New Technology > New Teaching Tools > New Teaching Partnerships

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This Groen Brothers commercial spoof of a cellphone with multiple fanciful functions is a good laugh. But it’s also a sobering reminder that the things we laugh about now will be the ordinary, everyday, un-eyebrow-raising facts of our students’ future. Our kids have been born into rapid change. New tools come and go fast. Marc Prensky made a bold statement when I saw him present at a conference a few months ago: he said YouTube will be obsolete by 2015. That’s a staggering prediction for those of us who were NOT born into this over-drive of technological evolution.

As teachers, we have to get prepared for and plan for continuous change. Show reverence for the past, but don’t live in it. This involves a shift: VERBS vs NOUNS.

We think about  tools like PowerPoint, Outlook, etc, but nouns change. In their lifetimes, our kids will see technology become one trillion times more powerful. Consider the 1960s mainframe compared to today’s iPhone. And then compared to the nanomachines being researched and developed today – machines so small and so sensitive we really could control them with our brains … Wasn’t this just science fiction until, well, yesterday?

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That’s why educators need to think in terms of verbs (skills), because they tend to stay the same, (e.g. communicating, collaborating, creating, etc).

Nevertheless, digital tools are required, not optional. Prensky dismissed his much-cited terminology, announcing that “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” are OLD. We are  ALL moving to something new. And we all require digital tools to live and work. (Now, perhaps, we are all “h.sapiens digital”!)

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In fact, says Prensky, wisdom requires digital tools – because our brains don’t do everything well, e.g. we forget data; we can’t unhook thoughts and emotions, etc. (Thus, a central problem for the future of education is: What do we keep in our heads, and what do we delegate to machines? Another issue is that technology is becoming more disposable.) Nevertheless, the importance of technology cannot be understated.

The conference, where Prensky was keynoting, was called “iGeneration: How the Digital Age is Altering Student Brains, Learning & Teaching.” Before he presented, I had heard a whole lot of neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators  getting very excited about the new things we are learning about the human brain, now that we have MRI technology and other medical/scientific advances, and the impact this should have on education. Now we know, for example, that multitaskers aren’t really what they say they are – they are, at the brain level, task-switchers…

But Prensky say: SO WHAT? This sort of talk is confusing levels of granularity: how we learn vs how we learn in the classroom. Educators need to be about the Right mix and the Right Motivation. Especially during this “perfect storm” of change – change in the type of students we see these days, change in technology. And both of these driving change in education.


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Educators come in at the point that technology needs to be integrated with the learning/teaching. For example, assessment. Prensky asked: Would you disallow your doctor to use his stethoscope in an examination? So why don’t we have open-phone tests? Teachers need to start evaluating students with their tools, even as we keep the verbs in mind.

We are a tool for educating kids, and we need to change to a 21st century tool too. Before, we taught our subjects. Now we need to teach our students. Changes in technology and education don’t need to be intimidating if we look to partner with students going forward. We should share the work: Students do what they do well (use technology, find content, create) + Teachers do what they do well (ask questions, add quality and rigor, put it into

To put this another way: Technology’s role is to support the partnering pedagogy, i.e. students teaching themselves with teachers as coach/guide. This was the Presnky Apostasy  in essence: Don’t waste time learning to create with new tools (unless you want to) because the students can do that (and they want to do it).

Another stress-reducing corollary of this position is: Teachers should never use the technology for the students. This brought past PD with Tom Daccord to mind because he was a big advocate for Smartboards. But he was an even bigger advocate for the fact that teachers shouldn’t use them – kids should.

This relates to my previous blog post on Paul Gee’s list of important learning principles, a critical one being student motivation. What is it that best motivates today’s kids to learn?  Their passion (which is all sorts of things). Learning comes from passion, not (external) discipline.


And kids are passionate about technology. They want to get real. And they want to be connected. So, as I plan my new Social Studies curriculum for next year in Grade 8, I guess I’d better keep it real by having them read tweets from Libya (or whatever the real-time equivalent is of the standard and benchmark I am focusing on), even if I still can’t quite get a handle on Twitter myself.

…Or the next new thing.

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Who is using who here?

Social media tools give us more scope than ever to do what comes naturally: to rewrite our lives to reflect what we truly wish they did.

Which international school educator hasn’t written home to less adventurous friends and family ensconced in middle class suburbia about their new adopted country and omitted to mention … oh, let’s see … the frightful disregard for pedestrians on the roads. Or the neglected, burping sewer system that has to be dodged on the way to work. Or the choking levels of dust pollution courtesy of Gobi desert land degradation. Or the dodgy electrical work behind the sink in the bathroom that the local landlord swears will be dry and safe. Or the fact that even a school on the other side of the world can have the same cast of unsavory characters and political strife and report-writing stresses that any school back home offers up.

Of course, we put our best face forward when we are conscious that our words and pictures will be enshrined for posterity. So, does the invention of Facebook and Twitter change any of that?

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Some people think it does. In the drive to post interesting status updates and profile photos, there are those who stretch the truth beyond an adverb or three in order to dress up the public story of their lives. People, it seems, are doing certain things specifically for the purpose of sharing them on social networking sites. Or, more precisely, so as to manipulate the way they will be perceived online.

Some examples from student reader comments to a New York Times article: “I Tweet, Therefore I Am”

“Sometimes people make their updates angry or depressed so people can be afraid or pity them. ”

” …my friends and I took pictures because we needed a new default profile photo. Without Facebook or Twitter, we wouldn’t have to go through all the trouble of getting a new default; we would just take pictures for memories. Now we take pictures for others to see us the way we want them to see us.”

“Instead of spending time with people to get to know them better, we check their Facebook or Twitter and judge them by what they post.”

“The blend of technology and two other characteristics of our era – communication and the need for individualism – is what makes these sites so popular. “

Teachers know that it is a basic rite of passage for young people to explore their identity. Like parents, we are often left to clean up the resulting mess! But society has changed so this ritual has changed also. These days it doesn’t matter so much where you come from or what your parents do or where you are right now. Anyone can recreate themselves and express themselves using social networking tools. Everyone can find out who they are, interact with others, and make an impact on the world with this technology. But now we also do it because others are watching.

(That’s a deliberate pronoun choice there: “we.” I am deliberately not singling out students now because Facebook has proven to have great appeal across the generations. This is not necessarily a trait distinguishing them from us.)

Any social networking site user can go to great lengths to cultivate and manage their online identity. They can choose how they want to be judged. But now the advent of this technology has significantly changed behavior. As one student commented: “We find ourselves ‘performing’ for others.” It’s not just words any more, but actions that serve our basic desire to re-write personal histories. So, does this extra step mean social media is shaping the consumer as much as the consumer seeks to shape their self-expression? When your life is an act to replay on the stage of Facebook, how significant is this? Is it just the business of life as usual transferred to a new venue – or has the new venue changed the quality of the performance? And do we head backstage much anymore?

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