Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ask A Sixth Grader

Change is good and these are exciting times! As the new superintendent in Dobbs Ferry, I have been trying to unravel the “state of the schools” in an effort to pick an entry point for where to begin. As is the case with all schools, we are attempting to “change the tire while the car is moving.” How do we establish the technological culture that will inspire, educate and empower all students to be successful participants in a 21st Century global society?

We began over the summer with our Board members and administrators reading Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap. The text grapples with the issues facing all schools in teaching our students what Wagner refers to as the “seven survival skills” that our children need in order to be successful in a global society.

In November, I am beginning a series of Parent Book Chats coordinated by our District PTSA. Hosted in neighborhood homes, we will meet in groups of 10-12 parents to discuss the Wagner text and engage in dialogue about the kinds of things we want our students to be able to know and do when they graduate from Dobbs Ferry High School. It is hard for me to imagine a group more invested in the changes that need to occur. After all, every parent holds high hopes and dreams for their child including the ability to secure a decent job and become a contributing member of society.

Today, I met with a group of our new sixth graders. This is their first year in Middle School and .their ideas and feedback on what they think would make their learning more relevant astounded me. In a recent piece in The Next Web, entitled What today’s Digital Native children can teach the rest of us about technology,” Neela Sakaria, Senior Vice President of Latitude (a research consulting company to leaders in content, technology and learning) explains that research is “focused on giving children a real voice in the broader, often very adult, discussion of future technologies and real-world problem solving. We believe that kids are the architects of the future- they’re creative, have an intuitive relationship with technology and have proven that they think in extraordinarily sophisticated ways about how tech can enhance their learning, play and interactions with people and things around them.”

The sixth graders were explaining to me that one of the things new to them this year was having different subject area classes and that they really needed to be more organized. I asked them the obvious question, “What are you doing to keep yourselves more organized?” They started by explaining that they were using multiple folders and binders to keep all the class work separate, but that there was always lots of “stuff” on their desks because of the various papers, folders and notebooks.

I was fascinated by this since I was thinking “how many adults in the “real world” use notebooks and folders to keep themselves organized?” I will admit to a small number of file folders in my office but …really ….do we think that this is the way that these kids will one day structure their homes and offices? Unable to contain my curiosity about how the students would respond, I asked “Do you think there is any other way to keep yourselves organized?”

Well … I wish you could have been there. Without having any knowledge of Wagners’ “seven survival skills,” our students’ answers demonstrated many of the attributes that he cites are imperative for the next generation to master including critical thinking, understanding resources, problem solving, adapting technology, analyzing information and imagination. Here are some of their creative ideas:

  • “Everyone should have an iPad because when we get home we have an ipad and we just use online folders to organize our work.”

  • “I think that someone would have to write the code, but you should be able to bring your iPad to school and log on to a network where all of your game apps are disabled while you are in school.”

  • “If kids don’t have money to buy an iPad they should able to rent one from the school.”

  • “If you added up all the money that the school is going to spend on paper for us from the time we are in sixth grade to twelfth grade it would probably cost the same as an iPad. Using technology is a better environmental solution.”

  • “All the desks in the school should have a ‘built in’ iPad so that whatever classroom you went into, you would just log-in to the iPad in the classroom.”

Trying to put aside the pros and cons of ipads vs. netbooks vs. laptops, the larger conversation revolves around why our classrooms are so disconnected from what our students encounter and engage in during their daily life? Why are they being forced to “power down” when they walk through our doors? The research being done by Latitude has found that today’s children perceive a very seamless connection between online and offline worlds.

The pivotal question is “how willing are we to hear what our digital native children are telling us, and what are we willing to do about it?”

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