This was the title of a seminar which Miles Berry and I presented at the 2009 BETT show. The more I think about it, the more important it seems to me that teachers know about what their students can do.
Soon after the BETT show I had occasion to give a presentation in Rotterdam, on the subject of the potential of ICT in education. Again, I did some research and discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, that what young people do and can do in terms of technology is pretty much the same in The Netherlands as it is in the UK as it is in Europe as a whole as it is in the USA.
What do young people do online at home?
This is very much a broad-brush picture, but from the research and reading we have done, it would be true to say the following.
- It may be politically incorrect to say so, but boys and girls tend to conform to gender stereotypes online as well as offline. For example, boys prefer playing games to writing blogs.
- Youngsters really do multitask, because the percentage of their time spent on various activities adds up to a lot more than 100%.
- Despite the emphasis on creativity at the moment, youngsters aren't really all that creative, in the sense of creating stuff, compared to other things they do online.
Summary from http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/sip/docs/eurobarometer/qualitative_study_2007/summary_report_en.pdf
I find it interesting that youngsters are still mainly consumers of content than creators of content. Mind you, it depends on who you ask, of course. In Larry Rosen's Me, MySpace and I, nearly everyone surveyed spent a lot of time tweaking their web page. How surprising is that?
- From their responses, it would seem that young people use the web mainly for "sensible" things, like communicating with friends and doing homework.
Well the chatting to friends I can believe, but homework? I am not completely convinced by that, and I think what we may have here is evidence of some sort of experimenter effect. I wonder if the results would be different were the same surveys to be conducted by young people?
If it is true, I personally think that's something to be concerned about rather than something to celebrate. Kids should be enjoying themselves, not using every spare moment to better their grades.
- The overall impression one gains from all the research is that technology is indeed very much a part of young people's lives. They spend an inordinate amount of time using it, and have a facility for grasping how to use it, at least in a superficial or immediate sort of way.
Whether they are able to easily delve deeper into an application or device, or use it in ways for which perhaps it may not have been intended, is an interesting question.
Like I said, a very broad picture. If you'd like more detail, take a look at the slides from our presentation at Miles' blog. We hope to have the audio accompaniment soon.
Why is this important?
I think we would all agree that it's good practice to base our teaching on what our students already know, understand and can do. If you don't, you run the risk of alienating through boredom and lack of challenge, or through setting work which they find impossible. (These were two of the ten causes of ICT lessons being boring that I identified in my seminal work, Go On, Bore 'Em: How to make ICT lessons excruciatingly dull.)
What this research shows, I think, is that you cannot simply go by what you know they can do from what they have done in school. You also need to find out what they do when they are not in school.
What can you do about it?
The obvious answer is: find out what they can do! You could set up a survey using Google Docs (Go to New-->Form). The results end up in a spreadsheet, making analysis relatively straightforward.
If you include questions like what primary school they went to, if you're in a secondary, that in itself may yield some interesting results. You will need to include age and gender, of course.
If you decide to ask students to give their names, you will need to respect their privacy and not pass that information on. That would be my position, anyway, but you may be in a different situation. In my opinion, it's probably a lot easier to either say that names are optional or simply not to include a field for it. Much more pertinent would be information like the class or registration or option group the students are in.
Feel free to "steal" the questionnaires used by Miles and myself: you'll find the links here.
None of this is intended to be a piece of academic research; rather, it is intended to give you a good basis for deciding on what to teach and where to pitch it.
At least one person left our seminar with the intention of running his own survey within his school, and both Miles and I have said we would be interested in the results of his findings. We'd be interested in yours too, if you decide to do something like this.
What do the Cambridge Primary Review, the 14-19 Diploma and walking down Piccadilly have in common?
In the evening of 19 October 2009 I attended the launch of the Cambridge Review of the Primary Curriculum, at the Royal Society of Arts. What the report brings out is the fact that there is much that children know, understand and can do. This will not be news to anyone who believes that children are (or could and should be) active agents in their own education as opposed to empty vessels into which a teacher pours knowledge. Anyone who believes that teaching is more than merely following a script written by a third party, which is about as creative as painting-by-numbers, knows this.
Indeed, my own small-scale research (please see References), and the research which Miles Berry and I undertook (ditto), shows this to be the case. So hearing it emphasised at such a meeting and in such a robust publication was most welcome.
It was interesting to learn, for example, that when asked what makes a good teacher, the children came up with the same answers instantly as academic researchers take eons to discover! The teacher must know their stuff, make learning fun, and tell the class in advance what they will be covering.
(I intend to write a separate article about the Cambridge Review, but I'd like to go on record now as saying I think it's a seminal piece of work, and likely to prove the modern-day equivalent of the Plowden Report (and no doubt suffer the same fate). I haven't read the final bit about ICT thoroughly yet, but was impressed enough by the statement, at the launch, that ICT was seen as fundamental a type of literacy as oracy or numeracy, and not merely as an instrument for achieving something else, to say that perhaps I was wrong when I said the educational ICT community should reject the ICT aspects of the report. But, as I say, I will write more when I have read more)
The following day I attended a Westminster Forum on the subject of Diplomas and Apprenticeships, as I have already mentioned. There are two dangers in education. One is that conference organisers too often fail to include young people as an integral part of the programme. Another is that good ideas like the Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills will end up as just more sets of tickboxes for teachers to complete.
I am delighted to say that my worse fears on both counts were allayed at the seminar. Not only did the organisers have the good sense to include a talk by a young person, the school had the good sense to choose an excellent spokesperson!
Victoria is undertaking the Advanced Diploma in Engineering, and was one of the most articulate speakers I've heard. In her allotted five minutes she managed to convey vividly the benefits and challenges of the Diploma, and what doing it has meant for her personally.
She also said, in response to a question of mine, that her teacher's ability to teach the course improved dramatically after s/he had attended an Inside The Workplace event as part of their professional development!
Victoria was accompanied by a friend, who sat in the front row giving her moral support, and who was also prepared to assist in answering questions. In speaking to their teacher I found out that preparing for, taking part in and attending such events was all part of the school's approach to teaching Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills.
Finally, whilst walking down Piccadilly writing the draft for this article in my head, I was brought back to the here and now by a girl asking me if I knew where Regents Street was. I replied that I did, and that it would be easier for me to take her there than to try to give directions (and before you leap to any conclusions, I should mention that she was accompanied by her mother!). We got chatting, and it turns out that the reason she was in London was to attend St James's Palace, where she was presented with her Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award by Prince Philip, the Duke himself. Just listening to the catalogue of what she had done in order to achieve the award was enough to make me feel exhausted!
So what do these three episodes have in common? I think the obvious conclusion is that young people know and can do an awful lot, given the right set of circumstances. So, as far as ICT is concerned, what are the 'right circumstances'? I would suggest the following:
- Start from the premise that the young person in front of you knows a lot, but is keen to know more.
- Provide a real challenge, as far as possible, not a made up, and therefore irrelevant, one.
- If audience is involved, let it be a real and important audience. Victoria sat next to, and was spoken to by, Tim Boswell, MP. That's more than a lot of adults have done. And it's so much more meaningful than having an 'audience' of several thousand unknown people on YouTube in my opinion.
- Build the teaching and learning of Functional Skills, Personal Learning and Thinking Skills and other kinds of skill into the work itself, not as some kind of artificial add-on.
- Make learning enjoyable.
- Treat the young people as adults, as far as possible. At least, treat them with respect: the ideas and opinions and scenarios they come up with may pleasantly surprise you.
- Make sure you and your colleagues obtain relevant and enjoyable professional development.