I spent some time recently driving to and from work with Marc Prensky, hearing him share some great insights about engaging digital natives in our classrooms and the value of games in helping students develop and refine problem solving skills.

I actually did this by listening to podcasts of Marc’s keynote address from the Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference in New Hampsire on 29 November 2005, generously published as a podcast by Bob Sprankle on his Bit by Bit Podcast. (Link to part 1 and part 2 of the keynote.) Marc’s keynote is also available as a streaming video, but of course an online video chains you to a computer– the beauty and utility of an audio podcast is its ability to let listeners time and place shift, as well as multi-task. (Realplayer is required to view this.) The other keynotes from the conference are also available online as streamed videos.

Marc’s core message of how educators MUST WORK HARD to engage students in our classrooms today is right in line with my own pedagogic creed. John Dewey and Paulo Freire would agree with this core message also, I think, if they were alive. Mark says (and I agree) that our core challenge with today’s teacher workforce (comprised almost entirely of digital immigrants and digital foreigners) is to help teachers adopt new attitudes and behaviors. This is precisely what we need to be doing at the university level in teacher preparation programs, graduate certification and degree programs, and other professional development outreach activities we do with in-service teachers who are “in the field” and “in the trenches” right now.

Marc’s distinction between “mini-games” and “complex games” is really important. He is right that most adults (who are either digital immigrants or digital foreigners) think of short, 20 minute “mini-games” when the word “games” is mentioned. When it comes to computer games, non-digital natives tend to think more of things like Yahooligans’ online games rather than “complex games” like Civilization 3 or The Sims. One of the best links Marc mentioned in his keynote is SocialImpactGames, a site that is a companion to his current book “Digital Game-Based Learning.” This is a great reference for free and commercial games that are being used by many to learn in engaged ways.

Marc’s encouragement for teachers to “iterate,” inviting students to provide feedback in shaping lesson plans and the strategies with which teachers strive to engage students, is also spot on. This highlights the idea that a master teacher is much more of an artist rather than an actor reading a script. Doug Simpson has written eloquently about this in “John Dewey and the Art of Teaching : Toward Reflective and Imaginative Practice.” Dr. Simpson discussed these ideas in a 25 minute podcast back in September also. Teaching is not testing, and it is not about reading a scripted lesson plan that remains “un-customized” for students in front of the teacher. Teaching is fundamentally about inviting students to engage in experiential dialog from which they walk away changed. This goal and process cannot be achieved with an unmodified, canned curriculum. So Marc is right, good teachers do iterate and must continue to do so.

In his keynote, Marc encouraged listeners to help those around us to accept the fact that we are living in the 21st century! Marc says we have to invite students to share their lives and connect what they are studying and learning outside of school (for many, playing video games) to what they do at school– and communicate our success stories, sharing them with others. We need to engage students in authentic learning by giving them carrots, not threatening them with sticks. Marc challenged educators to ask, “Does everything I do empower my students? Would students do these activities in their leisure time? Would students be here in my classroom if they didn’t have to be?”

All these messages are on the Marc– pun intended. We have got to be regularly engaging in digital storytelling in schools, at all levels. And we have to CHANGE many of the prevalent practices in education to engage students rather than enrage them– or more frequently, bore them to tears and to the point where they drop out of school.

Marc talks about digital immigrants coming from the “step by step generation,” while digital natives are from the “random access generation.” He also quoted someone who said “Learning comes from passion, not discipline.” He notes that the number one thing students want in school is access to email and IM, because they are a connecting generation. Marc mentions the NetDay Student Voices Resource Center for learning about what students are saying about technology and why it is important to them, besides conducting your own informal research by talking with young people with whom you have contact.

Mark asks the question, “Is learning work?” He answers the question by saying that learning is fun when you are engaged. He also tells the story about kids relating how they have to “power down” when they go to school– a student related how “you have to slow down when you talk to teachers.” Marc asserts that “Engagement is more important than content… Any content we give to students is going to be irrelevant.”

I partially disagree with this. Content with depth DOES matter. One of the things I am concerned about is that many people (digital natives particularly) are “content dippers.” As I have blogged about before in a post called “Death of Print,” I think we need to be intentional about encouraging DEPTH OF LEARNING rather than just having students “skim the waves of information.” Yes, kids multi-task in much more visible ways than people in past generations have, but multi-tasking is part of what our brains do naturally. It may be more predominant and visible today thanks to technology, but few people (I would wager and assert) are completely “step by step people” who maintain a singular focus 24/7 (or at least when they are awake.) Just think about when you are listening to a lecture, how many people can listen to the entire thing without their mind wandering to some degree? It takes discipline to maintain focus, and sometimes that focus is required to do high quality thinking and reflecting.

Here is my point, and I think it is supported by some of the writings of Freire, though I don’t have a citation handy: Studying and learning can often be hard. Yes, it can be fun, and yes, it can be engaging. But we shouldn’t paint a picture of an ideal education as being exclusively comprised of activities students would choose to do in their free time. There are things we need students to do and learn that they wouldn’t intrinsically self-select: like learning their multiplication tables, or working with a group of very different people to study a topic of importance they may not have prior interest in, like the Holocaust in WWII, or the Armenian genocide.

Why do we need to guide students to engage in depth with content they would not naturally self-select? Because there are things people need to know about, as a common language, in order to effectively communicate, work, lead, and help change the world. (That’s all, are those goals noble enough? I am really not kidding here, however.) E.D. Hirsch addresses this in his book, “Cultural Literacy : What Every American Needs to Know.” I don’t think we should take Hirsch’s laundry lists of content and make every student in the U.S. memorize all the facts– but I do think we must provide opportunities for students to engage in authentic inquiries, studies, and dialogs about the events and ideas he discusses (along with other content for sure– Hirsch’s list is not as diverse and multicultural as it should be) in schools.

Kids need to learn their multiplication tables because that skill is a key that opens up more doors of learning and opportunity. If I don’t understand algebra, geometry and have a solid grounding in my math skills, it is much harder for me to do something complex like design, buy, and install a home theater system which spans multiple rooms. For kids looking toward college, certain skills are still gateway requirements for other opportunities: like the chance to study to be an engineer or a scientist.

Marc quoted Tim Berners Lee, who said “what kids put into the Internet is far more important than what they take out of it.” This is correct: we must have students learning to PRODUCE and CONSTRUCT digital content as well as consume it. (See my podcast invitation to be CCCC digital immigrants for more on this.) Yet what do teachers ask students to do most with technology? Search the web and write research reports. We have a long way to go in most schools, I think. But I see this really as an opportunity, rather than a reason to just wring our hands or throw them up in despair.

Marc said “Every kid is a programmer…. every time they download a ring tone, use a MS Word file, etc… programming is going to be the literacy of the 21st Century.” My question in response to this is, “How many teachers are intimidated and even terrified of the word ‘programming’ when it comes to technology?” Answer: Probably most.

Marc has written new book called “Don’t Bother Me, Mom — I’m Learning!” that is scheduled for publication in March 2006. I will look forward to reading it. I think it is very important to listen to his message with a critical ear and mind, however, and keep thinking about other authors like Thomas Friedman who is challenging us to wake up to the flat world in which we live– and raise our expectations of student performance. William Daggett’s focus on “rigor and relevance” also needs to be in this conversation. For more on this, see my post “Tasks and Expectations matter” from last month.

Great thoughts from Prensky! Many thanks to Bob Sprankle for getting permission to share this via podcast. I likely wouldn’t have “engaged” with these ideas and this content otherwise! If you’ve read this long post, my thanks also go to you– I would love to hear your comments and ideas about this as well. 🙂

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