Sunday, 25 January 2009

Digital Natives and the Greek Philosophers

In my first year of university I learned that our educational system is based on a system designed by Isocrates (no NOT Socrates, ISOCRATES). At the time Isocrates lived (436–338 BC; he was a contemporary of Plato and Socrates, see more at Cambridge Histories Online) there were two competing ideas about the purpose of education. Socrates and Plato believed that if you educated the people in a liberal arts education that focussed on learning, creativity, enlightenment, arts and fitness that a perfect citizenry would emerge and would thus raise the empire to the height of civilization. By contrast, Isocrates believed that you should first determine what the ideal citizen should be for the kind of civilization you want and then design an education system that fulfilled these requirements in its citizenry, thus producing perfect citizens and raising the empire to the height of civilization.

Why is this relevant to this week’s discussions on Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants? Great question. I promise to come back to that, for now I just want to you to mull the purpose of our current educational system over in your head. Which of these do you think is important?

This week’s readings were varied and interesting, ranging from a series of technology outcomes for both teachers and students (which I think is fantastic by the way, teachers should have standards they have to live up to, see Is It Ok To Be a Technologically Illiterate Teacher?) to one that discusses the importance of preparing new teachers for “Digital Age” learners (which again I think is fantastic because when I was in university there was ONE Tech in Ed course and I couldn’t take it because they only offered it at the same time as another of my required courses!) to some that discuss the ramifications of these “New Learners” or as Prensky (2001) calls them “Digital Natives.” There was a flurry of posts in our discussion about the need for balance and the idea that we should “unpack the good stuff [we] carried from [our] 20th century trunk” (Valenza, 2007).

When it comes to the argument of using “new and innovative” strategies with the “new learners” I have to ask what do we mean by “new” and “innovative” because Prensky spends much of his article criticizing teachers who, in his words “assume that learners are the same as they have always been, and that the same methods that worked for teachers when they were students will work for their students” (2001). This statement and many others he writes don’t give teachers much credit for their intellectual ability to first see that what they are doing may not be working and secondly for their ability to adapt based on those observations. This article was published in 2001 and was more than likely written even earlier, and to be honest, in the ever-changing fast-paced world we live in, I believe it is quite outdated in its criticisms. For example, he cites an example about the use of calculators and computers which hasn’t been an issue since before I was in university. Many teachers are much more adaptable and have been using great strategies that engage their students than Prensky’s article give credit for. I can only assume this is because in the intervening years we have adapted as a profession and we realize what’s best for our students.

I believe what’s best is engaging them using great strategies (like those listed in Manitoba’s Success for All Learners support document, it was written in 1996 though, so maybe it needs an update?) and either pairing those strategies with new technology tools or adapting them for use with new Web 2.0 tools. There is merit in strategies that teachers have used in the past and those same strategies can be built upon to enhance learning in the future. Technology also is not the end all and be all of getting our students engaged in their learning. Good educators know it is a combination of many strategies that works best to engage our students. It’s about “best practices,” “real world applications,” and “students centered/led inquiry” that show students that their education is in fact applicable to their current and future lives and its not just an outdated exercise in gathering and memorizing arbitrary information they can easily find in seconds using their iPhones. It’s about USING technology and web 2.0 tools to ENHANCE teaching and learning strategies that are based in sound experience and professional judgements and are effective in achieving the goals of our education system.

We spent all this time talking about the “new learners” and forgot to address the “new environment.” We live in a changing world and I’m not convinced we can assume our students are more prepared for it than we are. In “Who Are Today’s Learners?” Christine Greenhow suggests we should figure out where our students are before we make these assumptions, and I completely agree. However, I suggest we stop focussing so much on where they come from, (ex. stereotypes about middle school students being more tech-savvy that their teachers, which after a quick survey of my own 73 students I can tell you is not the case at all. The majority had never even heard of a wiki before I introduced it to them) and we start to acknowledge and agree on where they are going (i.e. what the future may hold for them) and what they need in order to get there. This change in perspective can be a powerful tool for use with reluctant-to-adapt teachers, because all teachers want what’s best for their students and want to play a part in helping them achieve success. At least I like to think so.

This perspective can also be a fantastic way to introduce the ISTE standards to a staff: as a conversation starter about the following questions “If these standards are what we value to teach, then where are our students going with it? What more do they need? How do we achieve these outcomes in the confines of our current system?”

Here’s where we wade into the muddy waters of philosophy and ask: what is the goal of our current education system then? Is it to create productive workers with applicable skills to the current and future workforce? Or is it to create enlightened, knowledge-savvy citizens who value creativity and education for the sake of learning? Well, I was delighted to read the standards set out by ISTE because they give rise to the idea that, in fact our goals encompass both statements (see ISTE’s NETS for Teachers number 1 “Facilitate and inspires student learning and creativity” and ISTE’s Nets for Students #1 “Creativity and Innovation” as examples of our educational system valuing creativity and innovation). These standards are not those of an outdated hierarchical government-run educational system, but the dawning of a new understanding that in order to perpetuate our civilization we must begin to value Socrates’ ideas about education, as well as prepare students for the workforce as Isocrates suggested (sorry, I’m a History major and tend to see changes in the world as far reaching and fundamental to our future!). This may be the first time in history when the two are not only desirable but are actually achievable by our current system. In the future, productive workers with applicable skills WILL BE those who are innovative, creative, knowledge-savvy, continue to learn and have the skills to do so. And I like to think they will also be enlightened about their own learning.

I also believe that teachers will adapt and learn and grow right along with these “New Learners”, these “Digital Natives”, and will always be striving to do what’s in the best interest of their students. And who knows maybe along the way they’ll obtain Dual Citizenship (Thanks Carol Nahachewsky and Leanna for the term) and by the time the next generation of teachers graduates this discussion will be as outdated as Prensky’s article!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

A Shining Ray of Hope

I have to admit I don’t even know where to begin for this week’s synthesis. There’s just *so much* to talk about (uhh? I mean blog about. Sorry I’m rusty!). Actually, I think I could blog about this week’s readings for months! This week’s themes included what a 21st century school library (and by extension school, teachers and curriculum) should look like. We also learned how our students have evolved as learners and the new literacies they need to know to be successful. We briefly discussed the many issues relating to this new 21st century mentality that we need to adopt. To be honest, it was a lot of information to read in a short amount of time! But I don’t feel overwhelmed, no exactly the opposite in fact. I want to meet with the “powers that be” in my division and show them all these articles and then challenge them to change their backwards ways! Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I feel confined: confined by slow to adopt upper administrators, confined by small bandwidth, confined by old outdated and biased (ageist?) attitudes by colleagues, confined by the hierarchical structure of my division’s separate library and technology departments and confined by arbitrary policies and filters. But these articles did provide me with a shining ray of hope.

The article Towards a Transformative Pedagogy for School Libraries 2.0 (Asselin & Doiron, 2008) described a situation that I’ve been thinking about for some time: the fact that my students are “different” and learn differently. What I had been doing in the classroom (actually what I had been *taught* to do in the classroom) just wasn’t giving them the skills I believed they would need in the great big world outside of school. It came as an epiphany one day as I was struggling to figure out how on earth I would fit the rest of the curriculum into the rest of the school year. I was actually counting days and eliminating “extraneous” outcomes to “get it all in” and in fact was not planning to cover anything in any great depth! It was then that I said to myself, does it really matter that my students learn *all* this stuff? What’s really important is the skills they need to find answers when they need them. Huh! That simple revelation caused me to change not only *how I teach*, but *how I assess* as well, and it eventually led me down the path to this course and my pursuit of the elusive teacher-librarian position.

I actually laughed out loud when the article referred to students using Google as their one-stop shop for searching and researching. I recently told my students that if their idea of researching is going to Google and choosing the site that pops up at the top of the search, then they don’t really know how to research and they need to learn some better strategies. *ALL* my students (even the high achievers) were confused by this statement, as it was the way they had been researching in school until this point in their lives! From that one paragraph I gleaned 10 separate items I could cover in a unit on research skills at the beginning of the year, not to mention some great questions to use in a lesson on evaluating websites. Shaping Global Criticality with School Libraries by Keith McPherson (2008) provided me with even more fantastic resources to add to my repertoire of digital literacy/media literacy lessons. This article also boosted that ray of hope I felt by arguing that the new learners and new literacies make for a generation who have the potential to transform the world in a social, economic and political way. Asselin and Doiron describe the new learners as “passionately tolerant” and “a force for social transformation” which adds credence to McPherson’s argument.

When one looks at the new literacies that Asselin and Doiron refer to and then at the section “How Do We Teach the New Learners??” again that ray of hope gets brighter, as I see my colleagues doing many of these things already. Now we just need to embrace the idea that the New Learner needs to be engaged in their learning through new strategies and technologies that they use on a regular basis. Towards School Library 2.0: An Introduction to Social Software for Teacher Librarians by Naslund and Giustini (2008) mentions that “compared to their technology infused lives at home . . . middle- and high-school students state that activities at school are ‘boring’ between 50-70% of the time.” Yet most teachers (and administrators and school boards) are still reluctant to integrate the use of Web 2.0 social software into their classrooms! This article basically reviewed what we learned in EDES 501 and so I will not dwell on it long, but I believe it is a great article for all teachers (not just teacher-librarians) to read because it provides a quick introduction to most of the Web 2.0 tools currently available. (Although the author does refer to blogging as a form of journaling which I strongly contest, as we learned last term from Will Richardson that journaling is only low level blogging and that blogging is so much more and involves connective writing . . . but I digress!)

Of all the readings, I enjoyed Joyce Valenza’s Manifesto for the 21st Century Librarian the most. I found it quite life affirming (ok maybe that’s over the top, but I really did find it affirming read on . . .). Like many of my classmates I used the manifesto as a checklist for myself to see if I was in fact a 21st century teacher-librarian. (Technically I fail in that regard as I’m just a lowly classroom teacher, but . . .) I decided to put check marks beside both the items I was doing already as a classroom teacher and the items I agreed with and therefore would like to think that if I was a teacher-librarian I would be doing. I’m proud to say that I put a check beside almost all of the items. I am not yet using RSS feeds with my students (I honestly don’t think they’re ready for that yet) or Skype to bring in experts (but now I’m thinking about it) or Social networking (or bookmarking, but I have ideas, so maybe next year). So all in all I feel that I AM a 21st century educator. (Whew! That’s good, wouldn’t want to be stuck in the 20th century!)

After reading all these articles (including some I didn’t actually reference here like Videogames in the Library? What is the World Coming to? By Kathy Sanford which gives me approximately 30 reasons to say “I told you those games were educational” to my mother, and Immersive Learning Environments in Parallel Universes: Learning in Second Life by Ken Haycock and Jeremy W. Kemp which reveals the interesting and innovative world of virtual reality educational environments. Here are some videos that also explore the idea of using Second Life as an educational tool just in case you're interested: Educational Uses of Second Life, Science Learning Opportunities in Second Life, and Education in Second Life: Explore the Possibilities) I had one question that was still nagging at me though: are students really as tech savvy as we think they are? After doing a survey of my 75 students, I learned that they are not. Many of them had not heard of a wiki and most of them had never blogged before. None of them knew what Web 2.0 meant. They are, however, heavily invested in Facebook, file sharing, and online gaming. McPherson mentions this “stereotype” of students “being more “tech savvy” than most educators and parents” (2008) in his article while referring to a survey conducted by Media Awareness Network in which “70% of the students surveyed still desired assistance from others in determining the authenticity of online information” (2008). I think this gives us all the more reason to become better 21st century educators. Students are either using these technologies already or will be using them soon, and I for one would rather them learn good strategies and approaches to problem solving in a safe and nurturing environment (i.e. at school) than have them learn on their own, but not fully understand what it is they are doing and thus leaving themselves open to victimization or misuse and abuse of a technology.

Our students are changing (or already have changed?) whether we like it or not. They are becoming disengaged in a time when learning is the “it” thing to do in our knowledge-based society. The only way to re-engage them is to embrace the 21st century and move forward. Soon the students and their parents will start demanding that we accommodate their new learning modalities, and where will we be left if we don’t already have a strategy as to how we’re going to do that? By the roadside of the 20th, 19th and 18th centuries, trying to convince ourselves that we are the professionals and we know what’s best. That’s only true if we continue to learn and grow as educators, and if we shake off the inhibitions and bureaucracy that has been confining us and follow that ray of hope.

Christine :)