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Our Children Are Telling Us How They Want to Learn

Are you listening?

Cathie: Just when you thought the youth of today couldn't spend any more time on their electronic devices, a new Kaiser Family Foundation report, "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds," documents that they actually are.

Elliot: "The average young American now spends practically every waking minute—except for the time in school— using a smartphone, computer, ?" That's the lead line from the article on the report that appeared on the front page of The New York Times.

Cathie: I think this article will either confirm folks' worst fears of technology use by America's youth, or it will confirm their belief that schools need to stop fighting the kids about their technology use outside the classroom and adopt it for use in school.

Elliot: People are busy; they won't read the article. So here is one more quote: "With media use so ubiquitous, it [is] time to stop arguing over whether it [is] good or bad and accept it as part of children's environment like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat."

Cathie: I mentioned this study to some colleagues, and all I got were blank stares. It has not received any real attention in the education world.

Elliot: That's probably because the education world is so embroiled in testing, budget cuts, testing, budget cuts...

Cathie: Do you think schools are stuck?

Elliot: Yep.

Cathie: A colleague in upstate New York, whose district is considering a one-to-one, mobile learning initiative, asked his middle school students whether they would prefer a netbook or a smartphone.

Elliot: This one is easy. And the answer, by an overwhelming majority, was... ?

Cathie: ...smartphones. But students' preference for small, mobile, handheld devices is not a new thing. Remember way back in the old Palm days?

Elliot: ...a district in Texas asked students in a creative writing course whether they wanted a laptop or a Palm handheld with a keyboard.

Cathie: And again, by an overwhelming majority, the students said they wanted Palm devices, since they could use them for writing wherever and whenever they wanted.

Elliot: Tell the upstate New York story, please.

Cathie: You mean the one where the sixth-grade boy actually hugged the telco technician who brought the smartphones into his classroom during a one-to-one rollout and said, "This is the way school should be"?

Elliot: I forgot that one.

Cathie: Then maybe you mean the story of the 12-year-old who, after a two-hour demo where fifth-grade students, each paired with two school administrators, showed the administrators how they were using smartphones in their classrooms?

Elliot: ...asked if he could say something to the group. In front of 100 adults, he said, "I want to thank you for bringing smartphones into our school to help us learn."

Cathie: Yes, and one of the lads nodded his head and said, "Way to go, Kev."

Elliot: Do you think that students are telling us something?

Cathie: What they are saying, in fact, is well documented on the Speak Up Day Web site, which contains interviews with over 300,000 K12 students.

Elliot: There's a totally pithy quote from a student posted there: "Let me use my own devices and tools."

Cathie: We have run into some school administrators who are listening to the students.

Elliot: And they all have one thing in common, which I capture in the Soloway Mobile Litmus Test for administrators.

Cathie: You mean the Norris-Soloway Mobile Litmus Test.

Elliot: Oops! My bad. Yes, the Norris- Soloway Mobile Litmus Test. If an educator says something like, "I was watching my kids use their cell phones," then the district is ripe for using mobile learning devices.

Cathie: The evidence-based research crowd would be appalled by your?

Elliot: ...our?

Cathie: ...litmus test.

Elliot: Malcolm Gladwell would tell them to "get over it." That's how decisions are made.

Cathie: However we do it, we had better be listening to our children; they are telling us how they want to learn.

Visit Cathleen and Elliot's Tech Disruptions blog at

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow Learning in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder of GoKnow.