Digital Natives, Or Digital Citizens?

http://www.facebook.com/plugins/likebox.php?href=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Flearningmatters&width=292&colorscheme=light&show_faces=false&stream=false&header=true&height=62


I often hear adults describing today’s young people as ‘digital natives,’ usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: “They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help,” is the general message I hear.

My reaction is “Whoa there, Nellie,” because to me that kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults because the fast-changing world of modern technology is alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a ‘digital native’ is not the same as being a ‘digital citizen.’ Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s more true now because today’s technologies have unprecedented power to harm, as we have seen in documented cases of cyber-bullying and harassment.

I accept the general truth of what someone called the “Three C’s 1-9-90” rule of thumb, sad and depressing as it is. Only about ONE percent of young people are using today’s technologies to create; NINE percent are curating, collecting and critiquing, while NINETY percent are consuming.

If most youth — 90 percent — are texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, and linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty.

And we are.

I would bet that the education community’s use of technology follows a “Two C’s 10-90” rule: TEN percent to create, and NINETY percent to control. I mean ‘control’ broadly, everything from keeping the school’s master schedule, monitoring attendance and grades, tracking teacher performance, and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have.

Natives
Our children may be digital natives, but we still need to channel their efforts.

If an important purpose of school is to help ‘grow adults,’ then the creative use of technology — by adults and young people — must be ramped up dramatically. We need to find ways to move kids out of the 90% and into the 1%.

If, on the other hand, a central purpose of school is to produce willing consumers, well, we’re doing fine.

What about Sal Khan and his burgeoning Khan Academy? Doesn’t his approach blend technology and traditional learning in ways that are to be admired? Yes, of course. However, at least so far most of the energy has been devoted to helping kids master the required curriculum. I think that’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You went to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

(I speak about a lot of these themes at greater length in The Influence of Teachers.)

Here are a few ways to harness technology and foster creativity.

1. Every middle school science class could have its own hand-held air quality monitor (under $200). Students could take air quality measurements three times a day, chart the readings, share the information in real time with every other middle school science class in the city, region or state, and scour the data for consistencies and anomalies. That’s creating knowledge out of the flood of information, and it’s real work, not ‘homework.’

2. Students could use their smart phones’ cameras to map their own neighborhoods, documenting (for example) the number of trash cans on street corners. That information could be plotted and shared city-wide, and the data could be examined for patterns and anomalies. Are there more trash cans in wealthy areas? If so, ask the Mayor, the Department of Sanitation and the City Council for an explanation. Again, students will be turning information into knowledge. I wrote about this a while ago in more detail.

3. Why not measure water quality? A hand-held monitor/tester of Ph costs under $100, and the instrument that tests conductivity (ion levels, which relates to purity) is available for under $100. Turbidity — how cloudy the water is — is important to measure as well, and that can be done with an inexpensive instrument and a formula. Students could also measure the speed of the current and keep track of detritus. Then share all the data with other science classes around the city, region and state. Everyone could dig into the information looking for patterns. If one river’s water seems relatively pure until it passes point X, students could endeavor to find out why.

4. Teams of students with held-held Flip Cameras are invited to participate in our Shared Poetry Project and become producers for our YouTube channel.

If you click on the link above, I suggest you watch example #3, which was created by some middle school students in New Jersey.

Work like this is, well, real work. Students are creating knowledge; they are designing projects and seeing them through from beginning to end. These projects have to meet real-world standards because the results are in public view.

These young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from much of the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of too many of our schools.

And here are two final benefits: the time they spend doing projects like these (and there are many more good ideas out there) is time they cannot spend playing games or otherwise consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create and are enjoying the fruits of their labor, they will be, I believe, less likely to use technology’s power negatively. Strong in their own sense of self, they are less likely to feel the need to bully and cyber-bully others.

Technology is not value-free. We have choices to make, folks.

Advertisements

A Simple Innovation: Spend The Money Wisely

http://www.facebook.com/plugins/likebox.php?href=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Flearningmatters&width=292&colorscheme=light&show_faces=false&stream=false&header=true&height=62


Podcast Update: In this blog post, John writes about Placido Domingo and the Harmony Program, inspired by El Sistema in Venezuela. If interested in some of John’s interview with maestro Domingo, that’s been posted online as a podcast. Click here to listen.

The New York Times has made official what most of us have known for years: the children of the privileged do better in school than the children of the underprivileged. This matters because the rich-poor gap is growing wider, and so (therefore) is the educational outcomes gap, what everyone calls ‘the achievement gap.’

Is educational innovation the way to close the achievement gap? A lot of smart people are hoping it will solve the problem. In the past few months I’ve been around a lot of innovations. I have watched the Khan Academy (and Sal Khan himself) in action, dug into ‘blended learning,’ Rocketship and KIPP, and looked at some Early College High School programs. I’ve been reading about new iPad applications and commercial ventures like Learning.com, and teachers have been writing me about how they are using blogs to encourage kids to write, and Twitter for professional development. In many schools kids are working in team to build robots, while other schools are using Skype to connect with students across the state or nation. I’ve even watched two jazz groups — one in Rhode Island, the other in Connecticut — practice together on Skype!

‘Innovation’ per se is not sufficient, of course. We need innovations that level the playing field and give all kids — regardless of their parents’ income — the opportunity to excel.

This is the core of education, but we need to be thinking differently.

This matters more than ever. As recently as 50 or 60 years ago, most high school graduates could expect to earn a living doing physical labor, while the rest could look forward to doing mental labor (as an accountant, a bank teller, etc). Back then very small percentage of adults did ‘creative labor.’

Now think about tomorrow. Unless our economy collapses, very few youth now in school will earn a living doing physical labor. Some will do mental labor, but, if we prosper, it will be because the large majority of adults — not just those who grew up rich — are doing ‘creative labor.’ They have to learn to do this ‘work’ in school, which means that innovation must become the norm and not the ‘gee whiz’ phenomenon it now is. In short, we must close ‘the opportunity gap’ if we want better educational outcomes for more kids, and, by extension, a competitive economy down the road.

A barrier to innovation is the accounting/accountability mentality. Suzy Null, a reader of this blog, wrote in part last week:

I think teachers are becoming more like McDonald’s workers. They are given pre-cooked products and a specific “recipe” for preparing them. They are expected to follow these orders religiously in order to ensure that everyone gets the same “quality” experience. If they diverge even slightly, they are told that they are negligent and aren’t doing their jobs. What’s really sad is that the public is so used to mass-produced products and fast food, that they think that uniformity and mass production would be “good” for schools too.

What’s happening is not going unnoticed. The Baltimore Sun reported on February 6th that Maryland officials are “fretting over a perfect storm of education reforms that could make today’s extensive state testing regimen seem like a snap,” because next school year students will have to take FIVE — yes, five — state-mandated tests on top of the tests and quizzes teachers give and the tests administered by local school systems. And Maryland is not unique, because at least 23 states have agreed to ‘field test’ new assessments, part of the bargain they struck to get federal dollars. “We are going to have students sitting in testing situations for weeks on end” if all of them are given, interim state schools Superintendent Bernard Sadusky told the newspaper.

This is happening, it seems to me, because the adults in charge are obsessed with ‘the achievement gap’ and somehow believe that we can test our way out of the mess we are in. More testing is not ‘innovative,’ even if the tests themselves are full of bells and whistles.

That’s why no one should endorse ‘technology’ as the innovation that will be education’s salvation. What truly matters are the values that drive the uses of technology, that is, the values of those in charge.

Truly innovative programs engage the creativity of kids, expect them to work hard, know that they will fail but are ready to help when they do, require cooperation with others, involve the families, and — roll of drums please — spend real money giving poor kids the stuff that rich kids take for granted.

Spending money matters, because, as the Times pointed out, “One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.”

The program I have in mind does all of these: the Harmony Program provides free violins, trumpets, cellos, trombones and more to about 80 low-income 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders in two New York City elementary schools. Harmony also works with another dozen or so kids at a local Y and the Boys and Girls Harbor program.

Over the course of a year, children who participate receive hundreds of hours of group lessons, lessons that would otherwise cost their parents north of $7,000. The young musicians are expected to practice at least one hour a day and must keep their grades up if they want to stay in the program.

Demanding hard work of kids is innovative because our education system doesn’t come close to expecting enough from young people. Harmony demonstrates that kids don’t mind working hard when they understand and believe in the purpose.

Expecting the parents to be involved, as Harmony does, is another innovation in an education system that tends to push parents aside.

What I admire about Harmony is that it’s all about language — another innovation at a time when schools are all about ‘the basics’ of reading and math. The language happens to be music, which is, after all, the one universal language. And because music is all about mathematics, Harmony’s young musicians tend to do well in math.

World-renowned opera star Placido Domingo understands aspects of approaching innovation in education.

Most important of all, this particular innovation provides extra resources for low income kids — another innovation in a nation whose schools display ‘savage inequalities’ on a regular basis. This innovation closes the money gap.

If you ‘have to see it to believe it,’ well, soon you will, because producer Cat McGrath and I recently spent several days with the kids and the adults who work with them for another forthcoming report on PBS NewsHour. On Monday, I believe some audio of my interview with Placido Domingo will be released as a podcast on the Learning Matters site.

“Harmony” is new in this country, but it’s not really an innovation. Venezuela’s “El Sistema” has been providing instruments and lessons to the poor for more than 30 years and has helped hundreds of thousands of underprivileged kids — among its graduates is Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Perhaps one day some of the Harmony kids will be professional musicians. Perhaps not. But they are doing well in school; they seem to walk taller with the confidence of those who believe in themselves; and — as you will see on PBS and hear in podcast form next week — they get to perform in public, conducted by none other than Placido Domingo.

Can “Harmony” spread? The notion of trying to give poor kids the opportunities that rich kids get is sort of anti-American. After all, the French do it in their pre-schools, and everyone knows the French are anti-business. (Wasn’t it George W. Bush who pointed out that the French are so hostile to business that they don’t even have a word for ‘entrepreneur’?)

We can’t touch the rich-poor wealth gap without raising taxes on the rich and closing tax loopholes, but we don’t seem to have the stomach for that.

Do we have the political courage to spend a few thousand dollars a year — per child — on school programs for underprivileged children, and the wisdom to spend it in ways that develop their creativity and talent?

I hope so.