Prensky, immigrants and old problems in new bottles

Okay, so blog post #2 arising from week 1 of an ICTs for Learning Design course I’m doing. This post is intended to address the question of 21st century learners. In part this connects back to a sentence from the start of this weeks study guide with which I had problems. That sentence was

Today’s students are fundamentally different from the learners of 40 years ago.

That struck me as a big claim, and to some extent it still does.

Today’s learners

In terms of today’s learners, I tend to think that they are not fundamentally different. Some (but not all) have certainly had some very significantly different experiences through the widespread availability of ICTs. I don’t, however, agree with Prensky that this experience has fundamentally changed those learners. Not the least because a significant percentage of students don’t have significant ready access to ICTs, so they can’t have changed fundamentally because of technology. Then there are questions about the type of engagement the remaining students have with technology and how much such engagement can fundamentally change them.

I currently think that today’s learners might, at a fundamental level, still have significant commonality with “yesterday’s” learners. At a less fundamental level they certainly do have some significant differences, but I am not yet convinced that those differences are fundamental. I’ll pick up on this in the next section.

Engage or enrage me

Prensky’s argument in this article goes something like this

  • Students are bombarded in their everyday life with technologies (games, phones, apps etc) that work really hard to engage them.
  • Schools just aren’t working that hard to engage them.
  • Schools need “damned good curricula gameplay” to address this problem.

I think this is an example of where there isn’t a fundamental difference between today’s and yesterday’s learners, it’s just that today’s learners have some different experiences that may well be emphasising a long-term problem. Prensky starts off his paper by dividing students into three groups:

  1. Those that are truly self-motivated.
  2. Those who go through the motions.
  3. Those who tune us out.

The last group are described as

These students are convinced that school is totally devoid of interest and totally irrelevant to their life.

I don’t see anything new in these groupings. If I go back 25+ years to my high school experiences I could quite easily place all my fellow students into those three groups. One of the major differences between then and now is that significantly more of the third group are now expected to complete years 11 and 12 of school. 25+ years ago most of the third group would have left at the end of year 10. If I go back to my parent’s days at school then the third group, such as my father, would have been leaving school much earlier.

Based on this, you might suggest the problem with “engage or enrage me” has more to do with changing societal expectations around schooling than technologies. Society now requires schools to look after the third group (and based on some recent discussion it really is a case of “babysit”) of students for much longer than prior without any fundamental change.

From another perspective the importance of learning that engages students interest and its positive effects on outcome is fairly well known/accepted. I don’t believe that the importance of engaging students has changed simply because a the most recent cohort has significantly expanded experience with technology. i.e. the change in technology is not a fundamental change.

It may be, however, a change that is important. If, and it remains a big if, students are increasingly familiar and comfortable with technologies then it might be that increase student engagement in learning may require greater and more appropriate use of engagement.

Another problem I have with Prensky’s argument is that it assumes that the fundamental change required of schools is “damned good curricula gameplay” and not a change in some of the other fundamental characteristics of schools.

Roger Shank (and many others) believe that the entire system is broken. For example, that the list of subjects which in the US owes more to the thoughts of a Harvard University professor from the 19th Century than the need to engage 21st century students.

Ira Socol goes to some lengths to show that the fundamental design of the education system (again US focused) is intended to help it fail.

So, I think there is some substance to the “engage or enrage” argument, but not in its use as the technology that is available to today’s students as being the substance. It’s the need to engage students and the difficulty of achieving such engagement, especially within the constraints of the existing education system that is important. Technology might help, but then the constraints of the existing system might prevent it from happening.

2 thoughts on “Prensky, immigrants and old problems in new bottles

  1. Another perspective that suggests (and points to evidence) that technology is changing brains – including the Nicholas Carr book.

    In the end it distinguishes between the neurological changes that exposure to technology has created and the students capability with technologies. i.e. they don’t really have broad or deep technological skills.

  2. Pingback: ICTs for learning design – the first week « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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