Digital Natives, Or Digital Citizens?

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.

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.


What Do Teachers Do?

Last night over dinner, a retired educator — still very involved — suggested that the job of a teacher today was fundamentally different from what it was ten or so years ago. “Teachers are more like coaches now,” he said. I chimed in with the view that, in the best of circumstances, teachers were explorers, and I riffed about the changed world, the internet, and the importance of adults helping kids formulate questions, not regurgitate answers. (If you’ve read The Influence of Teachers, you know the drill).

Listening quietly to us two old guys were two relatively young history teachers from an independent school. At one point one of us (finally) asked what they thought. The younger of the two smiled politely and said, in effect, “Your theories are fine, but we teach Advanced Placement History, and there’s not much time for ‘coaching’ or ‘exploring.’

Later, as I was walking to the subway, I wondered what the right word would be to describe what teachers do. If they’re not ‘the sage on the stage’ or ‘the guide on the side’ and if they’re not ‘coaches’ or ‘explorers,’ then what exactly are they today?

If you could sum up this man's job in one word...

And, if it’s true that in the best of worlds, teachers would function as coaches and explorers (guiding learning while also learning themselves), what stands in the way?

I am familiar with the complaints from teachers that they have to be social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and more, and I have no doubt that is often true.

Crowded classrooms and other factors mean that teachers are often in the role of policemen, which is not what they signed up for.

New approaches to accountability also mean that teachers have to be ringmasters, whipping their unruly ‘animals’ so they will jump through the hoops of standardized tests — or the hoops of a curriculum that is handed down from on high (and designed to be ‘teacher-proof’). Someone up there still believes that knowledge is something to be poured into children’s heads, like that awful graphic in the infamous movie “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” I am reminded of John W. Gardner’s observation, “All too often, we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”

Today’s approaches to accountability may also be turning teachers into competitors, not teammates in a shared enterprise. If keeping my job depends on my students’ test scores, then why should I help my colleagues improve?

My own belief is that most teachers would happily be teaching children ‘to grow their own plants,’ but that’s not their decision. In my experience, many of their supervisors do not have much faith in their teachers. I think of the Director of Professional Development in the Washington, DC, schools who told me in 2007 that in her opinion 80% (not a misprint) of the teachers in DC had neither the skills nor the motivation to be successful.

The sentence that precedes Gardner’s pithy observation about flowers is descriptive. “Much education today is monumentally ineffective,” he wrote in 1963, and one can only wonder at what he would be saying now.

I am still searching for the one right word to describe teachers today. Reviewing the candidates: competitors, policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters.

I happen to be a fan of well-designed charter schools, of which there are a fair number. These schools are found in systems that have refused to hand out charters like Halloween candy but instead set a high bar for approval. We’re working on a documentary right now at Learning Matters about how charters helped transform New Orleans, in fact:

(We have a lot of lousy charter schools because of low standards — garbage in, garbage out. Too many charter authorizers have made it too easy to get a charter, with predictable consequences. Therefore, no one should judge a charter school without taking a hard look. It would be like evaluating a car based on its color, as Ted Kolderie has observed.)

The schools I am writing about here have strong leadership, a balanced curriculum that includes art and music, and (most often) a strong working relationship with families. Inside these schools you find students and teachers who want to be there.

In these schools, the principals protect their teachers, enable them to be coaches and explorers, and hold them accountable for results. Learning is a team sport in these special places, as it should be. The adults in these schools recognize that the (paradoxical) goal of this team sport is to produce strong individuals, because (again quoting John Gardner), “The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else.”

And we have to get over our ‘odd conviction’ that teachers are the problem in education. It’s not merely ‘odd;’ it’s downright destructive of a vital profession.

Given all that many teachers are called upon to do, perhaps the one best word is ‘juggler.’

On the other hand, if they are at various times policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters, then the one best word for ‘teacher’ has been staring me right in the face the entire time: teacher.