If it was good enough for me…

Published 5:17 pm Saturday, January 28, 2006

By Staff
Having worked in education for a total of 27 years, 12 as a high school and middle school teacher, and the last 15 as an administrator, I have seen “what goes around, comes around” many times. A popular axiom among educators, when dealing with the latest initiative, development, or new practice, has often been “this, too, shall pass.”
Fifteen years ago, when I left the classroom, it was quite accurate to assume that while all of my students came from different socio-economic backgrounds, with different experiences, opinions, and views of the world they were a lot like me, their teacher, in terms of how they learned. However, just very recently, we see in our classrooms a phenomenon that is not cyclical, not recurring, not going away, and actually quite unprecedented. This situation is emerging for the very first time in the history of organized education as we know it, spanning literally centuries.
The fact is - our kids in the classrooms are, for the very first time, not at all like their parents, or their teachers, in how they learn. The difference is technology, how it is used, thought about, and how skills are acquired. Mark Prensky, in this month's issue of Educational Leadership, uses the phrase digital natives to refer to the kids we educate today. These students are native language fluent in the acquisition and use of the tools of technology. They have an intuitive understanding of the digital language that enables the use of digital tools as an extension of their brains. Subsequently, they are able to evolve, adapt, and learn new technologies at a speed most adults cannot comprehend. No adult who has ever watched a child pick up a digital device and instantly operate it, without instruction, an owners' manual, or a class in how to do it can help but marvel at just how this is possible.
Ah, that brings us to adults, anyone older than twenty-five or so. Why is it that for the first time in history, our children are so very different than us? We adults are described as digital immigrants. The language of technology is NOT instinctive to us. Just like someone who learns a foreign language later in life rather than growing up with it, we will never have the same intuitive understanding our children do. This has nothing to do with intelligence, and everything to do with how one learns. Our necessity, when facing a task of learning how to use each and every new piece of technology which enters our lives, is to read the instructions, or be trained by an expert, or call the 800 number, or when all else fails, ask our kids to help us. We view each new device as a new challenge to be learned, often painfully. Digital natives do not - rather, they see each new development as a continuously evolving and improving facet of their lives that is something to be used, not just figured out.
Ok, what does this have to do with school. The answer is, everything. Our students enter school buildings in Niles every day. These buildings, the youngest being forty years old, were all designed in the same way - classrooms meant to facilitate instruction exactly the same way it was conducted 100 years ago. Basically, all of our schools are long hallways with a series of isolated boxes opening into the hallway. Each box was sized to accommodate exactly 30 student desks, a teacher desk, and nothing else. There is a plug in the front, and a plug in the back. This was all you needed when effective instruction meant the teacher talking and the students listening. Over time we have, of course, added things. Now, there is a phone, some computers, an overhead projector, some screens, some bookshelves, some tables for group work, and lots of powerstrips, extension cords and other space eaters. Not much room left for students, even if instruction worked this way. The problem is that it has become a very ineffective learning environment, and becomes more so every year. I can assure you that we are able to show modest increases in test scores because we have become much better at doing things the way they have been done for 100 years - not at all because we are doing things differently. We are at the end of that improvement rope; it's time to change.
Step back for a second, and think about our student's lives. They spend their day in school listening to lectures, verbally answering questions, watching subject matter movies, reading print on paper documents, handwriting their work with pencils and pens, lugging around textbooks, and being told not to communicate with each other - after all, in a standing room only classroom with 30 students and a teacher, that can be too disruptive! Recognize the picture? It's exactly the same environment I went to school in, 40 years ago which is coincidentally the same time our newest building was designed and constructed here in Niles. Then the bell rings. When the day is over at 3 p.m, our students leave their “museum” life, and become instantly immersed in their digital lives. They communicate with cell phones and instant messaging, experience interactive media with DVD's and ipods, and play video games (now don't jump down my throat on this one, I deplore the violence and sex in these things as much as anyone). Do you know what a blog, a wiki, or a podcast is? Ask your kids, they can tell you. Their minds are operating at a speed and level in this technological world that is absolutely unlike anything we digital immigrants can comprehend. By the way, this may once have been a socio-economic equity issue, but is no longer. I coach a number of sports in our community, and know kids from all walks of life, today, as we speak. They are ALL immersed in this world.
Now comes the dark side. This dual existence is rapidly rendering education as we know it to be ineffective, or worse. All of us can, with little fondness, remember falling asleep during a history lecture, doodling during algebra, or hiding in French class to avoid being called on. School was, at times, boring. Today, multiply this experience by a thousand. The fact is, more and more bright, otherwise motivated, talented kids are becoming disengaged by the old fashioned school process every day, because their digital native minds don't work the old way, and to put it simply, they are bored out of their minds. I can testify to this with my experience with my own children. My oldest is a freshman in high school. She gets straight A's, plays sports, joins clubs, is respectful to adults, and loves her friends and most of her teachers. Any adult would say - this is a kid who has the world by the tail and should be able to accomplish anything. There is a problem. She hates school. Absolutely detests it. Dreads each day. Why? She is a true digital native, and as such, is positively bored to tears with the way that we are running school today in our 40 plus-year-old brick, 100 plus-year-old design buildings. Her mind doesn't work that way. I can remember, years ago, hearing from my parents that TV “dulls the mind and turns your brain to jello.” Well now, the situation is reversed. To digital natives, school is in fact what is dulling the mind.
Show me a workplace using the tools we have to use in school, and I'll show you a place that is soon to be out of business. This isn't an instructional issue. Its not about “the basics.” It's an engagement issue. Our kids are, for the first time, very different from ourselves. We have to teach a different way to have kids become engaged in school. We have to have a different environment to do that. The plans for the future of Niles Community Schools embraced by the citizen's committee and recommended by our board of education call for much larger classrooms, large and small group meeting and work station areas, security for our students, and fully eight million of the 105 million dollars is solely dedicated to technology tools.
In other words, they make our buildings look like a 21st century workplace instead of a 19th century antiquity. The costs to our society as a whole, or to the community of Niles, of having schools that have been rendered irrelevant to the digital natives of today are too staggering to comprehend. These costs have nothing to do with your own children - they are about systemic survival, and will have an impact on everyone.
If it was good enough for me, it is good enough for them. If you are talking to people about the school projects, chances are this sentiment will come up in some form. Sorry, its irrelevant. “They” are not “us” any longer. We can mourn for days gone by, but this will not change the reality of what is really happening out there. Please join Roberta and me in making the future of our kids and community our top priority by creating a school system that is in touch, in tune, and ready to engage TODAY's students in effective education. Vote “Yes” on Feb. 28.