Facebook and MySpace), and 64 percent are creating their own original content (such as blogs and wikis). Unlike watching television, using the Internet allows young people to take an active role; this move from consumption to participation affects the way they construct knowledge, develop their identity, and communicate with others. "Technology, from my perspective, has created an opportunity for students to use new digital-media resources to express themselves in ways that earlier generations could never have imagined," says Julie Coiro, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Rhode Island.
It has also led them to pay selective attention more than previous generations, says Vicki Davis, the computer science chair at Westwood School in Camilla, Georgia. Students today "more quickly tune out a teacher or someone who doesn't relate," she adds.
As long as school's primary goal is to teach students' basic skills-and assess them through standardized tests-skill-and-drill exercises are sufficient. "But that approach doesn't take advantage of the available technology or prepare our students for the world they're going to face," says David Williamson Shaffer, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin and author of How Computer Games Help Children Learn. Technology isn't useful just because you can accomplish the same tasks that you could without it, he adds. "Computers give you different ways to solve problems, the opportunity to run and test simulations, and a way to offload processing. . . . We need kids to think about problems in innovative and creative ways. We need to change the emphasis of education to focus on higher-order kinds of thinking."
A Major Shift
Learners today are becoming transformed by these skills. "It's a shift from how to memorize and retrieve data in one's mind to how to search for and evaluate information out in the world," says Barry Joseph, director of the online leadership program at Global Kids, a nonprofit organization in New York City. "At the core, this means that to be a good student, one needsto be less a rote learner and more a critical thinker."
But it's a long climb from making this realization to creating a curriculum that builds critical thinking in your schools. While the prices of today's tools keep falling-putting 21st-century classrooms stocked with projectors, interactive whiteboards, and plenty of computing power within reach-changing the culture of your school may be much more difficult than simply writing a check.
Davis says today's teachers are seeking information when they need it instead of waiting for more formal professional development workshops. "People who take 10 hours to learn about wikis don't use them. It's more of a pull method of PD than the old push model," she says. In 2005, Davis vowed to spend 15 minutes a couple of times a week learning new skills. Since then she has added blogs, wikis, and nings to her classroom, garnering notice in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and even the third version of Thomas L. Friedman's World Is Flat book.
Allison Needham, a fifth-grade teacher in Virginia, says it often comes down to time and resources. "Teacher resistance can be an issue, but it's not necessarily because teachers are afraid of technology. Demands are constantly put upon teachers, draining time and energy that they'd rather spend on actual instruction," she explains. Last year, Needham was awarded the National Science Teacher Association's Vernier Award. While she's received national recognition for her innovative uses of technology, she also feels overwhelmed at times by all of the options available. "I've put off learning about some things that I'm very interested in because I simply don't have the time to learn about them well enough to use them in the classroom," Needham says.
Creating Lasting Changes
This is something Jim Gates hears a lot. As a coach for Pennsylvania's Classrooms for the Future project, he works to make technology available to students and teachers. He's also got a blog of his own called TipLine. "There's a growing disconnect between how kids embrace technology and where teachers' skill levels are," he says.
Rhode Island's Coiro, also the coeditor of the Handbook of Research in New Literacies, identifies three main barriers to integrating digital media more fully into schools: a lack of quality professional development for teachers; a paucity of time for teachers to explore, apply, and reflect with colleagues on the challenges of integrating any type of technology into classrooms; and limited administrative support about how to use technology effectively to empower learners.
Westwood's Davis says when she looks to incorporate new technologies in her classes, she tells her administrators not only what the technology does, but also what will likely happen and what can go wrong. "Administrators don't like surprises or to look dumb," she says. "The problem is administrators want a zero-risk scenario for online activities, but they don't have that in their hallways." Schools need to leverage today's tech tools, especially cell phones, for their benefits, instead of constantly trying to limit or prohibit their uses, she adds. Her students can look up words online in 10 seconds, for example, and have a calendar and to-do list right in their hands instead of their backpacks.
Suffern's Sheehy knows that just starting an interactive project can help open doors for students. She works with many special-education teachers who love using Second Life. "In a virtual world, the playing field is truly leveled," she explains. "Even if we're duplicating a real-life scenario in a virtual environment, the fact that students are engaged with technology and performing through a semblance of anonymity lends itself to a deeper level of discourse." Sheehy's school district now has ownership of six islands on the teen grid of Second Life, and she blogs about the experience on her blog. Under Sheehy's guidance, 1,200 students and 40 teachers have been trained to use Second Life.
Many experts agree digital media is valuable to schools because it engenders new ways of learning, thinking, and communicating. For teachers, these changes have significant implications for how they teach-not just who they teach. "We need to look for examples of how our students are using technology, how they're doing innovative work, and how they're engaging with the world around them. We need to use technology in compelling and progressive ways," says Wisconsin's Shaffer. "If we fail to do so, our kids are going to look at what they're learning in schools and see that it is irrelevant to the future they see before them."