Monday, July 21, 2008

It's All In the Approach

I keep running into Marc Prensky. Not literally, of course, but filed away are various photocopies of his articles passed my way by well intentioned administrators during staff meetings. I first encountered his writing this past school year when some of his work was included as part of an online course I participated in. Similar to my initial impressions following my reading of his article "Engage Me or Enrage Me" in the September/October 2005 edition of Educause, his recent article "Young Minds, Fast Times: The 21st Century Digital Learner" left me with a number of concerns and lingering frustrations. I'm struggling with some of his arguments for why teachers should use technology in their classrooms. While I agree that technology must have a role in our curriculum, I don't think that technology is the answer to all the problems of student engagement.

I don't think that the goal of educators is to entertain our students. While I agree that in order to succeed, we must engage our students, get them to buy into what we are teaching, and take ownership of it, I don't think that is what Mr. Prensky is arguing. His articles seem to argue that technology is the simple solution for getting students to engage in the classroom setting. This makes sense given that his livelihood depends on us accepting this idea. However, I think some of his proposals for change are a bit short-sighted. Technology is not the magic bullet for student engagement, and it is certainly not the only tool that educators have at their disposal for encouraging critical thinking and problem-solving in students.

Additionally, his over generalizations and patronizing tone do little to forward what might be a number of very important suggestions - namely, that educators need to involve students in the learning process rather than dictate knowledge to them. While I wholeheartedly agree with this proposal, comments like "It is a measure of the malaise of our educational system that these old folk -- smart and experienced as they may be -- think they can, by themselves and without the input of the people they're trying to teach, design the future of education," do little to help change the minds of educators using what are now labeled as more traditional teaching methods. Instead, his arguments alienate the very voices that need his support for change. It is ironic that he touts himself as someone students can connect with "...because I communicate somehow to the kids that I truly respect their opinions," but he does not extend this courtesy to his fellow educators.

It is the goal of educators to prepare students to be active, responsible, reflective citizens. Technology most certainly can help us meet that goal. We should and must use technology to help students integrate fully into the modern world, but technology is not the easy answer to the question of how do we engage students. Instead, I agree more with Will Richardson's suggestion that "By inviting students to become active participants in the design of their own learning, we teach them how to be active participants in their lives and future careers." Technology certainly aids in the this endeavor, but it is not the only way we encourage students to active participants in their learning.


Scott McLeod said...

I agree that technology is not the easy answer to engaging students. Sometimes Prensky is a bit over the top. So am I, unfortunately. I think much of it stems from the frustration at how slow schools are moving into the 21st century (or, all too often, at how schools aren't hardly moving at all).

One of the things that Prensky has been doing when he presents is have local panels of students talk to the audience about their schooling experiences. Student after student after student after student reiterates how boring school is for them most of the time.

We're going to pay a price for that if we don't change our ways. How much longer are these hyper-media-literate, active content-producing children going to put up with our dominant "sit own, be quiet, and listen to me," seatwork-heavy approach to teaching? Families increasingly have other learning options for their children. It would be foolish of us to think that they're not going to exercise them.

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I enjoy your blog!

Jennifer Ward said...

Thanks for the comment, Scott. I very much enjoy reading your posts over at Dangerously Irrelevant, and, for the most part, I agree with your assessment of the use of technology in the classroom. However, I am very hesitant to buy into the idea that we work in an either/or environment - either we embrace and use technology, or we lecture at students. I think that is where my strong reaction to Prensky's piece comes from. I believe it is necessary to balance the use of technology with more a more problem/project based style of learning. Technology is the tool, not the pedagogy.

I love Prensky's idea of including students in the conversation, including them in presentations and panels. I worry, however, about the suggestion in his most recent article and in "Engage Me or Enrage Me" that we need to entertain students in order to keep them engaged. I agree that teachers need to use every tool at our disposal to engage students in learning. However, I think the focus needs to be on putting students at the center, coaching them on how to own their educational experiences, and not just merely entertain them.

Scott McLeod said...

I concur. I think we often confuse 'engagement' with 'entertainment.' Kids will be engaged if we allow them to be involved in authentic, meaningful, relevant work. THAT'S the power of these digital technologies for me. We now have an unprecedented ability to participate in and/or simulate authentic situations (past, present, or future) if we can only get the tools into our kids' hands (and train the teachers accordingly).

Scott McLeod said...

One more thought: it's hard for students to 'own their educational experiences' if we teachers don't let them and/or construct the learning environment in ways that don't allow them to do so.

Jennifer Ward said...

I 100% agree! All this week, I've been taking a course through the PA Writing Project titled Reading and Writing in Digital Spaces, and we ended up spending a great deal of time this afternoon talking about this very issue! Interestingly enough, one of my classmates presented on the use of gaming in the classroom as a way to engage students.

Two big ideas really hit me today. One is that as educators, it is imperative that we find ways to put students in the driver's seat when it comes to learning. Not only are students more engaged when the are the one's investigating and constructing knowledge, but they have a greater investment in their work when they have an audience other than just the teacher. More learning opportunities must be connected to what is happening outside of the classroom.

The other idea almost seems to contradict the first. In talking with my colleagues today, we were frustrated by how much our districts seem to be invested in putting the technology in our classrooms but hesitant for us to use it. While we discussed the possibilities and potentials of using social networking sites and gaming in our classrooms, many of us also expressed that these sites are often blocked by the district. There seems to be some disconnect here.

Scott McLeod said...

"Our districts seem to be invested in putting the technology in our classrooms but hesitant for us to use it."

That's a great (if sad) quote...

Jennifer Ward said...

I wonder how true this is for teachers elsewhere.

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