Monday, April 25, 2011

School/Classroom Environment

Several points made by Olinger in the article, Educating the Net Generation struck me. The first was the comment:
Literary skills now include critical thought, persuasive expression, and the ability to solve complex scientific and organizational problems. Knowing now means using a well-organized set of facts to find new information and to solve novel problems. In 1900, learning consisted largely of memorization; today it relies chiefly on understanding.
I think this is an over simplification and perhaps, romantic view of the past. Looking back over the last century is not a very helpful comparison or starting point to discuss current issues and pedagogy. The implication is that things didn’t dramatically change in education until the information age we find ourselves in. I don’t think that is the case. Education has been in constant change since WW1. The work of Vygotsky, Bruner and others started shifting the educational paradigms before the mid century. What about the work of Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner? Their work changed teaching early in the twentieth century to a much more if not completely, hands on experience. Although they may not have used the language of constructivism, that’s what they were doing. Students constructed their own understandings based on experience. Teachers my whole career (twenty years) have known that hands-on, experiential learning is more likely to have sticking power for students. Technology hasn’t changed that; it is just another modality of learning. Furthermore, I have never known a time when critical thought, persuasive expression and the ability to solve problems has not been an important part of education. The best teachers have always striven for understanding. Memorization is just an easy out. Rote memorization is a throwback to Dickensian images of nineteenth century schools that we grew out of a long time ago. (Except for third-graders having to memorize multiplication tables and spelling lists-Why?!)

A second statement that I found interesting in the context of my own experience was:
Net generation students are achievement and goal oriented. Their question is not “What does it mean?” or “How does it work?” (as previous generations were inclined to ask), but rather “How do I build it?” This predilection maps to learning theory’s emphasis on active learning. Discovery, exploration, experimentation, criticism, analysis—all represent active learning, a style that suits Net Gen well.

While I agree that my students enjoy active learning, I wouldn’t say that they are achievement or goal oriented. They do ask, constantly, “What does it mean?” and “How does it work?” They would really like to be told or shown and they have very little patience for figuring it out on their own. In fact they have a very low tolerance for ambiguity and are easily frustrated. I can say that of most of my students K-8.

That leads me to agree with Olinger’s statement that:
The expectation for fast-paced, rpidly shifting interaction coupled with a relatively shart attention span may be counterproductive in many learning contexts. Repetition and steady, patient practice—key to some forms of mastery—may prove difficult for Net Gen students.
This seems especially true in terms of teaching keyboarding. Students and teachers too, for that matter, have very little patience for developing this skill. It is very hard to convince students that it is worth the effort, that they will indeed be the use of algorithms.

Finally Olinger says, “Design principles should include terms such as analyze, create, criticize, debate, present, and classify—all directed at what the space enables the students to do.” This is a direct restatement of the design principle that form follows function. It stands to reason that in any classroom, elements are arranged to encourage the outcomes and behavior you desire. If, for example, desks are arranged facing forward in straight rows, watch-out! There’s a “sage on the stage.”
Tables and desks arranged in clusters encourage collaborative learning. It’s unlikely to be silent. Although there is a place for working independently, at some point learning needs to be collaborative. All of the skills mentioned, analysis, et al., can be done in isolation but it is likely to be much more thorough and meaningful when it is shared.

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