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New Directions

Three Essential Shifts in Learning

An eighth-grader teaches a course on 21st-century schools.
Socializing with classmates online gets homework done faster.
Students are all online together, so if they have questions, they get faster answers by working together.

I recently asked a group of middle school students to name their favorite use of technology for learning. An eager eighth-grade girl said, “My work has gotten so much better since we started using Facebook to do homework at night in my math class. We’re all online together, so if I have questions, I get them answered while doing my homework, instead of the next day or even later. Sometimes my friends even explain the math better than the teacher, and we send each other links to stuff online.” Wanting to learn more, I asked her which teacher had set up the group. A confused look came over her face as she said, “Oh, the teacher doesn’t know anything about this.”

Her face turned horrorstruck, and she said, “You’re not going to tell our teacher, are you?” Out poured a flood of panicked words, “She’ll never understand. She’ll think we’re cheating on our homework. She’ll think we’re just copying answers. Besides, Billy is only 12, and he’s not supposed to be on Facebook, so he’ll have to see the principal. Please, please, don’t tell the teacher.”

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of education in the 21st century: a student describing her most powerful learning experience—and begging me not to tell her teacher about it.

Three Shifts

Scratch the surface of this anecdote and it reveals several essential shifts in the way we think about learning. Here are three of them, along with the challenges that they raise for me about our schools.

Shift #1: Great teachers online outnumber the great teachers in our schools, and some of them are 13. With 2 billion potential teachers and terabytes of multimedia resources, it’s no accident that our eighth-grade sage loves learning with her friends online. In fact, this kind of individualization of content and instruction is a Holy Grail in education. Our challenge is acknowledging that although we have terrific teachers in our schools, part of their role in 2012 is connecting students to great teachers online (in their classroom or across the globe). Among the challenges inherent in this are teaching them to do it safely, in age-appropriate ways, and improving access for students on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Shift #2: Learning is faster on the Web, and this means that schools need to move faster as well. Reread the way our eighth-grade learner described the process of doing her homework and then receiving feedback 24 to 48 hours later. Her words imply that schools are using a system of communication that’s little better than tin cans and a ball of string. We need to embrace the fact that students can receive feedback in real time at home. The challenge is figuring out how we change our systems of assessment in order to encourage it, and how we alter our systems of interaction to participate in it.

Shift #3: Social networking has created a generation gap, and it’s growing wider. Our eighth-grade scholar’s pride turned to fear because she believed that her school could never understand that “Facebook” did not equal “waste of time” or “cheating.” It’s a fear shared by many students about their online habits, and it’s rooted in the fact that not many educators know how to use online spaces effectively for learning. Our professional development needs to focus on creating connected educators that learn in networks and, therefore, can teach students how to use these skills in ways that enhance their ability to learn.

One Last Shift

Of course, the biggest shift I was reminded of that day was about listening. Our students are exploring social networking on the Web. Their excitement and engagement in this medium can become the basis for a rich dialogue around teaching and learning, but it’s not one we’ve always pursued in the past. In the course of figuring out this new landscape, listening to them is a good place to start.

Rob Mancabelli is a speaker, writer and education consultant. He is the co-author of Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education (Solution Tree Press, 2011).