Digital Natives

If you’re starting to think about summer vacation, here’s a great idea: whale watching — in Lake Michigan!

For several years, I’ve used the Lake Michigan Whales website to teach my students an important lesson: not everything on the internet is true. <gasp!> Usually students find the site, see what it is, but never grasp the obvious: there are no whales in Lake Michigan.

They probably would have thought about it more, but they were busy checking their email and looking for music online. They never do just one thing at a time. If they try to think about just one thing, their minds begin searching out another distraction.

I like to think they would have questioned it, but I know that many would not. When the school was offering swine flu vaccine this winter, one girl told me that she wouldn’t risk it because she’d seen a video of a woman who could only walk backwards after having the vaccine. I asked her if she thought that something like that could be faked. She said, “No — I saw it! It was on You Tube!”

It’s become a commonplace: more and more distraction, less and less thinking goes on. A lot of blogging, texting, tweeting. Instead of thinking about something, we can Google it. Technology is about to replace critical thinking.

Actually, this country’s educational system was in trouble long before You Tube. At some point, we stopped teaching students to think critically. We decided that if we removed all the dusty books and replaced them with shiny new computers, our students would begin to think critically instead of just memorizing and regurgitating facts. It didn’t happen.

What is the human brain for? On an organic level, it exists to control the body. In terms of evolution, it is all about survival. Thought, memory, language, curiosity, imagination all exist because they keep us alive. They are an adaptive response to the environment.

This doesn’t mean that we will die without music, literature or art, though some of us might find it hard to live in such a world. But the same faculties that produce these things — sight, hearing, imagination — evolved to help us survive.

I bought a book the other day – iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. The title caught my attention because I’m a teacher, and like other teachers, I complain about how cellphones and texting are destroying students’ ability to pay attention, write a complete sentence, or think about where whales live.

The authors, Gary Small MD and Gigi Vorgan, believe that technology is changing our brains. On Piaget’s Developmental Stages: “If digital technology continues to distract young susceptible minds at the present rate, the traditional developmental stages will need to be redefined.” Classical educational theory is being done in by cellphones and iPods.

If something is really happening to our students’ brains, maybe we should be thinking about how we can compete with all the stuff that distracts them — fight the distractions of technology with more technology.

We should also be asking ourselves whether what technology is doing to our brains is a such good thing. I haven’t seen much evidence that we’re asking this, but I think we need to — before the tech industry decides the issue and puts money behind teaching methodology that supports their financial goals.

I’ve lived through this before: in education, it’s always The Next Thing, a shiny new way of fixing all that is wrong with our schools. We don’t stick with The Next Thing for more than a couple years. Then Something Better happens, new acronyms are invented, and we go to in-services to learn them.

My classroom is a laboratory every day. I never teach the curriculum, or the lesson plans, or the new program. I teach students. The only thing on my mind when I walk in the room at 7:15 is what will motivate them to learn.

How do we teach these Digital Natives?

I am lucky to work with some very smart students. But even they have blank spaces. One doesn’t know how to use a ruler. Several had to be taught how to use a glossary. A clock with hands, not digits, is meaningless to many of them. They don’t even plagiarize very well, because they don’t read what they’re pasting into their papers.

And their social skills are minimal. The other day I told one of my classes, “If you’re going to try to manipulate me, at least do it effectively!” Then I explained to them that asking, “We’re not doing anything today, are we?” is not the best way to talk me into playing Jeopardy.

Kids will learn what they want to learn. No kid complains about having to figure out how Facebook works or how to find what they want on Google. They can be remarkably persistent. “Why do we have to learn this?” never comes up.

Should we stop teaching things they don’t see any use for? Should a fourteen year old have a choice about studying Algebra or reading Romeo and Juliet? Why do we learn these things, anyway?

A few years ago Multiple Intelligences and Modes of Learning were popular topics at in-services. We found out that the kid who can’t sit still is not a behavior problem; he shows kinesthetic intelligence. The one who won’t stop talking to her neighbors is exhibiting interpersonal intelligence. Listening to music on their headphones shows musical intelligence.

Unfortunately, colleges and universities expect students to sit still, listen without interrupting, complete a task before taking a break, pay attention and give respect. In fact, many businesses expect these things of their employees too.

For a thousand years civilization didn’t change much. Students were taught the Trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. (No, grammar didn’t cause the Dark Ages.) Education kept alive the great ideas and art of the ancient Greeks and Romans during this time, and for this reason (and others) what had always been taught continued to be considered the best curriculum.

Education has to change, and it’s natural that it will evolve in response to the digital environment we live in. But why are we so eager to throw out what we’ve spent a couple thousand years learning?

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