Something I love about my job is when my teen students tell me something that ‘blows my mind’ (in teenspeak). Being a teacher of teens means that I am frequently having to adjust what I thought I knew about a whole range of issues. The most recent adjustment has been to what I thought I knew about teens’ relationship with the Internet.
Before this week, I believed that a teacher of teens should never ask a question that Google could answer because a teacher’s reservoir of knowledge could not compete in any way with what Google could deliver in nanoseconds.
Turns out, teens are not impressed with that instantaneous delivery of piles of content. As was made clear to me this week, teens much prefer to have conversations about topics they are interested in, rather than just consuming content whether from a teacher or the Internet.
It’s not that I did not have an inkling that teens interacted with information differently to the way my generation did. Don Tapscott in Grown Up Digital did warn us in 2009 that the Net Generation (aka the Digital Generation, the teens I teach) have a radically different way of interacting with information than those of us born before the Internet existed.
In his book, Tapscott reveals that the Net Generation prefers to learn collaboratively and through discovery rather than through the traditional ‘downloading’ of information.
But it’s one thing to read about research and quite another to experience a phenomenon first hand as I did in my classroom this week.
My Psychology students had been tasked with presenting what they discovered about a topic they were personally interested in within the field of psychology. While presenting what they had learned, they also had to explain why they found the topic interesting/significant.
As I listened to their presentations, I was struck by how frequently a student would mention that they had always wanted to know more about the topic but that they just didn’t have time to ‘look it up’.
I found this very strange. After all, they are the first generation in human history that is able to carry in their pockets a device that gives them instant access to all of human knowledge. How was it possible that they did not use that device to look up what they wanted to know?
To help me to understand, I asked them about this in a circle discussion. At first they could not clearly articulate what it was that was stopping them from ‘looking something up’ but gradually I was able to ascertain that it was not the availability of the information that they needed. Instead, it was having someone to talk to about the information. They wanted to have a conversation about what they read. They wanted to be able to ask questions, to talk about what they were reading, what it actually meant for them, in their own lives.
When I finally understood why they had not ‘looked up’ the information before, I also understood why the Question Box is the most popular of my teaching tools.
The Question Box is a little cardboard box in my classroom into which students can anonymously place questions about anything they want to understand but do not want to directly ask an adult about. The questions that are placed in the box can range from the sublime to the ridiculous and everything in between. I have had the Question Box in my classroom for over a decade but have never really fully understood its popularity. Now I do.
Although my students can search Google for information on any topic, they can’t have a real world conversation with the author/s of the information. They can’t ask questions, in real time, about what they still don’t understand after reading the links. They may be able to send a comment that may or may not be responded to sooner or later but this is not the same as having a direct conversation with the writer/s of the information.
Thanks to lessons on media literacy, teens are fairly adept at sifting through search results to find credible sources for information but they seem to be not quite satisfied once they do find reliable information. In fact, the students I spoke with seemed to have a kind of disdain for what they “learned” about the topic this way. I was stunned to realize that they preferred putting a question into the little cardboard box in the classroom rather than into a Google search box.
Perhaps the Greeks were right about true learning arriving through dialogue, not through the dumping of information.
But what does all this mean for the latest education reforms that are focused on technologizing teaching, adding more computers into classrooms under the guise of ‘personalizing learning’ ?
I would suggest that education reformers speak to teens about what they would prefer to have as learning experiences. Teens would tell them that, although they enjoy using technology, they prefer to have teachers to talk to about what they are learning. Perhaps everyone involved in education could learn a thing or two from teens about personalized learning.