Interview Questions and Answers
January, 2013 Davi Lira O Estado de S. Paulo, Brazil
These are questions that have been submitted to me by journalists from around the world in interviews. You can click on a question to see my answer.
How would you evaluate the current quality of education in the world?
Is this true only in public schools?
Is this global problem is even greater with the revolution in information technology?
Is it mainly based on the need to adapt to the technological environment of the 21st century?
How effective would the changes that you propose be?
What is the new learning method of Partnering?
How effective can this Partnering be?
You then propose a revolution in educational methods?
Is that where technology comes in?
Should we revamp the curriculum?
In Brazil there is a trend of curriculum reform, especially in high school, with the downsizing of disciplines and work proposals focused on interdisciplinarity. What do you think?
Do we have to change the role of the teacher in the classroom?
The problem is then more about the attitude of the teachers and not the students who are already born immersed in this new technological environment?
Does this mean that teachers need to “be more technological”?
Do teachers need even to be familiar with the technology?
In emerging markets like Brazil is this whole picture more complicated?
Is the school’s role vital in this quest for quality improvement in education?
How can we make school more attractive?
But everybody knows that it is essential to study and learn more about the skills of thinking, acting relating and accomplishing in different contexts. All kids know that’s important.
So you are in favor of having less content in our schools and focusing more on those skills?
But the skills must be the same for everyone, regardless of who they are.
Would be easy to employ this approach in schools?
Where are the students in this context?
Is the picture different in universities?
Why are these ideas not put into practice?
Is technology a way to inspire both teachers and students?
Starting in 2015, for the first time in Brazil, the Federal Government will buy, in addition to printed textbooks, corresponding digital books with multimedia contents. There will be 80 million books for high school students from public schools. How do you analyze this initiative?
Everything will depend on how those resources are used these extra digital books. The best schools and the best teachers I know do not use printed textbooks in any way. The logic of “read the text and answer the question” is antiquated, does not matter if the text is going to come in electronic form or on paper.. It remains an old method in modern dress. But there are, of course there are old skills that must be kept, like reading, for example, regardless of format.
What is your opinion on video games as teaching tools?
Games are very good for developing the skills that I mentioned. And I mean all types of games, not only teaching games. Some of these skills kids learn in games serve the curriculum, others not so much.
Would educational games be good allies in the educational process?
Do you support the idea of producing an “app” (application) in each class?
But even though they are easy to create, applications require costly infrastructure in the classroom, especially in emerging countries like Brazil, no?
What is lacking in education is not just money. Thinking is free. We need more of what I call “Imag-u-cation”—the use of imagination— in education. If people start thinking about how you can develop an educational game, they may not need to buy the technology. They can think about technology, designing games according to their specific educational goals. They can identify the possibilities of gaming, what they are capable of providing. If educators used their minds as much as their money, thingst would be much better.
When properly employed, could all this logic oriented technology eliminate the need for students attending classrooms?
Are you an enthusiast of classes and courses online? What is your opinion about the videos from Khan Academy, an initiative of the North American educator Salman Khan who became a fad on the internet?
If you only want to spread that old education, they are fine. But if you think that method is outdated and bad, then do it in a modern format does not add anything.
Too many people are still trying to fix, in different ways, the current education system that is outdated, such as by using online classes and putting these lessons into platforms like Khan Academy.
That’s not enough.
What about the online classes now available free on the net from major universities such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford?
What else should be the basis of quality educational programs in this new century?
To put it all into practice, and considering the continued existence of the school, is there an optimal number of students per classroom?
Some “enemies” — so-called “experts” who are contrary to your point of view — criticize your ideas. What is your assessment about these criticisms?
But there are a lot of misunderstandings about the ideas that I advocate. Those who criticize me often do not understand me. If they understood me, I believe they would agree my thinking.
July 2012 Maryine Baumard of le Monde
How important is the organization of schools and students into “classes” and the organization of school buildings into classrooms? Does it help or hurt our students’ education?
Our current organization of learning into “classes,” and of our schools into the physical structure that supports that organization (i.e. “classrooms”) has, I believe, an important unconscious effect on today’s students and educators: it implies that education, students, and learning can, and should, be put into “boxes” — literally and, more importantly, metaphorically. It is time now to renew these structures from a former age.
But as important as it is to update these physical and organizational structures, they are not the most crucial things to address for improving our young people’s education. Far more important is updating our curriculum – what we expect our students to learn, know, and be able to do as a result of their time spent in school. This will be very different in the future than it was in the past, and sadly, we are not very far along in this process of rethinking what we teach students for the very different era in which they will live. That is, In my view, where the bulk of our educational thought, energy, and money ought currently to be spent. This is true worldwide, as too many countries try to improve their educational systems by bringing them up to the best structures of the 19th or 20th centuries, when the possibilities for leapfrogging into the future are so great.
Educators also need to continue to rethink how we teach, both in the current classroom structure and in any new structures to come. Fortunately, this effort is further along in many places, with an ongoing switch from a pedagogy of lecturing and telling, to what I have called, in a general sense, “partnering” with our students.
Certainly our times of change do require that we create, in the long term, new types of organizational and physical structures for education, as well as new thinking, new actions, and new interactions for learning. In the short term, though, students working with a thoughtful, empathetic teacher doing future-oriented activities with modern tools in an outdated classroom is far better than students having an outdated, past-oriented teacher and education in any new physical environment.
Why, in your opinion, does the structure of classes block school evolution?
The underlying reason is that putting learning into “boxes” is not a good metaphor, or approach, for today’s evolving culture, society, and world. Organizing learning into classes (and classrooms) of 20-40 students has never, in fact, been an ideal solution for teaching or learning—it is, and always has been, an economic and financial solution. It is an outdated answer to the problem of our not being able to produce and afford a teacher or tutor for every student (or small group) which we know would be much better. This financially-mandated class organization is totally out of synch with the expansion and interconnection of knowledge and learning in the 21st century, when so many new options are available. So it is really important that we find better structures.
Certain activities, of course, do require bringing many people together in large groups— such as for sports or performances—and we need appropriate spaces for such activities. But for many—if not most— learning-oriented activities (and for many—perhaps most— subjects) people work and learn much more effectively in groups of one, two or several. By having constructed our school spaces in the past typically as inflexibly sized rooms for either groups of 20-40 (classrooms) or for groups of several hundred (auditoriums or lecture halls)—and by still generally constructing our new schools with fancier versions of the same size spaces—we restrict our own ability to easily organize learning differently. Worse, as budgets are cut we typically squeeze more and more kids into those same spaces, making them even less effective.
It would be far better to have schools with very flexible spaces, allowing and supporting more flexible organization and schedules. This would more easily allow teachers, using a new symbiosis of human and technology, to give all students the benefits of individualized, one-to-one learning experiences, small group learning activities, and larger group activities when truly appropriate. As contemporary conference spaces and convention halls demonstrate, this flexibility is not architecturally impossible—or even particularly difficult.
It is also long past the time for us to open up the classrooms we do have—and the learning activities within them—to the world. For the best, most appropriate learning, today’s students need to participate frequently as global citizens, interacting with people around the globe on a daily or sometimes even hourly basis. Although we cannot send all our kids out into the world—an important part of why we have schools is to keep our kids safe while their parents work—we can today do much of this necessary connecting to the world virtually, through technology. Doing this does not require, though, that our student be in traditional classes or classrooms.
Perhaps the worst feature of our current structure is that, in most places, our classrooms are totally shut off from outside communication—or from anyone not inside’s even observing what is going on. At the start of each class the teacher typically shuts the door to a private world. Whether this was ever the best approach for learning is questionable, but today, when an inexpensive computer can connect a classroom to anywhere, and an even cheaper videocam can allow anyone to observe what goes on in any classroom, it is, I believe, unacceptable.
Do you think the time of this way of organizing is over? In the short term?
Old habits die hard. I used to teach in a school with rows of desks screwed into the floor. When they switched to movable furniture, many classes still arranged the movable desks in the same rows— even though they had many new options. We see the same pattern happening with technology: Today’s laptop computers and tablets connect students in novel ways and can work from anywhere. But in today’s classrooms we often see them lined up on desks and all being used at the same time.
As long as the same classrooms are in place, and as long as we continue to build new schools in the same way, it can be difficult for some to conceive of teaching differently. But such rethinking is not impossible, and we should do it, even with our current physical structures.
It is also not impossible to change how we design and build schools. Many school architects—working with forward-thinking educators—are now designing and building far more flexible school spaces. Finding ways to do this aesthetically, and with high quality, but still cost-consciously and within our means, should be encouraged.
Still, as I noted, the fundamental problem is not architectural—it is our educational thinking. Much thought has been spent (in part because of our existing structures) on how to best teach and learn in class and classroom situations. Far less educational thought has been devoted to how students learn as individuals, and in other groups, and how to best facilitate this. Now is the time to change this.
We have long been stuck, In our public education, between the unsuitability of the classroom for individualization on the one hand, and the unaffordability of a tutor for each student on the other. But now technology—along with more creative thinking about education in general—offers us many more possibilities, possibilities which are much more beneficial to today’s and tomorrow’s students and learning. A big challenge we face is that these new possibilities require us to rethink most of the traditional organizational knowledge that we have and pass on to our school administrators and architects. But we must.
I find it regrettable that so many people and places choose to continue with a structure that we (and often they) know is not optimal for today’s students—one that in many cases doesn’t work at all—because they lack either the collective imagination to invent something better, or the collective will to put it in place. But the new generation requires these changes, and so they will eventually come.
Is there a new architecture coming?
The 21st century is a time of variability, uncertainty, chaos, ambiguity, and rapid, exponential change. What schools require, under these conditions, is maximum flexibility. Any experienced teacher knows that there are many different ways to organize students and group them together at different times, around different subjects, activities and skills for maximum learning effectiveness. And we must now add into the equation that this organization can also be done virtually, and can include people—teachers, learners, experts— outside the classroom and school building.
There is no single architecture or structure that will work universally for all learning. I would recommend we construct all our schools—or reconstruct them—as highly attractive “shells”, with enormous flexibility as to the space arrangements inside. We should teach all students, from the earliest grades, to quickly and efficiently alter and adapt their own learning spaces as needed for their current tasks.
Is this true for all the levels of teaching, from primary to university?
There may be differences in what structures work best for students of different ages (although this also depends on the curriculum and pedagogy we use). Younger students, for example, will surely benefit from learning to socialize in different ways in groups of many sizes. But as students grow up, the organizational habits that are set up and learned in the early years should not be allowed to just continue onward unthinkingly. Students who are old enough to learn independently hardly benefit from being herded into lecture halls. As more and more institutions are finding out, lectures can be watched—if still judged valuable—independently or in small groups via technology, before the students and teachers get together to interact.
Education will benefit from a much wider repertoire of possibilities for organization and learning structures, and from flexible physical structures in which to use them. Already, peer-to-peer learning, and independent learning, for example, are used much more effectively in some places than others. We must get away from just unthinkingly duplicating the same teaching and learning techniques we experienced as students in an age when they are no longer appropriate or effective.
Does this change the profession of teaching? How do you define the teaching profession for tomorrow?
The teaching profession is already in great flux in most places (and in places where it currently is not, it soon will be). This is because the job of the teacher, in the entire world, is shifting dramatically. The teacher’s role is moving from being the person with all the knowledge, the presenter, teller, explainer, and “ruler” of a classroom, to being the coach, guide and partner for students who are learning on their own, individually and in groups, aided increasingly by technology.
When we put teachers in charge of “classroom-sized” groups of students —again, typically for economic reasons more than for pedagogical ones—they need to be the flexible organizer of that group’s changing learning dynamics. Today’s students’ job is not just to listen, but to help each other find and use information, to use technology and other tools to create things that demonstrate their understanding and capabilities, and, increasingly, to do things that directly help their communities and the world. All students benefit, with a wise teacher’s guidance, from working in a wide variety of different kinds of structures.
Going forward, the teacher’s role is, in large part to help students organize themselves appropriately in a variety different structures (including, increasingly, virtual ones) to do the tasks described above, and to maximize their learning in the process. A teacher’s role is now not to “present content,” but to understand their students as people, to ask the right questions to inspire students’ curiosity, to help each student along an individual learning path based on that student’s own interests, to see that information found by students is correct and put into the proper context, and to ensure all students’ work, both individually and in groups, is done with quality and rigor.
Does the classroom have to die in order for true learning to be reborn in the 21st century (and beyond)?
Nothing ever completely dies—there are still people today making flint arrowheads. But the metaphor of death and resurrection is a powerful one, because it implies starting over in a new, better way. There will no doubt forever be classes and classrooms for some things, but my expectation is that they will become, rather than the norm for learning, an anachronistic and specialized niche.
There are so many new learning possibilities open to today’s young people, and such a great need for a better way to prepare them for the world in which they will live, that I truly hope our educators will find the courage to go beyond just “tinkering” with the educational structures of the past, and—working with professionals, students, architects, and others around the world— invent a better path for the education of the future.
Nicholas Carr argues that the “information overload” has turned us into shallow thinkers. You argue in the opposite direction. What are the evidences for you thesis? Can you give a few examples? How would you define “smart use of technology”? Do you believe that the brains of digital natives work differently? In what ways? Do you believe that, in order to take full advantage of the “smart use of technology”, we need to rethink formal education? Is that already happening, in your opinion? Can we anticipate some of the future developments of the internet for the next decades and how they will impact our lives (and our brains)?
In brief, I fundamentally disagree with Carr, but the answer is not as simple as citing one or two pieces of evidence. As I write: “I do not claim that what they [i.e. Carr and others] feel is entirely wrong, rather that it is myopic. I hope to bring thinking about technology back into a wider focus.” All Carr really has is a feeling of being uncomfortable, and that things are changing, which is no doubt true for him. It is Carr’s value judgment, however—his claim that that things are “shallower,” and that they are worse—that I question, and that I believe he really can’t support—certainly not with neuroscience. Neuroscience is far too early and uncertain for us to use as evidence for how, or how “deeply” people think.
My own argument is specifically NOT neuroscience based. It is, rather, that the wise combination (when it is wise) of what minds do best with what machines do best makes us all better people—and that includes thinking. “Today’s humans, when enabled by today’s latest technologies, can do more, think faster, plan better, analyze more deeply, solve more difficult problems, make better decisions, and even know their own bodies, far better than ever before” .
While making it very clear that I am talking about “brain gain” metaphorically and not in terms of neuroscience, I write that that:
“…whether you are personally for or against modern digital technology (or have, as most of us do, a view somewhere in between), today’s technology is changing your mind—and all of our minds—for the better. Modern technology is, in the terms of different writers, “extending our minds,” “cognitively enhancing” us, “amplifying” our consciousness, creating a “cognitive surplus,” offering us “mental prostheses,” “extending our thinking powers,” and “improving our thought processes and concentration.” As a result of technology, we are all becoming, at different speeds, better thinkers, and better, wiser people.
Why can I say this and claim it is true with such certainty? I can make this assertion with confidence because every human today who both has access to modern technology and is willing to use it can:
• sift through terabytes of information, quickly sorting the wanted from the unwanted, the good from the bad in ways they couldn’t do before
• accurately and rapidly find and compare old and new thoughts and ideas that they couldn’t find in the past
• discover links and influences that no one knew existed
• create much more than previously what is in their imaginations
• liberate far more of their creativity than people used to
• understand their own biases and overcome them better than before
• make more accurate predictions than ever
• perform much deeper, more accurate analyses, foreseeing unintended consequences of actions
• plan and prioritize better
• understand their body far more accurately and forestall or prevent disease
• make better medical decisions than they ever could
• remember much about our lives (including what we read) that we used to forget
• communicate their thoughts and emotions directly, even at long distances.
And that is just a sampling of what technology-enhanced humans can now do that people couldn’t do in the past.”
The book presents over 50 specific examples of this type of Brain Gain and, for each, asks whether or not it is “digitally wise”.
Which are the main differences between the way students and teachers use technology?
Teachers most often see technology as just a new way to do old things. Students also view it as an opportunity to do NEW things. A student put this best: “You [adults] see technology as a tool. We see it as a foundation—it underlies everything we do.”
Do you think teachers are comfortable using technology in the classroom? How can they feel more comfortable?
Is “comfort” the goal we want? Or is it doing what is needed? Adapting to a changing future requires some discomfort. Teachers SHOULD be a little uncomfortable in the modern classroom, in the same way that most of us are uncomfortable in the new technological context and world. But that should not stop us from living in our times, and not in the past, or from adapting the present world.
Do you believe the sooner a child starts using technology the smarter he/she could be?
It has nothing to do with being smarter. It has to do with adapting to the context of our times. There is a lot of good that comes from doing this, and we shouldn’t be afraid of giving our young people technology because there is a lot of bad that comes from NOT doing so. Although some may prefer children who are adapted to the past and not their own times, this is not good for the children.
Do you think students are smarter than their teachers when the subject is technology? How is it possible to change this?
Again, it has nothing to do with smart. Students often know more than their teachers about how some aspects of technology work and about our new technological context. Teachers clearly know more than students about other things. The only useful education will come from putting both kinds of knowledge together symbiotically to accomplish the goal of preparing our kids for their future lives.
Which are the main differences in digital natives head?
Although we know changes CAN happen because of brain plasticity, we DON’T really know HOW young peoples’ brains are physically different, or even if they are, whether this matters—we are still figuring this out. What we DO know is that they see their relationship to technology very differently than many adults do.
Can we say that child today think faster because of the technology?
Not necessarily. The Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between “fast thinking” (i.e. intuitive, emotionally-based) and “slow thinking” (analytical), both of which all people have. Expertise, he says, involves moving certain things from slow to fast because of experience, as young people have done in their games. We should find ways to do this in other areas as part of our education. Technology encourages faster thinking in at least two ways. One is through games, where players learn to make quick decisions on a continual basis, and, because they practice this a lot, they get better at it (having built expertise in this way, decision making transfers in some situations to the “faster” mode of thinking.). Another is that the addition of machine capabilities to the thought process may in some cases make it faster, such as in the case of using computers to do calculations.
How important are avatars, and virtual identity?
Having virtual identities can be useful for trying out various roles, roles that are different than the ones young people have in their non-virtual lives (such as when a man goes online as a woman and discovers people give you things!) We do not yet know whether or when an avatar is the best interface for interacting online, or in what situations this may be true.
Could you please suggest a strategy to the teachers to deal with this generation?
The strategy is clear, and agreed upon by most experts. It is to listen carefully to the to the students’ needs, preferences and passions, and to figure out ways to partner with them to combine their knowledge of the new context with the teacher’s knowledge of the material from the past. I call this Partnering, but there are many names for it. In this method, students should do what they do best, that is: Use technology, find content and create thing that demonstrate their understanding. Teachers do what they do best which is to ask good questions, to ensure quality and rigor and to put things into the proper context.
Could you please suggest a free program to help teachers dealing with digital natives?
The best and freest program is what I call “Imag-u-cation. It requires NO technology, but rather asking, every day, at the end of every class: “If we had had technology (e.g. computers, smart phones, etc.) what could we have done differently to enhance our understanding of today’s topic?” and collecting the best answers, (and eventually using them).
Which will be the future of technology in the classroom? What will be happening in 2 years? And in 10 years?
I expect that in 2 years many more teachers will have discovered, and moved toward, some form of partnering as a solution to better teaching. I expect that in 10 years the technology of those times will be just as necessary in classrooms as books, paper and pencils are today.
How can teachers and children be inspired through technology?
Just having technology, or just using it in trivial ways, will not inspire—for technology to inspire three conditions have to be met.
First, students (and teachers) must be regularly and positively reminded of all the good things technology can do and the ways it can enhance their learning and lives. A focus on technology’s dangers (much of our current educational approach) will just turn people off. Although there are some dangers that we should all be wary of, the dangers of technology are minor compared to the benefits, so it’s very much a question of emphasis, much as how we deal with electricity or fire.
Second, both students and teachers must be shown examples of powerful uses of technology for teaching and learning. Ideally, these should be collected in an easily searchable series of short videos (You Tubes) which we have yet to create.
Third, the technology should always be, for teachers and students, an opportunity to experiment and to do new things in new ways; it should not just be a tool to do old things in new ways. Teachers must be open to students’ bringing their excitement about how they use technology outside of education into the classroom, and to bending that excitement to educational purposes, rather than destroying it.
What will classrooms look like in the future?
Hopefully, classrooms, and we now think of them, will not exist. Herding groups of 20-40 kids into rooms to learn is just an outdated solution to the problem of our not being able to afford a teacher for every student. While there are certain things for which it makes sense to bring many kids together, such as sport or dramatics, for most things, kids learn much better in groups of one, two or a few. So what we need are schools with flexible spaces and schedules, along with a new symbiosis of human teachers and technology to give all students the benefits of an individualized, one-to-one teaching and learning experience.
We also need to open up learning—and the classrooms we have—to the world. To learn best, our kids need to interact with experts, and participate as global citizens, on a daily and even hourly basis. Since we cannot just send all our kids out into the world—an important function of school is to keep our kids safe while their parents work—we can do much of this necessary connecting with the real world virtually, through technology.
What is the ‘new teaching paradigm’?
The role of the teacher is changing from being the person with all the knowledge, the presenter, teller, explainer, and “ruler” of the classroom, to being the coach, guide and partner for students who are learning on their own. Students are very good— with a teacher’s guidance—at helping each other, finding information, using technology, and creating projects that demonstrate their understanding and abilities. The teacher’s role is to ask them the right “guiding” questions, to ensure all students’ work is done with quality and rigor, and to see that things are put into the proper context for students.
You have created over 50 software games for learning, can you tell us more about these new learning-experiences?
Good educational software games (and not all of them are good) provide motivation, knowledge and experience to students. They are thus an important tool for 21st century learning in many contexts.
Games can provide enjoyment and pleasure, intense and passionate involvement, structure, motivation doing, learning, flow, positive reinforcement, opportunities for creativity, and social engagement, all while teaching important things and lessons we want our kids to know. A good game can teach what to do, how to do it, why do it when to do it and even whether to do it (ethics and morals).
It is very important, therefore, that we create more of these good, effective games to use as learning tools (although they will certainly not do the complete job of education by themselves). A good selection of games in English can be found at www.spreegames.com
How do you define native and digital immigrants? When have you used those definitions for the first time?
Digital natives are those who grew up surrounded by digital technologies. For them the analog technologies of the 20th century: film cameras, corded telephones, commercial TV, disconnected information (i.e. books), intermittent connectivity, etc. are “old”., in the same way fancy penmanship and even typewriters were “old” to the generation before. Because they grew up with digital technology, and used it as playthings, the digital natives are not afraid of it, but rather see it as their friend and ally. The Digital Immigrants are those who came to digital technology (or rather it came to them) later in life, and had to change their ways. Many have had trouble letting go of the old ways, which are a form of “accent.” (I call this the “digital immigrant accent”—examples are printing out your emails, or not going to the Internet first for information.) The distinction is more cultural and attitudinal rather than based on any specific pieces of knowledge about individual technologies or technology use.
I first used the terms in a pair of articles published in 2001:
Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants — A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids
Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part II: Do They REALLY Think Differently? — Neuroscience Says Yes
Is it possible to a digital immigrant to teach a digital native? If so, how can that be?
It depends on what you mean by “teach”. If you mean “can older people work with younger people and guide them in their learning, asking the right questions and demanding quality output as the young people use the tools of their time”, the answer is “of course.” If you mean “will today’s young people sit still and listen while old people lecture to them about things that the old people think are important and the young people don’t”, the answer is, increasingly, “no way.”
So education, which is more and more crucial, needs to be less about “teaching” in the old sense of “telling”, and more about “partnering”, i.e. learning together, with each party—teachers and students—doing what they do best. Students are best at finding information, using technology and creating things that show their understanding. Teachers are best at asking the right questions, ensuring quality and rigor, and providing context.
Is the process of learning changing because of technology?
Learning is not changing, but the tools for helping people learn are changing. I like to distinguish between “verbs” and “nouns” in this area. The “verbs” of learning —communicating, thinking critically, presenting, persuading, etc. (there are dozens of others) stay the same over time, but the nouns we use to learn, practice and master those verbs now change rapidly. Presenting used to be done via reports. Today it is done via PowerPoint, tomorrow it will be something else. Communicating used to be done by letters and essays, today it is by email, texting and blogs, tomorrow it might be done by computer programs. Text may change to video, but the verb of getting your ideas and thoughts across stays the same. You can use a computer program to help you think more critically, but the underlying learning, or skill, remains the same.
How has the technolgy changed the relationships inside the classroom among students and teachers?
It has had different effects in different places. In some cases, it has made the relationships much stronger, that of mentor-mentee, coach-athlete, and partners. In some places it has connected isolated teachers and students for the first time. And in many other cases, it has led to fear, distrust, and what I call “mutual disrespect,” which are destructive to learning. For example a teacher might think that her students “have the attention span of an insect.” Her student might think “My teachers don’t understand technology, they are illiterate in that important area—Why should I learn from someone illiterate?” It is almost impossible for learning to take place under these conditions. What we need, rather, is mutual respect between teachers and students. I think the message should be “We are all teachers, we are all learners.”
Has the role of teachers changed in comparison with the nineties or the eighties?
Yes. The role of the teacher is changing (gradually) from that of the deliverer of content, the disciplinarian, and “ruler” of the classroom to that of a coach, guide and partner to the students. Many fewer of our teachers are at the extreme back end of the spectrum of that spectrum (although this distribution varies a lot by country). Most teachers are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum; few are true partners.
Are they still changing? Can you comment more on that?
Yes, and they must continue to evolve if they want to be modern professionals and help their 21st century students learn. Teachers are a tool for educating students, and, just as our other tools are changing, teachers need to change into a 21st century tool as well. They need to continue to move alone the spectrum towards coaching, guiding and partnering. They need to use pedagogies that enable this and technologies that support it. Some think that pedagogy will change automatically as younger, “digital native” teachers enter the profession. I actually don’t think that is the case—there are too many pressures, form the teaching schools to the establishment, pushing new teachers to adopt the old ways. I think we need to make a conscious effort to change: first how to change how we teach—our pedagogy— and then to change the technology that supports it, and finally to change what we teach—our curriculum—to bring it in line with the context and needs of the 21st century. I have written extensively on the first two—changing how we teach and using technology to support this, I am now turning towards helping change what we teach. What would we teach today’s students, for example, if they didn’t have to learn anything now in the curriculum, but did have to be well prepared for 21st century life and work?
In your article “Digital Natives”, you said the biggest problem of the education system was that digital immigrants (with an outdated language) tried to teach digital natives (who had a whole new language). This is still an ongoing problem in education?
It is still a huge problem, although the extent of the problem varies from place to place, and even classroom to classroom. What is important to realize, though, is that this is NOT just a problem of language—it is a problem of our changing culture, context, and world. While a limited number of schools and teachers have made progress, there are still far too many places and classes in the world where the teachers are still, mentally and pedagogically, from a former age. Imagine what education would be like if all our teachers came (say via time-travel) from the 19th century, and only spoke the language of those times! Think of how many concepts, and how much language to describe them, have been invented since then! Yet too many of our teachers still speak only the educational language of the 19th century. They lecture almost all the time, and have little appreciation for the benefits that 21st century technology—when used wisely—can bring to our students’ learning.
Our ongoing problem arises from the fact that that almost all today’s students see this, and they know that it is hurting them. They know that they should be learning, as part of an up-to-date education, to connect with, participate in, and even influence the world. They understand that today this is done mainly through technology—technology that they often already use, and, in many instances, already have in their pockets, but that they don’t use, and often are not allowed to use, in school. When students are denied, by the “old system,” a modern, 21st century education, there ¬is a big problem. Much of students’ current education is no different from other types of old-fashioned ideological and dogmatic schooling that many complain about in other parts of the world.
The problem typically manifests itself as a lack of interest on the part of students in the education they are being given. So educators often search for better ways to engage today’s students. But it is not just a matter of doing things differently “to” them. The causes of the problem go much deeper. We must figure out how to do education with our students, in the context of our modern world of variability, uncertainty, chaos, ambiguity and constant change.
What the profile of digital native students?
Wwhen I use the term “digital natives,” what I am talking about are people who are comfortable with—and fully accepting of—the idea of technology as an important piece of, and helper in, their lives. I do not mean that these students already know everything about their new, technological world; it is rather that they want to know and learn about it, because it is their world, the one they live in now and will certainly live in in the future. Technology cannot do everything, of course, but it is an indispensable tool for doing many modern things well. Our “digital native” students want their educators to be preparing them for their future world, not for the world of their parents or grandparents.
It is this attitude towards the changing future and technology—and not any specifics—that it is most important for educators, and all adults, to understand about our so-called digital natives. We older “digital immigrants,” having been brought up pre-digitally, have a foot in both worlds. But today’s kids don’t. They know, only the modern, digital world. Even if it hasn’t penetrated fully into every corner of every country and society, they all are aware of it. All of them desire to be part of the modern, 21st century world. And they expect their education to help make them successful in that world.
How teachers can act on this student? How to teach this audience?
The biggest needed element is for teachers to promote and achieve mutual respect in their classrooms. This means that all teachers must admit, and get comfortable with, the fact that they have much about the new world of technology to learn from the students, just as the students have much to learn from them, (i.e. the teachers) about things from the past. My suggested classroom motto for encouraging this is: “We are all learners. We are all teachers.” I recommend hanging a banner with these words on every classroom wall.
The second needed element, that flows from the first, is for all teachers to ask about, learn, and employ in their teaching the individual passion of each student, whatever that might be. In every class there are students who—as individuals—are passionate about sports, music, people, the environment and a great many other things—this is their deepest motivation to learn. To be effective, teachers of today’s students we need to understand these passions, and connect them to what they are teaching. To do so, teachers need to know this information. Yet typically they don’t, because they don’t ask. Not, most often because they don’t care, but because they feel they don’t have the time and this is not important to teaching their subject. But, for today’s students, this is not just important, it is critical. And it offers a huge opportunity: If tomorrow, every teacher in every classroom asked every student “What are you passionate about?” and wrote it down, and then, over the course of their teaching used that information, as appropriate, to help differentiate and personalize education for each student, our education would advance by a giant step, practically overnight.
The next thing teachers can do to teach more effectively is to learn to change their pedagogy—i.e. how they teach today’s students. Fewer and fewer of today’s students care about, will sit still for, and actually learn from in-class lectures. Even when they can learn from just listening—and today’s kids typically require doing as well—they know that the listening can be better done not in class, but on their own time, online, where they can repeat it as many times as they need it. (See www.khanacademy.org for examples of this in mathematics.) Class time should be used not for “telling” but for participation only, and that participation and decision making should not be voluntary (e.g. raising hands) but mandatory, with instant feedback—technology can help a lot here, but it is not absolutely necessary—it is the approach that makes the difference.. Today’s teachers need as well to enlist their students as peer-to-peer teachers, as students are often much better at explaining things to their classmates than are teachers (although this can be hard, at first, for many teachers to accept.)
What all our teachers need to move to is the “new” pedagogy of “partnering.” In this form of teaching and learning there is no lecturing in class. Students spend their time doing what they do best: Finding and evaluating information, using technology, and creating things that demonstrate their understanding. Teachers spend all their class time doing what they can do best: asking the right questions, putting things in context, and ensuring quality. Our teachers need to move from being providers of information to being coaches, guides and partners as our digital natives students learn to teach themselves using the new tools..
Students, as well as teachers, need to change their in-class behaviors. Today’s students need to learn to take more responsibility for their own learning, and for teaching themselves (with their teachers’ coaching and guidance.) They need to learn to set, within the context of the curriculum, their own goals, based on their own passions, strengths and weaknesses, and still achieve the educational ends we all desire.
Practice has shown that, for schools, it´s not enough to join the technological apparatus to achieve good educational results. What should then be the attitude of the schools in the face of technology? How should they join?
The role of technology in 21st century education, which is often misunderstood, is really very simple. The technology that we put into our schools needs to support the new “partnering” pedagogy where students teach themselves with their teachers’ guidance.
Technology is very good at supporting this type of pedagogy. But it is bad at supporting the old pedagogy of lecturing, except trivially by showing pictures and videos. Worse, if we stick with the old pedagogy, technology can even get in the way—and make our teaching less effective —by causing all the unnecessary distractions that many lecturing teachers experience. For this reason, schools should focus first, before introducing any new technology, on pedagogy—on how to partner with students, on how teachers can help students teach themselves, and on how the technology should be best used to support this. Once this is clear to all teachers, introducing the technology will be much easier and go much more smoothly. An added benefit will be that the technology introduced will be much more up-to-date, since we have not spent years after introducing it figuring out how best to put it to educational use. In a world where technology becomes obsolete with such speed, we, and especially our students, cannot afford this old way of doing it.
Another key element is for our teachers to realize that the technology, even when we put it in, is NOT for them to use—it is for the students to use. My “first rule” for teachers about technology is that teachers should never use any technology for their students. Teachers can demonstrate and model, if appropriate, but then they should get out of the students’ way. The kids want to use the technology and can learn easily, and teach each other how. Teachers should focus, rather, on what the technology is doing educationally, and not on how to do it. Teachers should keep the focus on what I call the “verbs” of education, rather than on the “nouns.”
Here is an example of what I mean by this: PowerPoint is a tool, or noun, for the verb “communicate.” Wikipedia is a tool, or noun for the verb “find information.” Teachers should be focusing not on the nouns, but on the verbs, asking themselves these two questions: “What are the verbs (i.e. the skills) that I want my students to learn, practice and master?” and “Are my students using the best, most appropriate, most up-to-date tools for learning, practicing and mastering each of those verbs?” In the past we often had only one tool, or noun, for many of the verbs—i.e. the book. Today, with the availability of new tools, this situation is changing rapidly. So today’s teachers must always focus on the skills or verbs, and not the tools, or nouns.
In an exercise in “futurology”, is it possible predict how will be the classroom?
In the longer term, any reasonable futurology predicts the “classroom” will no longer exist. “Herding” kids into small rooms in groups of 20-40 is absolutely not the best way for them to learn most things—especially the many of things they need to know for their future. We only created classrooms in the past because it was, at the time, an expedient and relatively inexpensive way to transfer information. But classrooms are already outdated as a teaching technology. (Yes, classrooms are a teaching technology, and an old one!) We have long known that for many things one-on-one tutoring works much better, as does learning from one’s peers with an expert’s guidance. In fact, what we know as “schools” (i.e. buildings and classrooms) exist, really, to keep our children safe while we, their parents, work. If keeping kids safe were not the key issue, we could—and would—educate our children much differently, and much better.
How would we do this? We would figuring out which things are best learned one-on-one, and create good human/machine tutoring systems to do this. We would figure out which things are best learned from experts, peers and/or in groups, and again create good human/technology combinations to do that. And we would figure out which things are learned best in larger social contexts (e.g. sports, drama, debating) and figure out how to do that. Without the “safety” constraint, much of the education of our children could be done—and done better—without schools or classrooms, although we might still want gymnasiums, sports fields, theaters, large meeting spaces, etc. for particular activities and types of learning.
In the shorter term, until we solve the “keeping our kids safe” problem, school buildings will still be with us. But I would suggest that we do not build any new schools with “fixed” walls and classrooms, but build all schools in a way that they can be quickly reconfigurable, in a similar way to modern hotel meeting spaces. Our administrators, teachers and students should become adept at quickly reconfiguring their school to meet space needs that are ever-changing throughout the school day.
Because technology no longer requires fixed “labs,” any fixed technology should be replaces as soon as possible with portable technology that fits into kids’ pockets (i.e. iTouches) so it can be used from anywhere in the building (or the world). Our kids should become adept at working in many types of virtual communities, from wherever they happen to be.
Finally, since today things change so fast, it is unlikely that either teachers or students of the future will want to be in, or will benefit educationally from being in, a school that is more than 10 years old. So rather than building school buildings to last 50 or 100 years, as we often did in the past, I recommend building schools that are nice looking, well-built, and safe, but have an expected useful life of only 5-10 years (with budget allocated so that they can be torn down and replaced as society, and education, evolve.)
The future is arriving fast, and we have to get ready to meet it.
In your book “Teaching Digital Natives”, you mention the partnership’s education. What is the meaning of this concept?
I discussed “partnering” in my answers to questions 3 and 4. My latest book, Teaching Digital Natives–Partnering for Real Learning is a manual and guide for teachers on how to do it.
I think just about everyone is familiar with your ubiquitous analogy “digital natives/digital immigrants.” What are the practical implications of this concept with respect to the corps of teachers and the populations of students they serve?
For me, the biggest implication of the “digital natives/digital immigrants” metaphor for teaching and learning is that we can often facilitate learning by dividing up the work so that each of those groups does what it is (or should be) best at, with each group learning from the other in the process. It generally helps, for example, if digital native students focus on using whatever technology is available (if they don’t know how they can learn easily from their peers), finding content, and creating output in multiple media. Digital immigrant teachers then can focus on what they can do uniquely well in the educational process, i.e., asking the right questions, assuring quality and rigor in the students’ work, and providing context.
An important corollary is that teachers should never use any technology—whether computers, electronic whiteboards, the Internet, blogs, or anything else—FOR the students. The reason is that the students are anxious to use the technology themselves, and that is what they should be learning to do. In fact, teachers don’t have to learn to create with any technology at all (unless they want to.) Teachers need know only what the different technologies are capable of in order to make suggestions and recommendations to the students. They then do their job best by staying out of the students’ way as the students use the technology to learn, while providing feedback and guidance to the students as to the quality and context of their work.
In an article for Edutopia you remarked, “It is a measure of the malaise of our educational system that these old folk — smart and experienced as they may be — think they can, by themselves and without the input of the people they’re trying to teach, design the future of education” (“The 21st century learner,” online at http://www.edutopia.org/ikid-digital-learner-technology-2008). Could you tell us / clarify how students can be active participants in the design of their educational experiences?
The fact that you even have to ask the question “how can students can be active participants in the design of their educational experiences?”—i.e. that the answer isn’t immediately obvious to (and practiced by) everyone—is painful to me.
This is, sadly, similar to our having excluded women for so long from our decision processes. Only 100 years ago one might well have heard the following question, unthinkable today: “Could you tell us / clarify how women can be active participants in the design of educational experiences?” For a very long time we thought it OK to exclude half the world along gender lines. Today, while we no longer tolerate that in our society, we are still willing to exclude half the world on age grounds (50 percent of the world’s population is under the age of 25). Both are forms of discrimination and both are equally unacceptable. This is particularly true when the group being excluded from the decision making process—i.e. the young people—is the one our designs are ostensibly meant to help. As a result most of our educational experiences—and our educational system in general—are designed for the needs not of young people, but of adults.
That said (and very much meant), I will answer your question. The way to make students active participants in the education process is to treat them as equals—both as human beings and as participants in the process—and to therefore solicit their opinion on everything related to how they learn. As a society, we are terrible at listening to and respecting young people. Prisoners in jail are often listened to more carefully about their grievances, and often have more rights, than do the students in our schools. (For examples, see the eye-opening documentary The War On Kids, by Cevin Solig.) We should include young people—students—on all our committees, boards of education and governance institutions giving them an equal vote. I have met many 10-year-olds who are quite capable of contributing usefully in such situations—surely our older kids are.
I understand there are many who find it difficult to get their minds around this way of looking at students as equal participants in all educational planning, but it is incredibly important if we want to improve the system for those it is designed to help. So let me be even more precise in my recommendations. When any major policy regarding students and their education (such as a behavioral policy an academic policy, a technology policy, or even policies relating to employment of teachers), is to be decided in a school or a school district, to do things right (or even acceptably) the person in charge of making the decision should call a large meeting for all concerned, putting representatives of all groups (teachers, administrators, technologists, parents, and students) on the stage to represent points of view. This group should hash out, as a community, through discussion by all parties, the best answer for all involved. Making educational policy any other way is both disrespectful to the parties concerned and is unlikely to produce the best results.
You have pioneered digital games in many curricular areas and placed them at the center of your own vision of “engagement.’ You have even used the phrase “student-designed engagement.” What are the salient features of engagement in schools of the future? What will be the role of teachers?
To me, “full engagement” means each student doing, at all times, something he or she is truly and fully interested in. Other than through students’ desire to reach specific goals (which is fine if those goals are theirs and not, say, their parents’), the only way to achieve this is to have students follow their own personal, individual passions, and to have teachers guide students to use those passions as a gateway to every subject, and to increasing mastery of their field of interest.
The student whose passion is sports, or music, or people, or the environment, or dance, or anything else needs to be shown not just that each subject “relates” to their passion (the current buzzword, “relevant,” is, in my view, useless) but rather that the subject can do something real for each student, increasing and strengthening their knowledge and skills related to the passion they already have.
It is one of the teacher’s important roles to act as a connector between their students’ separate, individual passions and the subject being taught. Before they can do this, of course, teachers must ask the students what their passions are, which surprisingly enough, rarely happens. Once they do know, the job of the teacher is then to be a partner, guide and coach for each student on the student’s way not just to subject mastery, but to mastery in service of their own passion. A teacher can do this by knowing the individual passions of the students, asking the right questions, assuring and maintaining quality and rigor in student work, and ensuring that everything a student does is in the proper context.
This does not preclude teachers from exposing students to new ideas that potentially arouse new interests (and eventually passions) in the students—that is an important part of education as well. But if teachers don’t know, and don’t start with who their students already are, that will happen much less frequently than if they do.
What digital games exist today (and we don’t mind you citing your own work as well as that of your competitors) that should be implemented into existing curricula?
Although there do exist some reasonably good educational games, asked the way you do (i.e. “should be implemented into existing curricula”) it is a difficult question for me to answer. There are numerous reasons for this.
First, hardly any truly worthwhile games have been conceived with the curriculum in mind. Second, most of the curricular games that do exist have been designed to “review and reinforce” rather than be primary teachers. Third, the vast majority of today’s educational games were not designed by commercial game developers but by some combination of educators and others , (hence the name “serious games”), and their quality, in terms of gameplay and engagement is not as high as it could be. Fourth, because a game ceases being a game the moment one is required to play it, I would not want any game “implemented into the curriculum” except as one suggested methodology for learning that material for those so inclined. And finally, for any game that was suggested, schools, classes and teachers would vary widely regarding the game’s implementation, almost certainly affecting its power to teach.
For those reasons I have decided against naming and recommending any specific games. Will Wright, perhaps our most creative game designer, has suggested that building a “great game” is hard enough in general, and that building one around a specific subject is so hard it may not be even be worth it to try. I agree that it’s a very hard challenge, one that—given my criteria—has not so far been unequivocally met. But I still think we should keep working on it. Many more recent “educational” games, it is interesting to note, treat subjects such as financial literacy, self-worth, bullying, depression, and others—subjects that fall outside the curriculum, but are considered educationally important.
At the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative in San Diego, CA (January 30, 2006; online at http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI0606.pdf) you stated that by the year 2040 technology will be one billion times more powerful than it is today. You even presented a time line chart showing that we have already passed the singularity! What do you mean by “the singularity” and do you agree with Ray Kurzweil’s projections with regard to this topic? Do you share his optimism?….his utopianism? In what ways do you differ?
The estimate of technology becoming a billion times more powerful in our students’ lifetimes (i.e. within 30 years) is still a good one. It is arrived at by assuming the combined power of technology roughly doubles every year (because of Moore’s law and what will replace it, larger storage, wider “pipes,” etc.). Most see no reason to assume this rate of growth will slow down in that period. If that assumption is true, we can take two to the 30th power, which is over a billion. In fact, if we assume that our students will still be working in 2050, the figure becomes 240, i.e. over a trillion times more powerful.
I used the word “singularity” in my chart in a way that is different from the way Kurzweil and his followers now use the term. I meant that the arrival of digital technology was a very important, once-in-a-lifetime very broad change in how we do things—with profound implications for life, teaching, and other activities—from which there was no going back. The Kurzweil people now use the term “singularity” to mean, specifically, the moment when we will have created non-human brains that work think communicate and create like ours. I do share their view that this will eventually happen, but precisely when it will happen is not at all clear, even to them. It may be 100 years off, and it may come a lot sooner than that.
I share much of Kurzweil’s enthusiasm and optimism about “his” singularity, although I do not share, perhaps, all of his utopianism. I do not see humans, or “wetware,” (as some call the brain) as the only source of intelligence—I think the humans of today are a stage in an evolutionary process. (I don’t see the same “magic” in people, for example, that Jaron Lanier does.) And I do believe and accept that with progress and evolution there may be potential negative consequences for some people—and even for many people—which has always been the case. But I see no way to stop the progress, so I believe we should work hard to make the future as good and positive a one as possible.
Alfred North Whitehead said, ““We are the first generation in human history where the wisdom of our fathers will be of less practical value to our livelihoods than the knowledge produced during our lifetimes” (Science and the Modern World; Free Press, 1967.) Do you agree with this? Is cultural heritage at bottom simply the passing on of culturally determined myths, comfortable truths and folkways?
I don’t agree entirely with Whitehead. The key word in his statement is “practical,” but I would think and hope that the wisdom of Socrates, or Shakespeare, or Picasso will be of some practical use to us in coming generations. I hope what continues to be important to people who care about culture is the combination of things that have mattered in the past and new things.
One useful way of combining old and new (at least in education) is to think in terms of verbs and nouns. The verbs—or skills—that have traditionally been important to learn and preserve (such as communicating, inventing, thinking critically, presenting logically, decision making, problem solving, persuading, etc.,—there are scores of others) will likely always remain the important ones to society. But the nouns—or tools—that we use to learn, practice, and perform these skills change, and, in the future, will be changing more and more rapidly and often. So, for example, “communicating” remains key, but over time handwriting changes to typing, which changes to email, which changes to texting, and twitter, and whatever comes next. “Observing” and “commenting” remain important, but books and articles change to TV shows and blogs and so on. “Storing and retrieving information” remains important, but reading and writing text may be replaced (for many) by recording and watching video.
While the preferred “nouns” or tools will change rapidly with new technologies, the “verbs,” or skills, which embody much of the wisdom of our fathers, will likely be of service for a quite awhile, even as our knowledge grows exponentially. There will also be some new verbs or skills, such as programming and information filtering.
Must all teachers abandon traditional approaches? Are there transitional stages (between the years 2010 and 2040, for instance) during which we should attempt to preserve custom as well as introduce change?
“We should,” as Deborah Needleman says “show reverence for the past, but not live in it.” Unfortunately, much of what you quaintly refer to as “custom” in education consists of things that no longer work (except, possibly, for a small percentage of students in very specific situations) and, even when they do work, lead to less than optimal learning. Those outdated “customs” should therefore be courtesied to as useful artifacts of the past, and abandoned with all possible speed.
Foremost among these is the “custom” of lecturing, or “telling.” The less teachers talk “at” the students in their classrooms, and the more they substitute more effective methodologies, such as posing good guiding questions, partnering, discussions, etc., the more learning that will take place.
In my latest book, Teaching Digital Natives–Partnering for Real Learning I provide a rubric so teachers can see where they currently are on the path from all telling to all partnering, and find a way, encouraged by their supervisors, to move to being partners with their students. While there will certainly be a transitional stage while this movement takes place, it is not because we are trying to “preserve custom,” in any way shape or form; it is rather because we are unable, as people, to change fast enough.
There are, of course, some teachers, and even some students, who report “liking” or even “preferring” the “traditional” methods of the past, such as lecturing and taking notes. These are typically people who have learned this system well, are comfortable with it, know that it will lead to some goals they have (high grades, college admissions, for example) and therefore see no need to change it.
But even with its “success” in those cases, I do see a need—and an important need—to change it, because it teaches the wrong things. Students like it not because it helps them think and solve problems in new ways, but because it is easy. No student should find learning “easy.” Those that do are not sufficiently challenged. We should always be challenging all our students—particularly our top ones—with problems and methods that make them struggle to achieve satisfying ends—just as they are challenged by their best videogames.
What changes must be made in teacher training in the next 10 years if schools are not to become, as Seymour Papert has actually predicted, “incapable of reform” and “obsolete?”
The solution, I am increasingly convinced, lies with individual teachers, and less with the administrative system, or even charter schools. The reason, despite the obvious problems many of our teachers have with change, is scale.
There is no other option than the classroom—at least for now— that comes even close to being able to reach all our 55 million students.
So teacher training is crucial, but it is not the training that is typically offered or asked for. Teachers need to be trained in a new pedagogy. They need to learn to do their job through partnering, and not through lecturing and telling. They need to be trained not to give their students answers, but to teach students to find good answers and solutions by themselves. They need to be trained to be the coach and guide, rather than the “ruler” of the students.
Currently, a big lesson that many teachers learn (whether in training or on the job) is that if they “control their class” and “cover” the curriculum—typically by having every word of the curriculum come out of their mouth at some point—they have successfully done their job. That lesson is what has to change. Given the burden of having to continually increase test scores, teachers have to learn to prepare their students for those tests more effectively. Teacher preparation has to help teachers learn to reach and help all students individually.
The need for advanced “subject area credentials” has been greatly over-exaggerated at a time when so many programs exist online to explain and teach anything that a student is having trouble with, or that a teacher doesn’t know. The training teachers really need is summed up in a comment from an excellent and experienced teacher. She said “I used to teach my subject. Now I teach my students.”
Are schools obsolete in terms of their curriculum design (or in other aspects)? What steps would you recommend that schools take immediately to prepare for the “new student” that is now arriving at our doorsteps?
Many things about our schools are obsolete—I was recently in several 100-year-old school buildings in New York City—but we need to focus on what matters, and in order of priority.
Certainly our curriculum is obsolete, in almost every respect. This is probably less true for the top 10-15 percent, who still have a curriculum that more or less prepares them for the life—i.e. the colleges, graduate schools, professions—that they will enter. For the remaining 70-90 percent of our students, however, we currently have very little idea of what is important to teach them. Reforming our curricula should have the highest priority after changing our pedagogy. I think we need to rethink our curricula based on a subject-independent problem-solving methodology, and am writing a book about that.
As for our physical schools, some things we already have, such as playing fields, rehearsal and performance spaces, large meeting halls, and laboratories are still very useful. What is obsolete in our schools, I think, is the classrooms. The idea of herding 20-40 kids into a room, and having that room be the primary space for almost all their learning no longer makes sense at a time where students learn both individually and in groups of all sizes, in a variety of venues. Flexible and easy reconfiguration of internal spaces should be the major goal of all new school design and school renovation.
Technology should be introduced and used in our schools as quickly as possible, but most useful steps to prepare for our new students do not, curiously enough, involve technology—they involve, instead, pedagogy. Here are three steps, for example, that I recommend all schools and teachers take immediately (others are listed in my recent book):
(1) find out (by asking) what all their students individual passions are, so they can know the students as individuals and individualize learning around those passions
(2) move from a “lecturing and telling” pedagogy to a “partnering and doing” pedagogy, and within that pedagogy,
(3) strive to make all learning and lessons REAL (i.e. about things the students experience and can affect in their actual lives) rather than just “relevant” or “authentic.”
Technology in schools is only effective if it supports a partnering pedagogy. Thus the switch to partnering by teachers is more important for the “new” students’ education, and should come first.
What brain research can you cite that might demonstrate that technology and electronic media are having an evolutionary impact on the brains of students?
This is an important point. Today, all we can say for sure is that brains change during a person’s lifetime, due to the experiences they have. There is as yet NO evidence of evolutionary impact, but only surmise and suspicion.
Unfortunately, in the race to get attention, scientists’ (and journalists’) speculation and discussion often exceeds the conclusions that the actual experiments and data support.
While “neuroplasticity,” all through an individual’s lifetime, is generally accepted science, the tools available today to study the brain (such as fMRI and EEG) are still quite primitive and unsophisticated, and it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions from the data they produce. There are, for example, conflicting opinions among scientists of how brains change, how they store information, and how they learn.
For media to have had an “evolutionary impact,” would mean that changes in the brain due to media were passed down from generation to generation, i.e. encoded into our genes. This we cannot conclude, at least not yet. For one thing, we are still mostly on digital generation one, so there has been no opportunity to inherit and measure inheritance (except perhaps relative to TV.) The so-called “Lamarckian” idea that changes can be inherited in one generation still a matter of great scientific debate, although perhaps less discredited today than in the past. Even as a second digital generation arises, it may be difficult to draw conclusions, first because young brains are still developing, and secondly because there may be of a lack of baseline comparative data.
In 1954 (!), Malcolm Cowley wrote, ““A final possibility must be considered, that printed literature, in the future, will be written for and read only by scholars. For the public at large, it might give way to picture books, or to spoken and tape-recorded stories, or else to dramas and serials composed for television or the new medium that will come after that. Whatever the new forms will be…I know they are needed if the new age is to become fully conscious of its own spirit” (The Literary Situation; Quoted by Richard Keller Simon in Trash Culture, UC Press, 1999). My question: is print literacy going to be obsolete in the near future? Should we anticipate new standards for students whom we would characterize as literate, well-educated, and prepared for fruitful careers?
Although it is not generally acknowledged, I believe print literacy has already become obsolete for large groups within American (and other developed nations’) societies.
Outside of the people who use print literacy in their work and daily lives (I would use the term “intellectual classes” rather than “scholars”), reading and writing have largely disappeared. Today, much of the American population neither reads not writes in their daily lives (even though many can) except in the most trivial of ways, such as writing shopping lists. Almost all information, entertainment and communication for these people come from other media, such as television, cable, the non-text Internet such as You Tube, telephone, etc.
What I find hopeful regarding such people is that we now have the technological means to make the lack of ability (or predilection) to read or write not matter relative to being an educated person and citizen. Soon anyone who needs to know what a piece of text says will be able to run a handheld pen scanner (on the market and soon built into their cell phone) over the text and have it read to them. Shortly we will be pointing our cell phones at signs (in any language) and having them read to us in English.
Conversely, if a person has to put something into print, such as to fill in a form, there are speech-to-text programs available to do this already running on our phones. I recently asked a delivery man (who had a handheld computer with pictures on the keys and a build-in printer) whether he needed to read or write to do his job. “That’s not important,” he said. “So what is important?” I asked. “Speaking,” he replied. “That has always been what counts.”
Given all that, one has to seriously question, I think, the wisdom of focusing so much of our schooling on reading and writing for the large group (70-90 percent of the population) that doesn’t use it or need it. Wouldn’t it be much more beneficial to focus those students’ learning—via teaching in other media—on speaking, problem-solving, citizenship, environmental stewardship, programming and other skills that will almost certainly be of great use to them in their (largely unknown) future lives?
For the “top” group you describe, however, i.e. for people who are “literate, well-educated, and prepared for fruitful [read ‘high-end intellectual’] careers” reading and writing at a sophisticated level will clearly important for some time to come. But even for this group, additional skills, such as recording and retrieving video, and machine programming are becoming important and even necessary.
More and more intellectuals are turning to video as a way to express important ideas that never make it to text, so the ability to record and retrieve in video is already a crucial skill. Programming, i.e. getting our increasingly sophisticated machines to do what we want them to, is also becoming an increasingly important skill for our top students. Where the literate, well-educated person of today might write a letter, a blog post, an op-ed piece or even a book, the literate well-educated person of tomorrow might accomplish the same communication by making a video, creating a multimedia presentation, making a game or writing a program.
What developments do you expect to see in the near future that might profoundly alter the educational landscape?
I discussed some of those developments in the last answer. Others include Web 3.0 (“the semantic web”), where every text, image and video ever made is searchable and linkable; and better filters for our ever growing store of information and knowledge so we can easily find what we need, while still preserving the benefits of editorial judgment and serendipity.
In general, as our technology tools become more and more powerful, we are delegating more and more tasks to those technological tools, and relying on them more and more to perform those tasks for us. This is in no way a bad thing, as a great many of those tasks (e.g. memorizing phone numbers, dividing large numbers, storing reference information) are far better off outsourced to machines, and there are some things (such as dealing with large amounts of data, and going beyond the range of our senses) that machines clearly do better than brains.
But at some point we will need to confront the question of what not to outsource. We will need to ask:. “What is necessary for a person to know, and be able to do, in order to achieve [what I call] ‘Digital Wisdom’—combining our minds and machines well to get wiser, and more creative, outcomes?” “What are the essential things we must have, and keep, in our heads?”
I believe that when we finally get around to trying to tackle those questions honestly, the answers will alter the educational landscape profoundly.
In light of the fact that the InterED audience is primarily comprised of international school administrators and board members who work with high-achieving students around the world, do you have any final words of advice or recommendations for us?
I would remind you that—given the tools they have access to—today’s students have the potential to becom, the most creative and productive generation in history. Students today, particularly high-end students, thrive on attention-grabbing experiences and positive change, which our schools ought to go out of their way to provide for them.
As the educators of high end students, we should strive to always continuously improve what we currently offer our students, designing our offerings not for them but with them, and for their attention (which is their most precious commodity), not ours. We should be vigilant as well in looking for discontinuous improvements, such as new technologies, that will help our students better and more quickly learn and achieve.
Certainly we should keep part of our students’ (and our own) focus on the unchanging verbs, rather than on the rapidly changing nouns of technology, but we should also be constantly scanning for new ideas and approaches.
We should never assume that what we see happening in other places (e.g. the decline and eventual disappearance of reading and writing as the primary storage and retrieval system for information) will never happen to us. It will, and unless we prepare ourselves, it will take us by surprise.
As Needleman says, we should “show reverence for the past, but not live in it.” This means we should constantly be questioning whether some or all of the so-called “customs” of education (as you call them) are holding us and our students back.
I believe today’s students have the potential to become—by far—the greatest generation in history. Our job as their educators is to help make that a reality.
Interview for l’Unità, June 2011
Interview for article by Luca Landò, published June 6, 2011
The title of your last book is “Teaching Digital Natives”: does this mean our schools are not prepared to face digital innovation?
MP: It means, to me, that the young people of today are not well-served by what we offer them in our schools, which is, mostly, “the education of yesterday for the children of tomorrow.” In particular, the “telling and testing” pedagogy works less well than perhaps it once did—many of today’s young people just don’t listen well, and as a result don’t learn. On top of this, students in school are not treated as individuals, their special knowledge (e.g. of technology and games) is not respected, and they are not given anywhere near enough opportunities to teach themselves, to solve real, complex problems, and to create. In school, students’ individual passions hardly matter at all.
Until we change this, and change our basic pedagogy, digital tools and innovation will not help our young peoples’ education very much, at least in school.
In brief… how can we teach digital natives?
MP: Our teachers need to partner with our students in a new way. The old “partnership” of “I talk, you listen” needs to be replaced by a pedagogy where our students do what they do best — find content, use technology, create things that demonstrate their understanding and creativity— and where the teachers do what they do best—ask the right questions, offer appropriate problems, ensure rigor and quality, and put things into proper context. We need to put students’ individual passions in the forefront, and not have the same pre-determined content for everyone, and we need to learn to teach students whatever we think they should know in the context of those passions. To do this we need to first know and care about what those passions are, and, second, we need to figure out how to make them the context for each students’ learning. The era of “one education fits all” —that there is a single curriculum and our job is to stuff it into all kids’ heads—is over. Given all the tools available, today’s students—when motivated by passion—can teach themselves, using their teachers as coaches, guides and partners.
Do we need “digital teachers”?
MP: It will help greatly if our human “digital” teachers understand and respect what today’s digital tools can bring to education. To do that, though, these teachers do not have to necessarily learn to use all the tools themselves (unless they want to) because the students can use them—and they do want to. Teachers can model using technology for students, when appropriate, but they should never use digital tools (electronic white boards, or computers or anything else) for the students—students should use them by themselves, with their teachers’ guidance and quality-control of the output.
The other sense of “digital teachers” though, is computer programs, videos, games, etc. as aids in the teaching and learning process. This, of course, is already happening (see www.khanacademy.org for example) and it will become much more sophisticated as the century progresses. A major benefit it brings is that students can review the teaching at their own pace, as many times as they like, and can learn in the way they are most comfortable learning, with many more choices offered. This could potentially be a big positive for schools, in that it allows the human teacher to take on the important roles of coach, guide and partner, as the technology takes over the bulk of the traditional teaching.
What’s the main opportunity represented by a fully digital school? And the weakest (or more dangerous) point?
MP: Digital technology potentially brings a great many advantages to education, including ease of connecting with the world, ease of sharing, ease of getting and giving feedback, and better, faster ways to create and communicate just to name a few.)
But digital technology is not, by itself, the answer to education, or our educational problems. In fact, just adding technology to the old “tell-test” pedagogy can actually hinder education and learning, by distracting students from listening, while not taking maximum (or any) advantage of the powerful tools they have. So the pre-requisite for adding technology to change teachers’ pedagogy to some form of partnering.
The so called “half-life” of knowledge is getting shorter and shorter: wider and better research, improved knowledge (that brings more knowledge), better schools, new communication technologies are all posing knowledge to an intensive rate of innovation. Given the shortening half-life of knowledge it’s clear we have to change our idea of education. What do you suggest? How can we move from the “school years” to a “school life”?
MP: The explosion of information (and, to a lesser extent, knowledge) and its rapid changes means that learning “things” or “information” is far less important than learning “skills”—and certain skills in particular. The new book I am currently writing is entitled Problem-solving, Passion and Producing which combination, I think, is a good formula for 21st century success. To elaborate:
Problem-solving—which we ought to teach systematically, starting in the earliest grades— includes a whole range of important component skills, such as understanding, critical thinking, decision-making, judgment, analyzing, self-directing, self-evaluating, adapting, thinking creatively, designing, continuously improving, reflecting, being proactive, prudent risk-taking, thinking long-term, and learning. Even leadership skills are often required for effective problem-solving, as are character traits, such as persistence, morality, honesty, and truthfulness.
Passion is the motivator for learning and success—i.e. one’s individual passion, whatever it may be.
Producing is the key to being and staying employed. Students in the digital world should be continually producing, as they learn, output that is real and useful to others, preparing them for the work they will eventually do, in whatever jobs and fields. Even today’s primary school students can already produce truly useful web sites and other things. The sooner we start teaching students future skills, such as programming, video production, and wise participation in digital communities, the sooner we will begin preparing our students for a digital life filled with learning and productivity.
How new technologies could help us in this?
MP: New technologies are crucial, but they are the tools, not the solution. In this regard, I offer the metaphor of “verbs” and “nouns”. “Verbs” are the skills we want our students to learn and know, such as critical thinking, analyzing, presenting, problem-solving, etc. (there are many.) These skills don’t change much over time—they are the “constants” of education. The “nouns” are the tools, which are increasingly technology based, and which now change very rapidly. The trick is for educators to use the best, most up-to-date nouns i.e. tools) for each verb (i.e. skill) they are teaching. For example for the verb “communicating,” the preferred noun “hand-written letters” moved to “email,” which has moved yet again to “texting” and “twitter.” The preferred noun will no doubt change again. Yet “communicating” will endure as a needed skill.
Shouldn’t schools teach students how to use new technologies to recover/update information?
MP: Applying the same metaphor, the verb is “retrieving and updating information” As nouns, ancient Egyptian students used scrolls. Later generations used books and physical libraries. Today’s and tomorrow’s kids use computers. Those are the tools of their times.
I remember going to Firenze after the flood in 1967, and seeing the card catalogs that had become solid masses of mud. Today, there are only a few libraries left with paper card catalogues— it is all electronic. All students should know how to use an “electronic card catalog” (In English, at least, the term, anachronistically, remains.) Plus today we have information, such as video, which is not catalogued at all, but is important to find in any search. So our students have to learn (and invent) new methods for retrieving and updating information
Do you foresee a world in which the teaching will completely be web based?
MP: Although even today the web contains just about all the information one might ever need in most fields, using only the Internet is not particularly an attractive or inviting way to learn in large doses, except for the most highly motivated learners. That will no doubt change—in fact it is already changing— and we don’t know what’s coming, except that it will be very different. The science fiction writer Vernor Vinge imagines, in his near-future novel Rainbows End, that all the information needed for any new job can be downloaded directly into the brain. The downside, though, is that after a few of these massive data transfers, the mind breaks down and can’t work well any more.
I suspect that “people partnering with other people” will remain, in some form, an attractive way for many to learn for the foreseeable future, but such human-to-human learning will be more and more heavily mediated by technology, and less and less of it will be physically face-to-face.
Fifty years ago knowledge was linear (go to school, open a book, listen to a conference) now is fragmented: pieces of information from here and there. Who teaches you how to compose all these fragments?
MP: Knowledge was always fragmented, until people pulled it together. One difference is that in the past it took “experts” to do this, now with modern tools, it is easier for individuals to do this in novel ways. Wikipedia is a great example. Mashups are another good example.
Theoretically, the new, quickly changing tools could be learned in formal settings, such as school. But, given the speed of change, it is more likely to happen, I believe, informally, through media like You Tube, for example.
Linear structure is still important— it is the basis of logic, for example. But now we have many more non-linear options as well, including various form of simulation. Today there are a great many more ways to put knowledge together and make sense of the world than there were in the past, and our students need to learn to use all of them.
What is the ideal school (or the most efficient) you have in mind?
MP: School should be, in my view, a place where people pursue their passions—whatever they may be—and have the opportunity to learn as much as possible in the process. Among the most important skills to be taught and learned in any school are how to address and solve problems that arise in life and in one’s field, how to remain motivated throughout life, and how to create output that is original and useful to others.
In general, what is your idea of the connection between internet and education?
The Internet is currently the repository of much of the world’s information and knowledge. But again, the Internet is only a tool, or noun. It will certainly be replaced, at some point, by some better noun.
Education though is about skills, or verbs, i.e. learning to do something creative and useful with that information and knowledge.
Couldn’t it be dangerous to organize a world where the knowledge is web based when not all the people can be connected (digital divide)?
MP: Is it dangerous to have education, or electricity, or health care when not everybody has equal access to it? Of course not. We just have to work harder to give everybody access. I believe all people, and educators in particular, should strive to become “digital multipliers,” i.e. they should do their part to bring the benefits of digital technology, including access, to a wider and wider group, until it encompasses all people. And they should also be doing that for health, food, education and other technology as well.
What’s your last teaching software/videogame you developed? What are you working on now?
MP: I recently made extended games for learning financial literacy (for students leaving high school and entering college) and for preventing and overcoming depression (for 13-15 year olds). Both have been shown by researchers to be very successful in teaching these subjects. I am currently working on a game to teach grammar and history—players having to add punctuation on a teleprompter to the speeches of famous people. I am also working on games for learning algebra, and games for learning topics in history and in science. I think that once they are developed well, with sufficient coverage and breadth, games will become an import tool (noun) for Digital Natives’ learning, although certainly not the only one.
Interview for Epoca (Interview by Camila Guimaraes, published in Portuguese)
The term “digital natives” emerged in 2001. With the progress of internet and with more and more older users, is the term “digital natives” still a generation determined by age?
It never really was, except indirectly. Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants are terms that explain the cultural differences between those who grew up in the digital age and those who didn’t. Those who did (the “Digital Natives”) have different attitudes and comfort levels towards technology as a result of their experiences.
Today there are many more adults who have “immigrated,” and, in the U.S., pretty much all our school age kids have grown up in the digital age. Brazil may be different, and I see your point that a young person who encounters digital technology for the first time when he or she is 10 can still, even when they learn to use it, effectively be a Digital Immigrant. So in some places there may be an element of the Native/Immigrant distinction that is social, or class-based. (I will be in Brazil this July, invited to speak by the Cultura Inglesa Rio. I hope to learn more about the country and its digital and educational issues.) Fortunately, the class situation is mitigated to some extent by the wide dissemination of television, game consoles, and now cell phones to more and more young people around the globe.
At some point, of course, everyone will have been born in the digital age. While there will still be differences between generations, they will be more a matter of degree than of kind. In a recent article, http://www.innovateonline.info/pdf/vol5_issue3/H._Sapiens_Digital-__From_Digital_Immigrants_and_Digital_Natives_to_Digital_Wisdom.pdf , I have suggested that we are all moving to something new: Homo Sapiens Digital or the “Digital Wise Person”, where wisdom and understanding of the world requires using digital tools to combine what human minds do well with what machines do better. In this future world, the age distinction, and the Native/Immigrant distinction overall, will certainly become less relevant.
Many schools have assumed that teaching the new generation is about buying a digital board or installing the latest generation of computers. But there are several examples of schools (at least here in Brazil) that realized that using sophisticated tools doesn’t necessarily lead to success. What really works to teach the new generation?
Putting new technology into classrooms does not automatically lead to increased learning, because technology supports pedagogy, and not vice versa. Adding technology helps only if there is a pedagogy in place that the technology can support.
Unfortunately, technology doesn’t support the old pedagogy of “telling” or “lecturing” except in the most trivial of ways, such as showing pictures and videos. So it is essentially useless to add technology on top of that pedagogy and think it will make much difference. As one student said: “Some teachers make a PowerPoint and think they’re so awesome. But it’s just like writing on the blackboard.”
For technology to have a positive effect on student learning, teachers must first move to a pedagogy that technology can and does support. In my book I use “partnering” as a catch-all term for the type of pedagogy in which the responsibility for using the technology falls on not on the teacher, but on the students. This pedagogy goes by many names, including student centered, case- based, inquiry-based, challenge-based, and others.
The basic difference between the old pedagogy and the new is that in the old pedagogy students are just told—and there is nothing for them to do but take notes. In the partnering pedagogy, students teach themselves (with their teachers’ guidance.) They therefore have a real need for all the technology tools that can help them learn and create.
In your book, you say that the right way to teach digital students is partnering, with well defined roles given to students and teachers. What are these new roles? Could you give some example of how this would happen in the classroom?
The key roles of the teacher in partnering pedagogies are those of coach and guide, goal setter and questioner, learning designer, context provider, rigor provider, and quality assurer. The roles of the student include researcher, technology user and expert, thinker and sense maker, creator, world changer, and self-teacher.
For example, suppose we wanted our students to learn about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Teachers could, if they had the knowledge, lecture about it. But it would be much better for both teachers and students—and for learning in general—if teachers instead created relevant guiding questions (depending on age and level) for students to answer, and if students, on their own, did research and created answers and explanatory projects in writing, video, or other media. The teacher’s role would then be to review and discuss these answers and creations with the class to be sure that all students fully understood all the issues, and were producing materials of sufficient depth and rigor for the level at which they were. Additionally, the teacher would encourage student exploration and creativity in these areas, and the sharing of student findings with the world.
Does the role of the parent also change when it comes to helping their children do their homework If so, how?
When a child’s teacher is partnering with his or her students, the role of the child’s parent is to encourage their child to be an independent learner, and to accept and reinforce the roles for teacher and student described above. A parent can also, if able, take on any of the teacher roles.
Just as with teachers, parents should never do work, or use technology, for the student. But parents can encourage students to use computers and other materials—at home or in libraries or schools— to find things out for themselves. They can also support students’ use of cell phones and other useful technologies, when available, to do this.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge for teachers from now on? And for parents?
The biggest challenge for teachers—who are, after all, tools for learning (and, as humans, potentially the very best tools)—is to remake themselves into 21st century tools for learning.
This means moving from lecturing to partnering, from being the controller and “ruler” of their classes to being the guide and coach of their increasingly self-activating students. It means moving from creating lectures and explaining to all students at once, to creating guiding questions for students and learning how to help their students find the answers to those questions quickly and accurately by themselves and with their peers.
As one teacher who has made the move puts it: “I used to teach my subject. Now I teach my students.” The effective 21st century teacher does both, and, in addition, prepares his or her students for a largely unknown future, by focusing on skills rather than knowledge.
For parents, the greatest challenge is to understand and accept that to succeed in the 21st century their children require a different kind of education than they, the parents, received. Parents need to recognize that the reason for this is that the context that their children are growing up in and will live in has changed dramatically.
You state that teachers don’t need to have the same knowledge about technology as their students. How is this possible?
It is possible in the same sense that people who teach about books or movies do not need to necessarily write or make them. People with a deep knowledge of what a medium can do don’t necessarily have to know how to create in that medium in order to help those who are creating.
If a particular teacher loves technology, and knows how to use it to create, that is fine (although they should never use the technology for their students.) For most teachers, however—many of whom do not understand the rapidly changing tools and are afraid of them— it is far better to let the students figure out how to use the technology available. The reason is because the students can, they want to, and they can, in general, do it easily. The teachers can remain in the role where they are generally more comfortable and for which they are well-suited i.e. the role of constructive critics of their students’ work. All teachers should know what the different technologies do and are good for, but teachers do not necessarily know how to use these technologies “hands-on” to be effective.
A useful way to look at this is through a verb-noun distinction. We most often see technology as various “nouns”, i.e. email, Wikipedia, PowerPoint—tools that accomplish things. But these are, in education, really tools to learn and practice certain skills: email is a tool for communicating; Wikipedia is a tool for learning; PowerPoint is a tool for presenting. What is important to recognize is that the verbs (i.e. the skills we want our students to learn and master) stay pretty much the same, while the nouns (i.e. the tools), especially today, change rapidly. For communicating, for example, email has already changed, for many young people, to texting and twitter. For learning, many students have moved from Wikipedia to You Tube. For presenting, PowerPoint may change to Flash or HDML4.
Teachers need to focus on the verbs, and not the nouns. Verbs such as thinking critically, presenting logically, communicating, decision making, being rigorous, understanding context, and persuading (there are many more) will not change in our students’ education. But the best tools to learn and practice those verbs will change, and often. That is why it is so important, in these times of ultra-rapid change, that educators don’t over-invest in any one tool (as we have, in the past, say, in textbooks: a “noun” that no longer serves us well.)
Teachers knew that the traditional way of teaching (students listening teacher explanation and taking notes) was not working before the development of the internet on a large scale. Also many teachers were already doing great work using techniques that had no connection with technology tools (ref the teachers referred to in Doug Lemov’s book “Teaching like a Champion”). After all, hasn’t engaging students always been a huge challenge? What is the difference now?
Engaging students has always been an important part of a teacher’s job, although educators have always known that even with their best efforts they couldn’t engage every student, and that they often missed many of them. Sadly today, despite many teachers knowing (and seeing daily) that the traditional ways no longer work, they keep doing them, lacking alternatives. And while certainly there are today, many good teachers doing great work, those teachers are, percentage-wise in most places, typically in the minority.
Today’s students have changed, and the things we need to do to engage them have changed as well (although less so for our top students, who tend to be more self-motivated and engaged.) Teachers tell me “I could stand on my head and do cartwheels in front of my students, and it wouldn’t matter.”
The difference now is that students expect different things than traditional teaching provides. Here are 10 things that today’s students tell me they expect from their education:
1. They want to be respected, trusted, and have their opinions valued and count
2. They want to follow their own interests and passions
3. They want to create
4. They want to use the tools of their time
5. They want to work on group work and projects (with ways to prevent slackers from getting a free ride)
6. They want to express and share their opinions
7. They want to make decisions and share control
8. They want to connect with their peers around the world
9. They want to cooperate and compete with each other
10. They want their education to be not just relevant, but REAL
I applaud Doug Lemov for having achieved much in the small, carefully controlled environments of his Uncommon Schools. Other small charter schools—all of which all carefully hand-pick their excellent teachers—have achieved success as well.
But in education we have two simultaneous goals. We want to educate our students for the day they leave us (and go to the next grade, or to a job) and, at the same time, we want to educate students for the rest of their lives. In the past, when things changed very slowly (or not at all), those two goals were the same. But now they have diverged, widely, because our students’ long-term future will be very different from their life today in a great many important ways.
Lemov addresses only the first goal, i.e. preparing our students for the day they leave us. To do that, since we still have basically a 20th century system, Lemov’s goal is an excellent 20th (or even 19th) century education. He’s probably right in saying that those who follow his recipe closely produce that kind of education. He may even be right in saying that many of those who receive that education have success on 20th century-type tests, and even get into our 20th century college system.
What we need, though, is a 21st century education for our students. We need to prepare them for a largely unknown future in which they will have to survive not on what they know, but on what they can do, and on how rapidly they can learn and change. Lemov’s “techniques” for classroom management do not address this at all. He advocates chairs in rows and the teacher in the front (except occasionally), explaining to and calling on students. I strongly believe that what we will get from such a system is students who are well-prepared for a 20th century world that no longer exists.
(There is another important fallacy about Lemov’s approach: it cannot be done to any scale. 20th century teaching, in Lemov’s view (and I think he is right in this), is a lot like golf—there are a lot of little skills to master, and they all have to work together to have a good outcome. Lemov present teachers with a list of more than 50 techniques (all broken down into smaller sub-techniques) that teachers would have to do better to be the old-fashioned “champions” he espouses. While many of these things make sense, particularly in the context of a 20th century classroom, they read very much like a golf book or magazine—i.e. work on this, work on that (most of the things he espouses require a great deal of skill, effort and practice to accomplish.) But as hard as they work and try, most golfers never get very good. There are only 100 players on the PGA’s top tour. Only a handful of those have won tournaments, and only a handful of those have won majors.
There is, in fact, a reason for this, and it is known, in statistical circles, as the Lotke curve. If I may get technical for a moment: Many assume that the abilities of all teachers would fall, like many things in the world, along a bell-shaped or “normal” curve, with most teachers at or near near the average (middle), and fewer out on the tails, as either extremely good or bad. Were this the case, Lemov’s approach might, in fact, work. But it is not the case. In teaching, as in golf, you have independent (although complementary) skills—Lemov’s 50— each of which has its own bell curve, just like driving, chipping and putting do in golf. In such a situation you get a Lotke curve—the number of people mastering all of the skills (or enough to be very successful) is exceedingly small. In pointing out his “champion” teachers, Lemov is essentially telling us: Look at Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, and Phil Mickelson. Here are 50 things they do. Just practice them and you’ll be a great golfer.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard people try, it just doesn’t work out that way, except in a small number of cases—far smaller than the number of good teachers we would need—and even that assumes we want 20th century teachers, which we don’t.
Note that Lemov’s “Uncommon Schools” program reaches under 6,000 students (with a goal of only 12,000) out of 55 million students in the U.S., and one billion in the world. They have only 200-300 teachers out of the 2.2 million in the U.S. (.0001%), and their goal (i.e. what they think they can produce) is only double that.)
So I doubt very much whether Lemov’s ideas, although based on observations of good teachers, will greatly improve many people’s teaching. It is a fallacy that many share to think a list (typically a long list) of techniques is going to make a large number of people great golfers, artists, game designers, or, in this case, champion teachers. As the Lotke curve shows, there is a reason why we have so few champions—relatively few people can do everything needed and make it matter.
But the real danger in Lemov’s book and approach is that it never brings education into the 21st century. “We should show reverence for the past, but not live in it,” says designer Deborah Needleman.
I do share with Lemov the position that improving what goes on in our classrooms is the right way to improve our kids’ education, and I agree that we want our teachers to change. But what we need our teachers to do is not master the skills of the past, but instead master the skills of 21st century teaching: of partnering, coaching guiding, goal setting and questioning, designing learning, providing context and rigor provider, and assuring quality. Some of these skills, to be fair, are addressed by Lemov—but only in a 20th century classroom context.
By focusing only on the teachers’ doing the traditional pedagogy better, the results—even if they are good—hardly matter. What good is it to learn to “stand still when you give directions” (a Lemov recommendation) if giving directions to the entire class at once is the wrong thing to do? It is not even clear that raising our students’ grades on standardized tests—even if we could achieve it— is the right goal to be pursuing. Will that actually prepare our students best for their long-term future? The changes Lemov suggests, while they do improve the old system, do not take into account our changing students, nor do they see things from their point of view. Because they don’t focus on preparing students differently by changing the goals and the pedagogy, in the long run those ideas will fail us.
But, as I said, I do agree teachers need to change what goes on in the classroom. Still, very few, if any, teachers are going to change 50 things—it will be great if they can change just a few. (I suspect if you gave any people, in any profession (including journalists) 50 things to have to change or improve in order to do their job well, you would succeed only in confusing and demoralizing them.) So my own list of things for teachers to do differently is far more modest. All of the six things listed here involve motivating students to want to learn, and all are all doable immediately. I believe all teachers can motivate their students by:
- making their education real (as opposed to just what is needed, say, to get into college)
- knowing and using each student’s passion
- lecturing and “telling” far less
- using existing relaxation programs to put students is the right frame of mind for learning
- connecting students with peers around the world
- using the cell phones that the students already have in their pockets (and sharing them when they don’t) for instruction.
Longer term, we will be best served, I think, by an education system that teaches every student, in every subject and situation to:
- Figure out the right thing to do
- Get it done
- Work well with people and machines to do it
- Do it creatively, and
- Continually do it better.
That is the subject of my next book.
You suggest in your book that the best way to motivate students is through his or her passion. How are “digital natives” more prepared to find out and follow their passions?
It’s not that Digital Natives are more or less prepared to find and follow their passions. It’s that up till now, most teachers (speaking at least for the U.S.) did not think student passions were an important part of learning, and so they ignored them. Most U.S. students will tell you that most of their teachers don’t know their passions, and most U.S. teachers will admit that they don’t know the passions of most of their students. I suspect this is the same in other places.
In the past this may have mattered less, because young people were not as encouraged (by the media etc.) to be as individual and creative, nor did most jobs require it. But today they are and they do. Those students in the middle and bottom tiers know they no longer have manufacturing or other traditional jobs waiting for them. Absent these traditional routes to employment, their passion is all that is left to guide them as the new world quickly evolves.
The good news, though, is that technology has opened up numerous new ways for young people to discover and follow their passions. Innovations such as cell phones, You Tube, search, social software and other technologies let young people pursue whatever interests them, and connect with others who do too, in a much deeper way than in the past.
Additionally, technology allows young people to make real, meaningful contributions much earlier. A young man who loves motorcycles told me how he had created and posted to You Tube many videos about repairs that he had figured out for himself, and wanted to share with the world.
Some critics of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” state that it could be dangerous to change schools and the way of teaching without considering two things: the different levels of knowledge in how to deal with technology inside the group of ‘natives” and also the fact that most of this generation just doesn’t have access to technology at all. What is your opinion about this?
First, I think it is much more dangerous NOT to change schools and our way of teaching, since most acknowledge that the old way no longer works. But it is important to realize that the change required is NOT just adding technology—or doing the old way better—it is finding a new relationship (as partners) between teachers and students. Once this is done, students will use whatever technology is, or becomes, available to help their learning, with powerful results that will, I think, surprise us all.
While there are certainly different levels of knowledge among so-called “natives”, this is something that is in no way “dangerous.” It is, in fact, easily overcome given the propensity of this generation to share and teach each other. (Digital Immigrants often don’t realize this because they were brought up not to share, on such slogans as “Information is Power” and “Keep it close to the vest.”) For the natives, sharing is power.
It is hard for me to believe, given the penetration of cell phones in the world, that most teachers couldn’t find enough in a classroom to have teams of 2-3 students using them (even one would do for a start.) Note that complaining that “only half my students have cell phones” is the same as saying, positively, that “100 percent of pairs of my students have a cell phone.”
The price of technology is coming down so quickly that even poor areas will soon be able to buy useful devices for those who can’t afford them. The “Hole in the Wall” program in India and the OLPC program from Nicolas Negroponte have demonstrated that once the technology is available, it is only a matter of, literally, minutes before young people begin using it constructively. Providing just one $100 Flip video camera to every world classroom would do wonders for students’ creativity, learning and sharing. (Are you listening Bill Gates?)
How do you see schools in the near future? Will technology replace classrooms?
Although I don’t think herding kids into classrooms is the best way to teach 21st century kids, I’m afraid we are likely to see the current types of schools and classrooms for some time. One big reason is that schools exist, to a large extent, to keep kids safe while their parents work.
The fact that classrooms will not go away makes it even more important that the teachers inside those classrooms change to a pedagogy that works for 21st century students—i.e. to some form of partnering—and don’t waste their time trying to improve the old pedagogy that no longer works.
In the long term, I have great hopes for technology as a learning tool. It is already not bad for motivated learners: pretty much anything a motivated learner could want or need to learn is already online, and its presentation is getting better daily. Many schools and school systems offer online classes and even require that students take them.
But the big problem that we still have with online learning is the same one as we have with learning in general: motivating the unmotivated. We need to learn to create tools and methods that all students want to use, that contain the ideal mix of individual and group participation, and from which any student can learn what he or she needs. Eventually we will get there. Game-based learning is one possible approach, and there are others. Until then, shifting to a partnering pedagogy in our classrooms is our students’ best hope.
Of course, young people will always need places to get together for sports, dramatics, and other group participation activities, and we may always have schools. But the classroom, as we know it today, will eventually, I predict, outlive its usefulness for teaching.
When that will happen, though, is anybody’s guess.