With the implementation of our district strategic plan last year, I’ve found myself leading quite a few workshops on 21st century skills and related book studies for Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap. Many of these workshops have started with a picture of a four year-old. This four-year old is wearing headphones and an iPod Touch. I like to remind teachers and administrators that this child who has access to rich, multimedia learning experiences via an iPod in the back of his parent’s car will be entering our classrooms next year. The question, “Are you ready?” always elicits some groans, excitement, and a panicked look or two.
This afternoon I spent some time reading a Chapter 6, Tapping into a Very Creative Generation of Students, in Larry Rosen’s Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn. I made quite a few connections to this chapter, but one of my favorite parts tied right back to that picture of the four-year old and his iPod. In the section on “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” Rosen tells the story of a six year-old, Michael, and his Legos. Now, many of us have played with Legos. In my case as an early elementary student I was obsessed with using those tiny little blocks to construct custom houses and cities (complete with fully functional interiors I might add). However, Michael illustrates just how times have changed – he created a time machine. What he built isn’t necessary the dramatic part its what he wanted expected to do his project that’s very interesting and I think often ignored by many educators. This first grader wanted to share his time machine with the world via the Lego website. Below is Micheal’s description of his online entry taken from Rosen’s book (pg. 143).
“This vehicle can travel forwards and backwards in time. It can travel faster than the speed of light, too. I took a picture of it with my Dad’s camera and I put the picture on the Lego website where kids can post their pictures. I told my Dad what to write and he added the words next to the picture. Other kids can see it when they click on my Lego page. I made my page have a blue background and I added rock music. I hope that other kids see my vehicle and that it gets picked to be in the Lego magazine.”
First of all, go back and reread that paragraph. Really, reread it. Did you notice, this six-year old has a webpage, is publishing his work online, and is hoping his work will be recognized and used by peers? These peers are not necessarily other six-year olds, but anyone on the Lego community webpage! What do you think would happen if his project was chosen for the Lego webpage, or if a peer provided him some feedback? I imagine Michael would continue to create, adjust, learn and grow as an independent, reflective learner. Isn’t that something we want? I’ve personally sat through the design of two school missions statements that included “creating life-long learners,” but I never really figured out how we were supposed to do that when we used a scripted curriculum loaded with pacing guides, textbooks, and paper worksheets structured so that primary learning only occurred between 8am and 3pm. Reflecting on my own classes the past few years I can honestly say that most of my students demonstrated “life-long learning” behaviors only when the projects or assignments involved technology tools the students were already using for personal pursuits. For example, my students were most fully engaged deep learning (linking to prior content, discovering information, and making connections) when they would work on assignments such as vocabulary podcasts, summary videos and digital posters, wiki textbooks, or an online periodic table. Often each of these assignments linked directly to a creative personal project, such as remixing YouTube videos or customizing MySpace pages. I never really knew why these assignments worked – they just did. My students were all actively engaged, classroom management was a piece of cake, assignment completion rates were high, and they usually scored well on the exams that covered the same content. I just chalked it up to the 3 R’s – “rigor, relevance, and relationships.”
Reading through this chapter though, I discovered some connections between my experience and Rosen’s work. He discusses the untapped potential for mobilizing the iGeneration’s desire to be creative and reflective using online digital tools. While there are multiple examples throughout the text, the two segments below resonated with me (pg.145-146):
“…one can speculate that creating user-generated content that contains both written words (left hemisphere) and audios and videos (right hemisphere) allows the student to process information in more depth…”
“From an educational perspective, then, the power behind iGeners’ content creation lies not online in their genuinely high levels of motivation and satisfaction in doing so, but also in their interest in making and posting works that involve both their left and right hemispheres. Tapping into these high levels of emotional involvement and taking full advantage of their potential for raising the level of engagement in schoolwork remains the job of teachers, parents, and school officials.”
In your classroom or school district are students able to do the same thing with the curriculum and content that Michael, the six year-old, was able to do with his Legos? Are your students able to reflect and publish for an authentic audience using digital tools? Are they able to share their projects and assignment with the world? Why not? What needs to change? In my district we need to provide some resources including professional development and guidance for using various online tools. We also need to change some policies that prevent students from publishing work online (one day I plan on having a conversation with Dateline’s Chris Hansen over the hysteria and heartburn his show has caused). I also think we need provide opportunities and support for teachers to use these tools for their own online learning and reflection. At the very beginning of the chapter Rosen starts with this piece of data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project (pg. 127),
“the vast majority of teens have created their own content for the Internet, including blogs web pages, artwork, photography, stories, and videos”
Right next to it I wrote, “What about their teachers?” I have a feeling very few of them have done the exact same thing. Perhaps this is a place to start? Maybe we can create an after school workshop where students teach their teachers how to use these tools first.