Issue 1

Involving students in everything we do

(Last Updated On: March 3, 2014)
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After speaking at the World Convention of the International Confederation of Principals in Auckland recently, Marc Prensky had a few words with INTERFACE.

Marc Prensky is not a man to mince his words. He admits he became a teacher to avoid the Vietnam draft. He likens teaching to babysitting and advocates open-plan schools. But it’s perhaps his ‘light and dark’ metaphor about teaching itself that’s most interesting.

“Kids used to grow up in the dark,” he explained. “When they went to school, teachers gradually showed them the light. That was what was so noble about our profession.

“But today’s kids grow up in the light – they learn what’s going on from the Internet and TV, and they have cellphones. Teachers don’t want to engage the kids on different stuff; they want to engage the kids on the old stuff. So, we’ve got a real problem with school becoming less and less relevant. Even with the best of intentions we put them back in the dark.”

So, is it no longer a noble profession?

“It’s a nasty thing to say, I know,” admitted Prensky, “but is it noble to return our kids into the darkness? You’ve got to argue that there’s not a lot of nobility in doing that. What would be continually noble is to say: ‘here’s where our kids are today, let’s build on that’.”

The thought that we hold back, let alone drag down students, should be anathema to teachers. Thankfully, however, he thinks the light can still be turned on.

“Kids still don’t know meaning and how to interpret it all. That’s the starting point.”

Prensky firmly believes that, for the first time, schools have serious competition.

“Today’s education is bifurcating. There’s the school with its certificates, and outside school there’s another world, an online world, that kids find exciting. Here they learn without us. They’re highly motivated. They work with peers. Things actually happen.

“The only way for schools to compete is to involve the students with everything. We can no longer just tell students what is right or best.”

Thus, in this New Yorker’s eyes, the way forward is a simple one – if, at first, it may seem a little scary to some.

“We have to ask them what they think,” he said. “Have kids’ representatives at parents’ nights and faculty meetings; take them to conferences. I’m talking smart kids who will give their points of view. We have to involve our students in everything we do.”

That sounds great and will have many people nodding their heads in agreement, but perhaps also scratching them in search of a way to achieve it. Prensky acknowledges the difficulty.

“Yeah, schools could say we’re not going to do that any more. We could see lots of civil disobedience but that’s not the kind of people we are.

“In a normal world, in an economic world, it would be real simple – the part that’s irrelevant would die off. Our schools, however, have a dual purpose that we rarely talk about. On the one hand, it’s to educate kids, and on the other hand it’s to keep them safe so their parents can work. We have this custodial function and throw in a little extra money to educate them while they’re there.

“Think about it. If you’re a teacher and your kids don’t learn, would you be fired? No, you’d be talked to – eventually maybe you’d be fired, but it would take years. Now if you’re a teacher and you said don’t stay in my classroom, go out in the world, you’d be fired in an instant. It’s very dangerous to talk about schools as babysitters. Somebody said it would be career-ending for me to talk about this kind of stuff.”

Of course, change is happening, albeit far too slowly for Prensky’s liking … and he knows who’s to blame.

“I hate the people who throw their hands up in the air and say: ‘the future is going to be so different, what are we going to do? We don’t even know what people’s jobs are going to be.’ Well, yeah that’s true for 100 years’ time – but when these kids grow up they’re going to be interacting with others via technology. No matter what job they have, they’re going to be connected by some kind of computers. It’s stuff you don’t have to be a tremendous seer to predict but we’re not teaching any of that.”

One thing Prensky would like to see is more appropriate learning environments.

“What I think would be so much nicer, instead of building the schools we do, which are kinda ugly buildings, we should build schools that are beautiful on the outside, but on the inside should be barns that we can do anything we want with. That’s how we do theatre – one big empty theatre with lots of design possibilities. You make it different for everything you do.

“If you go to the Internet cafés in Asia, you’ll see there are places where individuals can work, spaces for two, people go there on dates, tables for four, big rooms – it’s all happening.”

You’ll see from his profile that Prensky is heavily involved in educational games – and he sees the philosophy behind them as a key component to moving forward.

“Essentially, games are the paradigm for learning with engagement,” he continued. “Complex games that take time to play involve lots of skill, goals, learning, and decision-making.

“How come in a class of 45 minutes, students haven’t made 50 or 100 decisions, and got feedback? In a game, you make them every half second. It’s essentially a problem with an incredible amount of engagement. The goals in class are ‘learn this’; the goals in games are always ‘be a hero’ … there’s a definite motivation there.”

Prensky was recently named as one of training’s top 10 ‘visionaries’ by Training Magazine and cited as a “guiding star of the new parenting movement” by Parental Intelligence Newsletter. What is his vision for education?

“It’s about everybody really reaching their potential,” he said after a few moments’ thought. “What that means is the ability to go in the directions that inspire or interest someone, but to be guided at the same time, to work with peers, to follow your heart and your instincts, and basically have a good time growing up.

“Not everybody’s going to be an intellectual person, but people should, at the very least, not be afraid of learning. Everybody has interests and everybody should be able to know that they can follow those and find others who share those interests. Somebody said it really well, that this is not the knowledge revolution it’s the connectivity revolution.

“The more we help young people understand how exciting it is to get involved, the better. We’re in such interesting times to grow up, I think.”


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