Digital Natives

My dad is a high school math teacher. And his mother was an English teacher. Education kind of runs in our family, and I've long known that I also want to teach eventually. I'm quite happy doing other things for now, to gain various experiences and such (because I think being well-rounded helps make you a better teacher), but I know that at some point, I want to be teaching.

As such, I put a good amount of thought into educational systems and class structures as I come across them. I love getting new class syllabi just to see what that professor's grading methodology is. Some I'm a big fan of, others I very much dislike, but I'm always thinking about it.

So I found this article by The Economist to be interesting. It talks about the "Millennial Generation" (roughly, those born between 1980 and 2000), also known as "digital natives", and how growing up with modern technology has changed our needs as students. It's an interesting read (not very long at all), and worth checking out, but if you want the sparknotes version, here it is:

Some people think that, because we are very comfortable using things like Facebook and Youtube, it's time to completely overhaul the education system to incorporate this new technology. After all, we aren't the same people our parents were. Others disagree, claiming that as a whole, we are no better or worse at utilizing technology than any other generation (just because I find use in blogging doesn't mean our entire generation does).

My opinion? I think it's a little of both.

I definitely do not think we need a massive overhaul of our education system to better accommodate this generation. (Side note: I actually DO believe we need to massively overhaul our education system, but for very different reasons. That's a topic for another time though). The idea mentioned in the article of professors moving their lectures to Facebook is kind of ridiculous to me. I consider myself a fairly tech-oriented person, and I have zero-interest in taking classes via Facebook.

At the same time, I think we're doing students a major disservice by completely ignoring these technologies; or more importantly, ignoring how they've impacted the ways we interact with each other to aggregate (and even generate) knowledge. This is along the same lines of what I was talking about in my post on a newer "Culture of Communication".

Think about how the current generation of students learned to acquire knowledge - looking it up online. Even very tech-averse people still use Google (or something to that effect) to look for information. For somebody of our generation, the answer to the question "What year was the Magna Carta signed?" is "Let's find out."

Quick aside - When you read that last part, did you know that the answer is 1215? Probably not. Did you think about looking it up, either right then, or maybe after you finish reading? More likely.

What I think needs to be modified because of this is how we are tested, not necessarily how we are taught. In particular, I think open-book, open-note, calculators-allowed (when relevant) tests should be the RULE, not the exception.

This quarter, I had 2 finals that were open everything, 1 that was open book only (no notes, no calculator - though a calculator wasn't really relevant), and one that was closed everything.

The three that were open (to varying degrees)? The professors told us that we needed to understand the material, how things worked, how to solve the problems, etc. The one closed test? The professor told us we had to memorize every term, every formula, every value.

How exactly is that helpful? A test like that doesn't test my ability, it tests my memory. And in this day and age, what I can memorize is worth far less than what I can do. A couple of my friends were taking a poetry class, and had to memorize the tiniest details about 60+ poems. WHY? In the "real world", they can look up the details of a specific poem. Memorizing them doesn't help anybody.

I feel like the opposition to open tests comes from the belief that somebody can just roll in and find all the answers, getting a grade that doesn't reflect their knowledge. But if you think about it (and craft your tests intelligently), this isn't the case.

Back to the poetry class. One of the sections (if I remember correctly) gave an excerpt from some poems, and asked for the author, title, and year. Obviously, in an open-book test, this is simple. Which leads them to "close" their tests, when really, they need to redesign them.

Give a poem, and have the person analyze it, using techniques discussed in class. They should be allowed to look up similar poems in their book, look at their notes on analysis, and use that to guide their analysis. THAT'S a realistic, and doable test.

And if the person never went to class, having the book won't help. Sure, they can look up a poem, but they aren't going to know what to do with it. Same with math - just because I can look up formulas and theorems doesn't mean I'm going to understand them cold. Studying is still important.

But that's what happens - it requires studying, practice, trial and error; not memorizing.

THAT is what we "digital natives" need to change in education, more than anything. We need the method of our evaluation to reflect a realistic scenario. Grades become a better signifier of capability, and WE are better able to assess our skills.


Anonymous said...

I DID know that the answer was 1215. So SUCK IT!


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