Digital natives learn differently. How do we take advantage of that?
The funny thing is that right away, I've written this from an external perspective, when I'm probably in a mixture of both camps. Feel free to consider me in either camp as you read this.
At TechEd Australia this year, the keynote was from Anne Kirah. She talked about the concept of the digital native. That's someone who has grown up in a technology culture, and therefore thinks differently to someone who has grown up in a non-technology culture and come into it. I was born in late 1974, and I grew up without being surrounded by technology, although at the age of 8 or 9 I got a C64 and started writing code, doing my homework on a computer, thinking about ways to use a computer in better ways, for better purposes. I've never really considered myself a geek, because I'm actually far more interested in people (although not how to use people in better ways for better purposes, <insert evil laugh> well, not really). But I do find the cross-over between technology and the rest of the world fascinating. I certainly enjoyed Anne's talk a lot.
I'm also a fan of learning. If you have read my blog in the past, then you will appreciate that I have done a lot of Microsoft Certifications, I run a user-group, I have a few degrees, I'm generally a big fan of the whole learning experience.
But more than being addicted to learning, I'm very interested in the study of learning. My wife did part of a Bachelor of Teaching, and I really enjoyed having conversations with her about the different things that enabled or hindered a child's ability to learn. Now, several years later, we have our two sons at a boys' school, because we appreciate that boys learn very differently to girls, and that teachers seem to be far more able to cater for the boys in the class if there aren't a bunch of girls in the class, accentuating the differences between the two.
Just as there is a difference between the way that boys learn compared with the way that girls learn, there is a difference between the way that 'kids these days' learn. And when I say 'kids these days', I largely mean 'digital natives'.
On Thursday morning, I saw this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip. I apologise if I'm breaking copyright by posting this here – but hopefully you'll all be inspired by this go and buy a book of C&H – it's well worth the investment.
Just like Calvin, digital natives hate the idea of sitting in school. I'm the same, with some differences. I love being in a learning environment. I'm very happy to go to a lecture. But I need to be able to ask questions. If I can't have the learning experience be more like a conversation, I'm frustrated. People who were at the SQL Code Camp in Wagga Wagga earlier this month will have seen evidence of this.
At the ACS SA Branch AGM on Wednesday night, we heard Dr David Lindley talk about some of what he does in the Professional Development programs that the ACS run. He talked about the fact that the system they find very effective is to have people post opinions on matters, and then once everyone has submitted their ideas, the ideas become public (within the group) and people discuss them. Sounded like a blog to me, but David suggested that the differences are massive because the initial feedback on the post is from an appointed mentor, not the wide community. I really liked his opinions on learning through discussion though. I think the opportunity to learn is primarily through the discussion, rather than through submitting thoughts on a matter and then having them 'marked' by a 'mentor'. I think a mentor should guide learning, but not necessarily teach. But more on this later.
A quick point about blogging. I think there's a massive benefit to blogging from a learning perspective. When you write your ideas down, they solidify much more in your head. This is partly down to the principle that when you teach someone something, you have to know it so much better, but it's more just that in writing it down, you see things from a different part of your head to when it was just a thought. But there's more opportunity to learn from blogs, as I'll write later.
Many digital natives are finding themselves getting into the IT space without first going through the university system. They grok computers already, and can't see the relevance of sitting in lectures to learn things that may not be relevant to their careers. Their opinions about learning is based on what they know from school, and it's just not cutting it (I can make similar arguments for God and the church – you don't need to get me started on that to be able to quickly see the parallels). If you were to suggest that they enter any kind of formalised learning program, they'd laugh. These people are even against Microsoft Certifications, because they have become so prejudiced against learning because of school.
Let's address Calvin's problem first. He wants an environment where he doesn't have to learn anything. Where there's no teacher and no other kids. I'm sure when Bill Watterson wrote this strip, he wanted to list every aspect of school. His point would have been "Calvin just doesn't want to go to school". But we see elsewhere that Calvin is interested in learning. He asks his dad questions (although his dad doesn't give him the right answers), and talks about quite deep things with Hobbes (who of course is his imaginary friend).
Perhaps the fact that Calvin's dad gives him the wrong answers is part of the reasoning behind David's consideration that the primary feedback should be from a trusted mentor. I offered to be a mentor in David's program, but apparently I'm too young (I'll be 32 in early November). More on this later too.
As someone interested in making sure that Calvin is able to learn effectively, we need to find a way of having him learn without being at school. I'm not saying that home-schooling is the answer for kids, I'm just saying that learning cultures are changing and this needs to be addressed.
Paul Stovell is a good friend of mine. In some ways, I mentor him. I learn a lot from him too. He has just turned 20. He will never go to university (he's actually not opposed to the idea, he just can't see the relevance). But he's starting to realise the power of blogging, as he writes in his article at http://www.paulstovell.net/Posts/Post.aspx?postId=b07d1424-ae9a-40e6-881a-d22fc28de646
Paul has found that if he writes on a topic, the community of his peers who read his blog comment on it, tell him where he's wrong, expand on his ideas, and together, they all learn something. Naturally, this being open to the entire internet, there is a risk of people writing rubbish. But the opinions that Paul values more than the others are the ones to which he pays the most attention (and typically, these people are slightly more experienced than him, but within a similar culture, rather than being people who are necessarily older and wiser – useful mentors, but perhaps not the types of people who would be a traditional choice of mentor). Of course, by writing in the public domain, you also have the opportunity to release your thoughts to the people who are the experts in the field, and this then present an even bigger opportunity for mentoring.
So Paul has a way of learning without going to school. Of course, it's a learning environment that he's driving himself, but Paul could just as easily become part of a learning environment that was slightly more structured, in that it suggested discussing particular points.
This is more like what David is doing. He facilitates discussions about the topics, guiding people in what they need to be learning.
You see, IT present the opportunity to allow people to learn in a manner which suits them. I think David could take it much further again, but there is a risk that fall into the trap that many home-schooling parents find themselves in – that much of the syllabus can get missed.
Developing a learning culture for digital natives (which would include many of the highly skilled people in IT) is a massive challenge. I love that the ACS is trying to find ways to address this, and if I can help them develop their ideas, then I will do so. Microsoft Learning are also trying to address it, with a move towards e-learning, away from instructor-led courses.
The biggest opportunity here is that the IT Industry is full of people who have been digital natives longer than anyone else. I don't mean people in their 50s, I mean people in their 20s and 30s. If we can work out how to teach these people (including myself), then perhaps the rest of the education industry can see what we are doing and apply the same to non-IT learning. Kids learn history by playing computer games already, but there needs to be more to it than that, so that they realise they are learning and can start to love the learning process.
The fact is that digital natives won't do school. But they still want to learn. If we want to be a part of that, we need to reinvent school. The burden is on us, because traditional learning cultures have hurt education significantly.
PS: This doesn't cover anything about assessment, such as the concept of MS Certification exams – that's a whole nother topic as well.