Saturday, June 24, 2006

A New Way to Look at Ourselves

There are so many students who are bright who are failing in our school system. Is it drugs? is it attitude…poor parenting? Or, could it be the education system? I refer to the students that are not doing well in school as the canaries. They are telling us that the air is bad in the mine shaft!

I read a blog by Mark Wagner who is doing his dissertation in ed tech and referred to Marc Prensky, author of Digital Game-Based Learning. In his article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: A New Way to Look at Ourselves and Our Kids - Part I. Prensky labels students today as the Digital Natives and teachers who were not raised on computers as the Digital Immigrants.
He writes, “It is amazing to me how in all the hoopla and debate these days about the decline of education in the US we ignore the most fundamental of its cause. Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.”

I see myself in Prensky's description of the immigrant. I am the computer user who has to print a hardcopy of a document in order to edit it… and I often print an important email to store in my paper file. He would refer to me as someone who has a heavy “accent”. He sees the main problem with education today as schools populated with immigrant teachers “struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” He calls this the native/immigrant divide. “Smart adult immigrants accept that they don’t know about their new world and take advantage of their kids to help them learn and integrate. Not-so-smart (or not-so-flexible) immigrants spend most of their time grousing about how good things were in the old country”.

Prensky believes educators need to reconsider both methodology and content because brain-based research shows that children attend to activities including television in bursts rather than extended segments. He cites research done by Sesame Street which involved kids watching tv. Two groups were compared - kids with toys in the room and kids without toys to distract. The kids with toys watched 47% of the time whereas the sans toys group watched 87% of the time. When both sets of kids were tested on content from the show (what they remembered and understood) both groups scored the same.

In Digital Natives Digital Immigrants- Part II. Do They Really Think Differently? Neuroscience Says Yes. Prensky presents new findings in neurobiology and social science that throws what we learned in child development classes to the wind. Brain research is showing that certain types of external stimuli can change the structure of the brain which affects how people think--- and this continues into adulthood. It gets very technical with explanations of neuroplasticity and malleability, but the upshot is that children’s brains are developing physiologically in a different way. To highlight, here is a listing using the terms in his article:

10 Differences between the Thinking Style
of the Digital Native and the Digital Immigrant

twitch speed ---------- conventional speed
multi-tasking --------- single focus
random access ---------- step-by-step
parallel processing ---------- linear processing
quick-payoff ---------- goal oriented
viewing graphic first ---------- reading text first
active/interactive ---------- passive/receiver
play and fantasy ---------- reality and work
techno-savvy ---------- techno-fear
We do complain and see problems with students on how they read and think. Prensky addresses this concern regarding reflection. In the fast paced, nonlinear, random access delivery of information that they are exposed to there is very little chance for reflection. This is the area that educators have to focus on. Education theory maintains that reflection allows for generalization and generalization allows for creating a model that can be called on for problem solving and continued learning.

Prensky suggests we have to find ways to design education in a game format that works. It is not enough to present the old drill and practice with graphics and sounds. He gives an example of a success as Fast ForWard by Scientific Learning which is a computer game program for remediation of students with reading problems. The field studies for the game showed in 35 sites throughout the US that the delivery was successful with 90% of the students making significant gains in reading. With reading, you have to practice. And students that cannot read hate to practice! The key is to engage them in an activity that they enjoy - “they must be practicing the right things, so design is important.”

To end my review of Prensky, here is a quote he inserted in his writing

“The cookies on my daughter's computer know more about her interests than her teachers do.”
-Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists.

I’m glad that I know what a cookie is!

Prensky rules! I have so many questions regarding the complaints I hear of students use of technology and computer programs in school. Recently, I was told that Wikipedia is not a good resource because of the controversy regarding “everyone’s an editor”. This also ties into the concern of students with text messaging and photo capabilities on their cell phones. Prensky does not react with indignation or resignation - instead he addresses the concern head on with the statement that we cannot stop the influx and should welcome it. We should put our energy into teaching students the appropriate use of this technology. For example, instead of banning cell phones, it is our challenge to teach students the ethics surrounding cheating and privacy. In regards to Wikipedia, we need to teach students the difference between search and research. He implores teachers and parents not to ban the new technologies but to take our job seriously in showing them the “power and the limitations” of these new tools. How do we do that? We have to start using the new tools so that we understand them.

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