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!

1 comment:

Jes said...

What an interesting thread you have woven through your post about Socrates and Isocrates! I didn't know about Isocrates, and found it interesting to see how he viewed education.

I agree with you that Prensky's article is a little dated, which perhaps accounts for the somewhat negative tone towards teachers who are unprepared to change their entire teaching strategies repetoire just to accommodate the "digital natives." I think that even though he makes some interesting points, he does turn some educators off with his negative perspective on "digital immigrants" who refuse to change.

I am not sure about you, but I found it interesting that this was the first time that I had ever heard of or seen the ISTE NETS-T and NETS-S documents. I was thinking that these should be posted in every photocopy room, if not in every teacher's classroom. I also thought that the NETS-S could probably easily be posted in the library in order to encourage appropriate "digital citizenship" as well as "communication and collaboration" as outlined in the document.

I agree with you 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." I think that most of us are generally that way; otherwise, why would we have gone into teaching in the first place? I am glad to be one of the lucky ones to have attained dual citizenship!