Monday, 19 May 2014

Technology, learning and adolescence... a bridge across the digital divide

When you hear about digital natives, digital citizens and the skills needed for the 21st century do you already feel a little outmoded? I know sometimes I do. The world our digitally aware children are living in is incredibly diverse compared to my own childhood and even more so that of my parents. They can be talking, playing or collaborating with their peers all over the world whereas my direct connection with the world outside New Zealand was through family and pen-pals. If they want to know something they can usually find out the discrete piece of information in minutes (sometimes seconds), I had to ask people and search in the library or look out for it on TV, so I really had to want to know something to invest that time and energy into finding out. They can practice another language through watching TV from another country, they can learn to play guitar from YouTube. I learnt languages through classes and using cassette tapes (quite technological at the time), guitar from classes, friends and a chord guide I bought. It is a vast, exciting world we have open to us now and many of us are like immigrants to the digital world where our children are natives who scientists tell us are even operating differently to us neurologically. 

Ian Jukes, a highly motivated educator and advocate for our digital natives, shared a few gems with us at the 4Es education conference earlier this month. One of the gems was a link to Gary's Social Media Count, the numbers shared are enough to make your head spin. For example in the 24 hours prior to writing this text:
  • there have been 2 700 150 000 likes on Facebook 
  • there have been 142 568 hours (new video) uploaded to YouTube
  • there have been 456 692 570 searches on Google (I know I made a couple as I researched for this blog) 
  • 4 998 518 pictures uploaded to Instagram
  • 8 333 743 games have been started on Facebook 
  • 833 806 Apple IOS devices sold 
  • 1 499 123 Android phones activated 
Impressive and a little bewildering. To be honest, I sometimes struggle to remember life before a cell phone and the internet but in reality they are relatively recent tools of modern life and looking at the stats, WOW, things are changing fast. I am sure that our parents and their parents before them shook their heads in wonder at what the young people were up to in their time too however... the crazy music they were listening to, the fact that they seemed oblivious to good sense and doing things like they should. It is said that there was concern when the lewd foreign dance, the waltz, was first introduced in Britain. And you may have heard something like this in the past? 
"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" 
Actually you might have heard something like this yesterday! It is actually attributed to either Socrates or Plato, depending on what you read. Regardless, it indicates a sameness to the issue of us older folk feeling a little out of touch from the youth of the day, and I find it comforting when I feel like I am lagging behind because for the life of me I just don't get Instagram at all.

There is a theory to help explain this and again it gives me comfort. I am just reading Daniel J. Siegel's book, Brainstorm. It is about the power and the purpose of the teenage brain and I love the positive perspective he shares. He talks about four key neurological changes that occur in adolescence:
  1. Emotional spark- that we feel things bigger and stronger when we are teens 
  2. Social engagement- the power of our peers who are fellow travelers through adolescence 
  3. Novelty- the drive to seek out and create new experiences, sensations and challenges 
  4. Creative explorations- seeing the world through different lenses 
As Siegel states these attributes give our teens incredible power to change the world and positively too. Just think about Jack Andraka, a teen who has created a pancreatic cancer screening tool that has the potential to save lives of many cancer patients through early detection. He was fourteen at the time that he came up with an idea, and he pursued it, writing to scientists to get buy in and support. He had the energy and perseverance to work on the project. He was willing to make mistakes and to learn what he needed to in order to see the project through. What other potential solutions to world problems are sitting there inside the heads of other teens around the world I wonder? 
The beauty of now for our young people is they have access to so much more information and resources than we did in the past. They are able to be better informed about the issues of the day and those predicted for our future. If we harness the positive attributes of adolescence and respect these differences, even attempt to start understanding their world (I don't kid myself that I will ever fully understand it, I am a visitor not a resident of adolescence now, as it rightly should be) then we can all be part of a brighter future.   
I remember when I was teaching and nearly two decades ago our big debate was around whether to let our primary (elementary) students have access to the internet. There was so much fear about it... what if they go somewhere they shouldn't? What if they see pornography? What if they are exposed to people who may harm them? What if...? Now it has become an essential classroom teaching tool for many. Not so many years ago, cell phones were being confiscated, some teachers had a drawer where students would put their mobile device in as they came to school and it was locked until they collected it at the end of the school day. Now we have schools embracing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and increasing bandwidth (and other things I don't pretend to understand) so that there is uninterrupted access to the internet. Flipped classrooms, embracing the anytime, anywhere learning (which I firmly believe learning should always be) are becoming a greater reality. 
Is this scary? In some ways, yes it could be. Is technology and the internet the solution to all society's ills? Certainly not. Even the very clever Jack Andraka couldn't do what he did without seeking support from other experts, engaging with people one to one, having relationships with people who cared about him like his parents, physically working with materials and tools and undoubtedly talking and debating his ideas to gain greater clarity and direction... none of which necessarily required a computer. I hope he had some down time to enjoy his sport with his friends as well. It is about balance. 
The internet and digital devices are tools, just like the slate and chalk and the abacus have been tools. We still need to learn about relating to others, about working co-operatively, about being part of a community (a global community even), about becoming caretakers of our planet, about tending to our own bodies needs and being mindful of the needs of others. Developing respect for diversity and an openness to learning is essential going forward. We desperately need experiences that challenge our thinking and teach us how to unlearn and relearn so our children are better able to cope with change as they face an even more uncertain future than we do. 
The New Zealand Curriculum (2007) has what I think is a brilliant goal for all learners- that they become confident, connected, actively involved, life long learners. I know that this is what I want for our children. And that won't happen if we tether everything we do to a mobile device or a screen, it won't happen if we try to stop our young people from embracing the best of the digital world they have access too either.  
There is a beauty in achieving a balance. In all things actually. And to finish I thought I would share this little clip mostly because it demonstrates that technology used as a tool by confident, connected human beings can be truly beautiful but also because I found it enchanting to watch and I have also just learned how to embed a YouTube video into my blog... see always learning :)  

Some other reading materials if you are interested
Digital learning and natives: 
Fluency 21- Fluencies for 21st century learners- 
Ian Jukes- speaking about Digital Natives- 
Ian Jukes and Lee Crocket- Understanding the Digital Generation (a pdf summary) file:///C:/Users/Megan/Downloads/UDG_Perspective.pdf 

Teaching and Learning: 
New Zealand Curriculum 2007-
Sir Ken Robinson- Changing Education Paradigms- 
Flipped classroom- Pros and Cons-; 

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