Preserving the Desire to Learn

My seven-year-old sees the start to a new school year approaching—my seventeen-year-old sees the end of summer vacation approaching. In homes across America, similar perspectives are being aired. Parents are either waking to a little one’s anxious inquiry, “Tomorrow?” or they are blocking out the grumbled complaint over breakfast “Ugh, only one week left.” As natural as this is, as an educator, I find it disheartening. The desire to learn is innate. If each year, students dread returning to our learning environments, we are doing something wrong. Is it unrealistic to think we can inspire teenagers to want to go to school? Not if we make learning more naturally compliment the cultural and social learning practices they are already continually engaged in.

To be human is to learn—you cannot shut it off. Each of us continually acquires new skills and new knowledge on a daily basis. Just this week, you may have learned how to stream movies from your Netflix account directly to your new HD television. And last week you learned how to set up that Facebook account because your daughter located your old neighbor on it. If you’ve ever watched the news, read the newspaper, read a book or magazine, watched Food Network, or even PBS with your children, you have engaged in the act of learning. Learning is a given—but content is not. Content is at the heart of every educational debate. It’s not that students reject the act of learning—it’s the process by which they are expected to learn that they take most grievance with. According to “A Vision of K-12 Student Today,” a video produced by B.Nesbitt, the average male student games 3 ½ hours a week while the average school-age child will spend 16 ½ hours watching television. An estimated 5 ½ hours will be spent on a computer, yet 76% of teachers are still not using technology in their classrooms.

Technology as an educational tool can more readily utilize best practices we as teachers have always believed in to not only engage students, but help them think, analyze, create, apply and evaluate. Regardless of the approach, use of technology can enhance a teacher’s curriculum—not interrupt it. The most common argument from teachers against the use of technology is that they will have to “learn a whole new program when they really just want to teach.” Or, “integrating technology into this assignment will be too time consuming . . . .”

There exist many examples of easy, free ways to support and enhance the curriculum. Teachers do not have to learn a whole new language to operate them—if you can use a word processor, you can use a blog or a wiki. The dashboards of most web tools today mirror the toolbars of word processors.

Best Practices

Begin With Learners Themselves

Educational theorist Ralph Tyler emphasizes the desirable outcome of forming educational objections by first assessing student interest. In his classic book, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, he reminds us:

. . . it is essential to see that education provides opportunities for the student to enter actively into, and to deal wholeheartedly with, the things which interest him, and in which he is deeply involved, and to learn particularly how to carry on such activities effectively. (p.11)

This was just as true of education in 1949 when the book was first published as it is today “because one of the functions of education is to broaden and deepen the student’s interest so that he will continue his education long after he has ended his formal school training” (Tyler, 1949, p.11). Tyler was speaking for his potential opponents who might argue that knowledge of student interest is irrelevant to the function of education. However, his refute of this claim was that “even these educators recognize the value of beginning with present student interests as a point of departure” (p. 11).

With advancements in technology, the possibilities for teachers to gather information regarding student interest are numerous. The creative technologist educator might actually ask students to pull out their cell phones and text in answers to a set of questions. The teacher could have the projector illuminate and graph students’ answers in real-time. Talk about an engaging first day of class!
What about a student interview? While it is often too time-consuming to interview students one-by-one (not to mention the creativity needed to figure out what the remaining students ought to be occupying their time with), today students and teachers can meet online outside of the normal class schedule. Teachers could opt to conduct an instant messaging conference—complete with video if they choose.Teachers using the help of survey software could quickly and easily create an online survey for students to complete in a lab early in the year or in the comforts of their homes.

Understand Their World and the Kinds of Demands Awaiting Them

According to Eliot Eisner, “Schools as institutions and education as a process ought to foster the student’s ability to understand the world, to deal effectively with problems, and to acquire wide varieties of meaning from interactions with it. The development of cognition is the primary means to these ends” (1994, p. 20). Note the emphasis—the development of the ability to come to know or to perceive—not a set standard of things to recall. None of us are magicians. We cannot adequately predict the “what” that students will encounter. It is believed that many of the careers awaiting students have not yet even been invented (Golden, 2010). So what are educators to do? They cannot teach what they do not know. Contrary to the reform efforts of standardization, even the best teachers cannot prepare students with a knowledge base adequate to all they will later encounter. As most educators instinctively know, however, that has never really been the goal. The goal has always been, and will continue to be, helping students prepare to encounter new knowledge by helping them develop a means of evaluation, analysis, and problem-solving.

As the world has recently witnessed, engineers, economists, environmentalists, inventors, and government officials had to all collaborate to problem-solve the BP oil spill. Tomorrow, the necessity for that particular problem-solving will most likely be obsolete and be replaced by some new unforeseen outcome of some new advancement in energy acquisition.

Technology inherently holds an effective means for setting up a learning environment that challenges students to meet the demands of cognition. It is now possible for teachers to set up multi-sensory frameworks to engage students’ interactions with their environments.

With the use of a classroom web site, a social networking site, or an integrated web documents/email tool such as Google Apps, teachers can incorporate audio and visual tools to compliment their lectures and texts.

One of the earliest and most influential educational theorists, John Dewey, emphasizes the importance of problem-centered learning (Eisner, 1949, p.82). This problem must be “genuinely meaningful” to students (Eisner, 1994, p. 82). It’s not that classical education or even so-called “canons” of education ought to be eliminated—just better integrated. I love teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance. Society thankfully does not face the same problem of racism the novel explores. But we do still encounter racism—and students years from now will still have to problem-solve the conflicts that arise because of differing cultural attitudes. With the use of a wiki, a teacher teaching To Kill a Mockingbird can provide historical background of racism in the 1930’s and ask students to argue and support whether they feel racism still exists in today’s American society. Students and teachers can upload newspaper articles, video, and radio segments to support their stances. Students can collaborate and argue with the integrated use of a chat widget. If the teacher was really advantageous, he could solicit a teacher from another state to join his students on that space, thereby adding a layer of potential influence of regional perspective.

Promote Cultural Pluralism

While technology tools can be used to enhance any curriculum, they are particularly useful in engaging students with an eye toward cultural pluralism. Teachers dating all the way back to Socrates knew the effectiveness of dialogue—what better tool than a blog? It encourages every voice to be heard—and those voices most often quiet or non-existent can suddenly become deafening loud.Consider the following quote by bell hooks concerning the often quiet nature of multicultural students:

Making the classroom a democratic setting where everyone feels a
responsibility to contribute is a central goal of transformative pedagogy. Throughout my teaching career, white professors have often voiced concern to me about nonwhite students who do not talk . . . I have taught brilliant students of color, many of them seniors, who have skillfully managed never to speak in classroom settings . . . Accepting the decentering of the West globally, embracing multiculturalism, compels educators to focus attention on the issue of voice. Who speaks? Who listens? And why? (p. 83)

Be Willing to Change Roles

The other important aspect of this new approach to curriculum is that it allows students to surprise you—you provide the framework, but because they live in this world, their understanding of what can be done with even these basic tools is often far more advanced. It’s a wonderful thing when you are pleasantly surprised by the outcome of your open-ended assignment. Trusting students enough to share a collaborative space with them for facilitating their learning, you simultaneously demonstrate to your students that you are willing to learn from them. Your credibility with them increases triple-fold.

Technology offers students creative ways to demonstrate knowledge—and encourages additional research from them. Students can be challenged to seek means to convey their thoughts and feelings about a topic in multi-sensory ways. Use of web technology is sort of like the digital bulletin board where students can “post” knowing full well others will be viewing/judging their work. Because it is no longer simply going from student to teacher’s inbox, back to student, students become enthusiastic about demonstrating their abilities. They self-edit, self-critique out of unspoken peer pressure to measure up against classmates.

Enthusiasm

Too often in our society the educator is depicted in a stereotypical image of a tired, monotonous, self-absorbed character. No colleague I have ever worked with has ever matched that image. Few teachers came to the career for money or prestige. They too hold a kind of fire within them linked to the ongoing thirst for knowledge. The integration of new technology into education holds exciting possibilities to ignite that fire. It is a pathway that affirms the kind of belief that there does indeed exist a “great truth of teaching—to do it well, to do it justice, requires fire” (Intrator & Scribner, 2003, p. xiv).


References

Eisner, E.W. (1994). Cognition and curriculum reconsidered. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Golden, M. (2010). “Message to students and IT Pros: Prepare today for ‘careers of the future’.”Microsoft News Center. Retrieved August 8, 2010, from
http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/features/2009/sep09/09-21techlearning.mspx

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Intrator, S.M., & Scribner, M. (2003). Teaching with fire: Poetry that sustains the courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tyler, R. W. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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