Teaching digital natives – how?

Two questions that should be fundamental to an educator in 2013 are:

  • What is the purpose of the education we offer in school?
  • How do you teach digital natives in a digital age with non-digital native teachers?

Yet they are questions educators actually spend little time contemplating. Too often we are focussed on the day to day requirements, or on simply using this or that software/hardware and getting something new that looks good. Two recent, excellent blog posts have got me thinking again about the nature and purpose of the (digital) education we do and should offer.

The first is “Students deserve a better vision for education” by Tricia Kelleher, Principal at the Stephen Perse Foundation.

Tricia highlights how the day to day needs of education are often overlooking the essence of education and that the needs of today’s students are not the same as they were 25 years ago. One of the catalysts of change, and difference from years ago, is the nature and use of technology, especially amongst students. Are we preparing them for the future they will have, or the past that we have come from. As she points out in her conclusion “The challenge for today’s educators is to lift their focus from the inevitable granular character of our national obsession with measurement, to the future which is broad brushed and uncertain”.

There is a link to The Stephen Perse Foundation vision for education. It can be seen in full (in their animation) “Taking learning out of the box we call school“. It’ s an example of what all schools should be aiming for.

The Stephen Perse Sixth-Form College is ranked joint first worldwide for its IB performance this year. The college also tops the new Parent Power rankings for fee-paying IB schools published today.” Source: “The brainy belle’s of St. Trinian’s“, Sunday Times, 17 Nov 2013.

The second is “Leadership in the Digital Age” by Eric Sheninger, who posted it on the Connected Principals blogsite.

Eric discusses digital leadership and what should be expected by students today, and how we can achieve this. He notes that the nature of leadership has not changed over time, but the focus of this leadership for learning has. Within schools now there needs to be a clear focus on technology in order to benefit the students of today. As he points out “Digital leaders must give up control and trust students and teachers to use real-world tools to unleash creativity and a passion for learning“.

Eric’s book, which develops his ideas,  “Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times” is available to pre-order now (due out Spring 2014).

The first article, whilst pertaining to education as a whole, has a relevance to the second in that the prevalence of digital tools to aid the teacher (or even replace them, e.g. MOOC‘s) means that in order to address what the purpose of education is must be dominated by the role that digital technologies take in the ways that we want students to learn today, in preparedness for tomorrow.

I do agree though that, unfortunately, we are still obsessed with the culture of exams, whether they be A-Levels/IB Diploma or I/GCSEs or even SATs/Checkpoint. It’s been many years since taught the non-examinable IB MYP (so things might have changed) but I always felt they had the philosophical nature of education right, but the practical reality was way too hit and miss in schools and could lead to the foolish man building upon sand syndrome, as I witnessed. The examination system does bring a concrete base to teaching, but given how political this base is one needs to look at who and why has any subject’s topics been developed (recent discussions about Gove’s plans in the UK will not be discussed here!).

By having a core system can bring in other issues. Give staff a textbook and you make their lives easy. They can work out what page they should be on by what time of year, and if it’s an exam board endorsed book they can turn around and say this is what I should teach so I am, and if it doesn’t have any suggestions for using digital technologies (either than perhaps the occasional use of office software or research links on the internet) then it’s not necessary; the needs of the course (teacher) supersedes the needs of the students. My colleague and I took a different approach to our updated KS3 ICT programme. There is no textbook (they are always out of date, even when published, we decided), and our emphasis is on developing thinking though enjoyable activities in lessons, not teaching facts, facts, facts and them testing them. Therefore there is a question at the beginning of each of our units, and then we use multiple types of software to try and have students understand and have an answer by the end of the unit (my Year 8 class showed on their blog what they did for the first unit). To see if we were on the right lines we had the Schemes of Work peer reviewed by other teachers/consultants in several countries who are in this area of education, and took their comments on board. If teachers are not discussing and working with others in their own subject/field, and have not created a Personal Learning Network (PLN), then are they really working for the benefit of their students or giving themselves an easy life? Do I think we have got it right?  Well even if we did so what, quiet a lot will change for next year as the hardware/software changes. I do feel we have moved forward this year, primarily because we have moved away from the teach, test, teach, test mentality to one that allows the students to learn in ways that benefit them (and have the flexibility to allow them to develop independently). We also aren’t worried about changing things, either small changes (see http://nhowie.co.uk/?p=360) or throwing out units if they don’t work.

Most of all however I feel there is still a gap, made so apparent by the natural disparity between the skills of the students (digital natives) of today and those of the teachers. Until our education systems focus on the needs of the students’ learning first and foremost and not on the key facts a teacher must impart then teachers who make this the focus and try new ways will be in the minority. Those who want to teach facts/methods from a textbook (whilst their students go home and use e-readers and then discuss topics online via tablets etc., with their peers via synchronous learning) will always be in the majority .

In an age though (not that it hasn’t always been so) of political interference and schools making educational decisions based primarily on economic reasons then the easy road will continue to work against students (change can be expensive). There must be a place in schools for the more traditional exams (though the implementation could be changed to suit digital natives) but in general their does need to be far more emphasis on developing the student’s ability to both critically use the digital technologies (and the data they can obtain through them) and also who and what they are in relation to the shrinking world they live in.

Part 2 – Digital leadership for digital natives’ learning

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