I have been thinking a lot over this holiday, as this year draws to a close, about just what shape teachers will take in the not so distant future. I am not talking about robot teachers or a revolutionary educational utopia. Although this revolution might still happen – some would say it should happen! – I am really only thinking about the next five to ten years.
So, in five years time, will teachers still use mainly textbooks, whiteboards and dry-wipe pens to introduce and develop topics? Will students in ten years time still use pens and notebooks (that’s jotters to you Scots) to take notes during lessons and do their homework? And will schools still encourage their students to acquire their knowledge solely from printed sources?
Sadly, I think the answer is yes, they will. Inertia is too strong a force.
I’m not going to get into the reasons why I think this is the case, that’s a story for another day, I am not even sure if I am right in thinking this. I just get feeling it’s not going to happen in the same way my granddad would get the feeling it would rain and then it did. Perhaps you would care to figuratively slap some sense into me by way of comment, below.
It is an undisputed fact however that our students skills sets are changing right in front of our noses faster than we can say digital natives or whatever other trendy catch phrase we can think of to refer to the fact that our students – yes, they who are currently worrying about their GCSEs and rampant acne – grew up with the power of the internet available to them to use and abuse at their liberty.
Think about that for a moment: they don’t know life BI – Before Internet. When I was seventeen – I am thirty four now – I wrote letters to my then girlfriend, who is now my wife… Letters! Complete with stamps! Can you imagine the average seventeen year old these days writing a letter to a friend and then posting it? In a post box? That’s right, I didn’t think so.
That’s because the average seventeen year old can’t be bothered to wait for the postman to deliver a letter 24 hours later. They want everything now, instantly. On the internet, for better or for worse, everything is just a click away, allowing them to follow links where their interest takes them, pursuing multidimensional threads of information, often leading to learning outcomes, very much like the proverbial Chinese whispers, which bear little resemblance to the original objectives, that is, the reason for the first click.
This, which is often perceived as a lack of focus rather than a new, perhaps even better way to synthesise information and therefore acquire knowledge, does go some way to explain why our generation of students struggle to write essays under controlled conditions using pens and paper. It’s just not how they do things anymore, but yet we still insist in assessing their work as ours was assessed back in the day. Can you imagine this happening in any other discipline? Yes, these are the blueprints for the new Eurofighters you need to build, here’s your hammer and chisel… chop! chop!
Some teachers with whom I am in regular contact via one means or another, always involving a computer by the way, have realised or, like me, are beginning to realise that this is not a sustainable situation because, if we continue as we are, teaching as we were taught, we risk alienating those whom we are trying to teach by becoming ever less relevant to their needs as people, never mind as students!
So what are these teachers doing that sets them apart from other, more traditional teachers who are not so willing to explore new ways of thinking or communicating? What are we doing that we think makes our students’ learning experience reflect more closely the way they learn about other, non-academic yet, arguably, as important subject matters?
I am going to try and answer those questions to the best of my ability, which is really rather limited, mainly in a bid to put my own thoughts in order and self reflect about the matter. I am well aware that my latin-tempered spanishness sometimes gets the best of me and I end up speaking with the certainty only complete ignorance can bestow – alas, how I envy Anglo-Saxon thoughtfulness! – so, please, read the list below and do tell me by way of comment if you do agree with said list or whether you think there are any glaring omissions.
So what steps can ordinary teachers take to ensure teaching and learning in their classroom more closely reflect the needs, expectations and experience of their students?
- Get your own digital identity, complete with your unique avatar. You can establish a web presence by starting your own blog or wiki or by joining some of the various and varied social networking sites. This helps you establish yourself as a digital citizen and acts as a passport to the digital world your students and a growing number of your colleagues inhabit when they are not in school. Watch this video about why you should consider starting your own classroom or subject blog and see how easy it is to get started.
- Join online personal networks – Twitter or Ning, for example, are a good start. This will contribute to your ongoing professional development as you share best practice with other teachers and self-reflect. As a reflective teacher you can talk to other teachers about what you do and read about what other teachers are doing. It’s always healthy to keep in mind that nobody – not even you – knows everything and there is always something new you can learn…. always!
- Don’t be afraid to use web 2.0 tools. Or indeed any new tool. Even if you’re not sure, the chances are that your students will know how to use them, even if you don’t, and could teach you for a change. Experimenting is good. Remember we all learn by doing – you learn when you get things right but you still learn when you get it wrong. Using different tools now and then throughout the term contributes to making your lessons varied and fun, as well as helping you exploit your students’ creativity. Integrating technology in your teaching also helps you differentiate more effectively, as there is a tool out there to suit every learning style.
- Improve the way you communicate with your students, but not in a creepy way. Don’t abuse their trust by requesting to be their friend on Facebook , keep play and work separate – if, however, they ask you and you think it appropriate given their age, for example, that is then a different matter and is down to your own personal or professional judgement. Your students are prolific users of instant messaging and social networks, so make the most of that by creating your own social networks, using Ning or Edmodo, for example, with a clearly defined educational purpose. This way your students know what to expect when they log on to your network and will not think it to be some sort of creepy tree house where you, their teacher, pretend to be something you are not.
- Publish podcasts: you can podcast bite size lessons, you can podcast with your students, your students can podcast projects you set them… the possibilities are literally endless and it has never been easier to get your own regular subject or class podcast going given the resources which are freely available out there. Watch this video to find out more about how you can start your own podcast very, very easily.
- Use rich media more often in your lessons – videos, music, music videos… the choice is yours …or theirs. Your students are quickly becoming the creators of their own content, they film and publish their own videos, they are no longer passive consumers of media, they create their own. YouTube has triumphed over TV as far as teenagers are concerned.
- Use technology to its fullest – not just Interactive Whiteborads or DVDs – use mp3 players, mobile phones, computers… Make the most of whatever technology your students are already using. They are much more likely to learn more about, say, the Romans if you they have your podcast in their mp3 players, the video project they filmed about it is on YouTube and a their own work is published in the class blog.
The list above highlights what I know some teachers are already doing to enhance their teaching and their students’ learning experience and what I understand to be the right thing to do, while perhaps also highlighting the large gaps in my own understanding, so feel free to fill those in with your own thoughts and opinion. Your opinion is very much appreciated and is ultimately the reason why I publish my thoughts on this blog.
This list is definitely not the end all and be all and it simply reflects my thoughts, hopes and attitudes regarding the way we teach and learn. It isn’t a magic bullet and certainly not a recipe for success, but it also isn’t rocket science.
Rocket picture from Flickr: jasewiththeface