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Rethinking Teacher Roles in a New Networked World

Live from the Learning & the Brain conference in Boston.

Author-educators Marc Prensky and Will Richardson opened up this weekend's conference on "Engaging 21st Century Minds" with some big ideas on how technology is changing learning and the many ways schools need to adapt and catch up.

In an hour-long keynote, Prensky asserted that students today, as a result of advances in networked technology, are "figuring out how to live in a brand new context." He described the educators in the room as "the last pre-Internet generation," and said "we tend to judge the new generation based on our old ideas and beliefs."

Prensky, perhaps best known for coining the terms "digital immigrant" and "digital native," went on to explain, "The main way we understood the world was through reading. The main way today's kids understand the world is through technology." While using technology does involve reading, he argued, kids are increasingly using other types of texts—like video—to gain information and "reading is diminishing in importance."

In light of abundant technology and access to information, he said, the role of the human teacher is now "to give students what technology can't—motivation, respect, empathy, and passion." (I asked a teacher behind me why we wouldn't just put child psychologists in the classroom if this were the case. The teacher, who works at a New Jersey private school with one-to-one iPads, replied, "We are becoming more like psychologists.") Prensky said he continually hears from students that they want to be given leeway in the tools they use to complete learning tasks. Rather than micromanaging them, he said, "all we have to say to them is 'Surprise me.'"

The speech—seemingly a patchwork of highlights from his various books—then went on to offer Prensky's newest buzzword "futurecation," which he says involves preparing students to do things "we could never do before." Rather than continuing with a content focus—math, English, science, and social studies (or "MESS" as he calls it)—he said, "I think we need a new core: effective thinking, effective action, effective relationships, and effective accomplishment. Thinking, acting, relating, and accomplishing ought to be what primary and secondary school is about." (He did not mention the actual new core being implemented in all but four states. But perhaps that's for another speech.) 

After Prensky, Will Richardson, who became a tech expert after nearly 20 years in the classroom, said this may be the "most disruptive moment in education" and also called for schools to adapt to a newly connected world. "Why is school the only place my kids can't take out the electronics they have in their pockets to answer the questions?" he asked. Students will not put up with these sorts of impractical technology limitations much longer, he argued. Using technology for self-directed learning "is not an option—this is not whole language or new math—this is here to stay."  

He pointed to the Maker Movement, which encourages hands-on, real-world creation and learning, as the direction in which schools are and should be headed. 

Like Prensky, Richardson argued that the teacher role must change in this brave new tech world—but with a slightly different prescription. Teachers must be "learners first, teachers second," he explained. They need to model the process of learning for students and show them what intrinsic motivation and curiosity and creativity look like.

"I'm convinced most kids will be OK without us," he said. "But I want them to be brilliant with us." 

Below are some tweets about these two talks from conference attendees.


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