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Q&A: Marc Prensky Talks About Learning in the 21st Century

Marc Prenskyby guest blogger Mike Bock

Marc Prensky has written a number of books about the integration of technology and education. In his latest, Brain Gain: Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom, Prensky argues that technology can be used to enhance the human brain and improve the way we process information. In a recent interview, Prensky spoke about what teachers and education leaders can do to get more out of technology.

DE: Why 'Digital Wisdom?' What did you hope to discover when you decided to write this book?

Prensky: The question is how do we become better people and more able to deal with the problems of our times. In the past, the wisdom of the brain was sufficient; today, it no longer is. And the reason is because there are lots of things that the brain is good at, but there are a large number of things that it's not good at. One of them is dealing with large amounts of data, and dealing with the degree of complexity that happens in the world. So the sense is that wisdom, in the future, is putting together symbiotically what the brain does best and what machines do even better.

DE: What are the main challenges today to bringing ed-tech to the classroom? Are they exclusively financial, or are there attitude problems, too?

Prensky: The main challenge seems to be attitude. I think what it is, if people are afraid of technology, then they will not support it. And if they think that the basics are the same today as the basics in the past, then they won't support it. My sense is that technology is as basic to education today as reading and writing are. So just as we include reading and writing in every single thing that we teach, we need to include technology in every single thing we teach.

That being said, we have to figure out how to use the technology in a way that is powerful and not trivial. One of the problems is that people who don't know how to use technology often look for examples, then copy those examples, and get a lot of trivial uses for them... trivial compared to the power of technology.

What we should be doing in classes, teachers and students together should be thinking about, 'If we had access to technology, access to a supercomputer, if we each had an iPad or a computer with Web access, what could we do that's very powerful that we couldn't do without those tools?' If we ask those questions, if we think about them and collect the best answers, then we'll start moving towards better use of technology.

DE: In the first few chapters of your book, you talk about how people's attitudes toward technology are extremely important, and how even a few cases of unreliable technology can turn someone off tech use. What are some ways to avoid this phenomenon?

Prensky: One of the ways is to be a little tolerant. All technology breaks down. When our cars break down, we don't immediately get back on horses. And we don't teach horseback riding in school. When technology breaks down, we fix it and move on.

The frustration level with technology is now getting faster and faster. It's on the way to becoming more transparent, but it's still complex and it's still going to have frustrations with it.

DE: What are some ways tech-savvy teachers can implement your ideas in the classroom? Or are they already doing so?

Prensky: Many are. There's a lot of great stuff out there, but the very best thing we can do is more sharing. I would like to see every teacher who has experienced success, or thought of an interesting idea, make a 30-second YouTube video, so if another teacher wants to figure out 'How do I teach X, Y, or Z,' they would be able to find it. Sharing is probably number one.

Thinking carefully about how the technology would enhance learning, and take it much further, is another one. Particularly in the realm of connectivity, because that's the element we didn't have before. We had libraries, we could always do research—it might have been a little more onerous, but we could do it. What we couldn't do is connect ourselves around the world. We couldn't read the tweets coming out of the Middle East, and we couldn't tweet back. We couldn't connect with experts with Skype in real time. All of those things are new, and unless we decide that we're going to include those technologies, we're not going to have the kind of education that our kids need.

DE: Is there anything else you want to add?

Prensky: Yes. One of the big issues with technology is that teachers think they have to teach everything they covered before, cover their entire curriculum, and then add technology on top of that. Well, if you think of it that way, it's not going to happen.

What has to happen is, technology needs to be integrated in the curriculum in the same ways that reading and writing are integrated. With that, we also have to delete some of the curriculum. Teachers need to take responsibility for looking at the curriculum and saying, 'this is worth two weeks and this is worth two sentences.'

So share, imagine, integrate technology, and partner with the kids. Teachers that are most successful with technology are not the ones who do it for the kids. They are the ones who partner with the kids and let them do the most of it while the teacher takes a supervisory role, in terms of asking 'Is this high quality, are these the right questions we should be asking,' and so on. It's very important that teachers reserve the intellectual roles, because kids might not need as much help with the technology.

Photo by Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

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