Thursday, October 21, 2010

Teaching Digital Learners to Learn Digitally

        I've been quite the learner these days, thanks to technology.  With the web never far away, I have not only a place to find immediate answers to questions, but also free tools that enable me to navigate the sea of digital information with ease.  I use web tools like Diigo (social bookmarking), RSS, iGoogle (web portal) and Google Reader (feed aggregator) to bring the content I want to my computer and organize it in a way that's easily accessible.  Having such control over information has turned me into an absolute learning machine.  I ask a question, find an answer, overhear new conversations, think of new questions, and start over again.  The process continues indefinitely, as the number of questions I ask and the knowledge I own grows exponentially.  

     Technology is the performance enhancing substance of  my learning, even though the process is as natural as it gets.   My own curiosity is what drives me.  No goals, standards, or objectives. There is no final product I intend to produce, and no intended stopping place for my inquiry.   I'm experiencing learning in its most raw of states:  learning for the sake of learning.  I don't think I've been this engaged in the process since I was five.


       I was standing in the hallway with my students the other day during the middle of fourth block, the time when I take the class to the restroom and stand quietly in the hall while I wait for students to come out.  Like most other days, I was using this quiet time to think.  I was contemplating the way I go about learning in my own life conflicts with how learning is done in school.   Considering if, why, and how I could teach my students to learn like I've been, and also wondering if they, perhaps, already were.  

     The first students came out of the bathroom and leaned against the lockers across from me, and I let my curiosity break the silence.  "If you could learn about anything, what would it be?" I asked one of of the girls.

        She looked up at me. "Huh?" she asked.

        "Absolutely anything," I told her.  "If you had complete freedom to learn about anything in the world.  Anything that you were interested in and wanted to know more about....what would it be?"

       She was silent for a moment, a perplexed look growing across her face.   "I don't know," she said hesitantly. 

       She looked at the ground, and I could tell that she was still thinking, so I waited.  Looking back at me, she said again, "I don't know....I guess that I've never really thought about that before."

       By this time the rest of the class had joined us.  I walked my students back to our room and resumed class, but I couldn't help but keep thinking about the exchange I just had with this student.  Her response to me, I decided, was completely unacceptable.


      We live in a society of immediate and instant access to just about any information, anytime, anywhere.   As I've seen first-hand, this reality changes the face of learning dramatically, and I'd say it's for the better.  Discovering how to learn with digital tools has sent me down a path where I have been able to grow as a learner on a scale I had never before experienced.  If I were asked the same question I asked my student in the hall the other day, one that addressed what I would like to learn about, I would have more to say in response than my questioner would have time to listen.

        But when I asked my student this question, she didn't quite know how to respond.  And she wasn't the only one. The group of students around her looked equally baffled by what I had asked.  I'd bet that none of them had really thought much about the their own learning. 

      To me, this just didn't seem right.  As a teacher, I want to cultivate in my students love for learning and the skills they need to continue to grow as learners long after leaving the walls of formal education.  Actualizing this vision, of course, comes with challenges, but the digital world today provides a tremendous opportunity to make this happen. 

      In his last post, David Warlick identified a "vast chasm between the world that we are preparing our children for, and where we are preparing them."  I can see this, too. The 13 and 14 year olds I teach have seamlessly integrated technology into their own lives. Many have amassed hundreds of friends on social networks and can engage in simultaneous conversations through texting.  They are, as characterized by many, digital learners, and we are preparing them for a life in a digital word.  Technology must play a role in how we teach them.  But, if enabling students to become life-long learners is also the goal, then it's not enough for the focus to only be on integrating it into learning.  Students also need the chance to learn how to learn with it.

       So, that's what I'm going to teach them to do.

      Next week, my students will be starting what I will tell them is their Digital Inquiry Project.  I've spent quite a few hours thinking about and planning it out, and while this project most likely won't go as I've planned (new lessons seldom do with 8th graders....for better or for worse), I know that we're on the brink of something incredibly important.  I'll speak more about this plan in greater depth in a later post, and of course, I'll be blogging about the lessons we are all learning along the way.