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Change in the Classroom

Updated on August 28, 2014
SommerHope profile image

I am a biologist and former teacher. I taught high school and concurrent enrollment college classes for 10 years.

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by Jeanne Weber
by Jeanne Weber | Source

Digital Natives

"Phone!" This impatient demand is one of the first five words that my toddler learned to say. At barely two years old, she can navigate my phone, navigate my tablet, program the Wii, and load games on my touch-screen computer with alarming, and often entertaining, ease. When I think of a "digital native" I cannot think of a better way to explain how her childhood will be vastly different from my own. However, the concept of a "digital native" started a bit before her time. At school, as I toe the delicate line between allowing my students to use rather than abuse technology, I interact daily with the older versions of the digital native. Portable technology in the form of the cell phone, iPod, iPad, or tablet is never far from their thoughts or reach. Indeed, the easiest way to torture teenagers is to ask them to place their cell phones on their desks and refrain from touching them for 45 minutes. The inevitable spasms, caused by withdrawal, are both comical and distressing. These children are immersed in a world of instant news, instant weather, instant feedback, and instant communication. They are the first digital natives.

It is a typical school day when I am pulled unexpectedly to watch a colleague's class for him. He quickly gives his students a run-down of the assignment for the period and then disappears to attend an impromptu meeting down the hall. The objective is relatively simple: research. The students are doing what is termed a "web-quest" and are tasked with researching a specific topic using the internet. In previous web-quests he had given his students a list of web-sites that were acceptable sources of information. This time, he asked them to do the search completely on their own. Sound simple? There is only one twist to the scenario, Google is blocked for student use on our school computers.

It was an experience to watch these students, all enrolled as seniors in a Physics class, panic and struggle with this web quest. Their concerns were numerous but were all relatively simple to address. One student did not know what the word "stippled" meant and came to a complete stand-still. Another student would enter exact phrases from the worksheet, and if that did not produce an immediate answer, went immediately to his phone to search instead. While I don't intend to make the situation sound hopeless, I did notice that most of the students forsook the computer to search on their phones (where there were no restrictions on search engines). In addition, if they could not "copy and paste" the answer from a website then they often did not even attempt the problem. While there are numerous concerns to address in this scenario there are two that stand out in my mind: First, problem-solving skills, in a digital interface, were severely limited. This limitation seemed more obvious than I have noticed from the adults who are not "digital natives" and still type "www.google.com" into the address bar. Secondly, critical-thinking skills were all but absent in relatively intelligent, literate, young adults. If the answer did not slap them in the face then they could not piece it together .

After much moaning, gnashing of teeth, and several laps around the computer lab I was able to start a few of the students on the path to successful searching. That said, there remains a strange dichotomy in the skills of the digital native. The same students that can navigate any form of social media with extreme effectiveness (blindly typing on the phones hidden in their collective pockets and purses) are clueless when asked to deliberately search for information on a topic that is unfamiliar. The same student that can figure out how to use his cell phone to wirelessly turn off his teacher's projector in the middle of the presentation has no idea how to put together a presentation of his own, much less use the software to present it. (This is in spite of classes intended to teach him or her that specific skill.) A child that will ooVoo two friends while playing a new video game and jotting notes from the YouTube video she just watched will throw her hands up is distress if asked to pull information to answer questions from a book (or any written source) that does not follow the question line-by-line. Our digitally native kids are able and brilliant multitaskers but are still victim to an age-old problem in education - making knowledge portable.

I posit that many of our students already possess the skills that they need to find, learn, and evaluate information in spite of apparent evidence to the contrary. The issue may lie in integrating the known skill set into different contexts. As a mother it is easy for me to see that my children will not grow up with the same types of childhood memories that I have. They won't get in trouble for prank-calling, or be unable to reach me because I am driving home, or get distracted by the pictures in an encyclopedia. Most of them have never even seen an encyclopedia "in the flesh," so to speak. As a teacher, it is not a huge leap of logic to realize that the educational experience is going to be different as well. What I think will be hard for us, as a society and as a profession, to realize is that the educational experience needs to different. The traditional assessment, traditional classroom, and traditional practices will still teach our children a traditional curriculum. However, the traditional curriculum will leave our modern children woefully unprepared for the world that they will need to function in as adults.

Today's student, with a world of communication and information at their literal fingertips, will need help learning how to sift through the virtual noise. As teachers (and as parents), our role may need to shift into that of an educational filter instead of an information source. Our classrooms have the opportunity to be more mentally engaging, more personalized to each student, and more inquiry oriented than ever before. Instead of deliberating over textbook adoptions, standardized testing, and degree tracking we may need to consider not only an alternative approach teaching but also an alternative method for determining mastery of a subject. Teaching may now have more to do with sifting the informational wheat from the chaff than in forcing students to wade through yet another textbook. In an instantaneous world, mastery may have more to do with your ability to find, obtain, and apply the appropriate information to the appropriate situation and less to do with spitting out memorized facts. Mastery may be measured in creatively solving a problem using all available resources instead of what you can pull from memory and understanding of the problem. But wait, doesn't that describe the "real world" as well?

How have classrooms already changed?

Blog by Ashley Wainwright
Blog by Ashley Wainwright | Source

Finding Information

When you have a question, which of the following do you turn to first for the answer?

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Technology Tables in Primary School

Is this the future of education?

Our technology is swiftly moving into the realm of what was previously science fiction. Isn't it time that our classrooms followed?

Infant Technology

Microsoft's Vision of the Future

A lot of this technology is already here. At what point should we integrate the business and culture of technology into the classroom?

Infant Technology

While not intended to replace human contact, technology will be a integral part of child learning from an early age.

Microsoft Vision of the Future

© 2014 SommerHope

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