Photo by Sarah
As a teacher, there is no better window into the minds and hearts of students than raising learners of your own. Being a parent has taught me a lot about being an educator. My two children are middle-school aged. They have both always done well in school and each is unique and creative in their own way. Watching them grow and develop in our changing world, particularly as digital learners has been a fascinating and instructive experience, I have enjoyed and appreciated as their mother.
There is some negativity out there these days about kids and the amount they are on their devices. Can this be a problem? Absolutely! In our home-as I hope in others-it is all about balance. And as the adults, we need to model boundaries and sometimes we need to step in and be the voice of reason. My children spend a significant amount of time on their devices but they also play sports, participate in clubs, hang out with friends, play board games, and read. Once again, it’s all about balance. One thing they don’t do much of is watch TV. Their screen time of choice, looks much different than it did when I was growing up.
My son, Nate, is a fairly typical boy of ten when it comes to his interaction with technology. He has a variety of interests. He has his own YouTube channel and a number of people he subscribes to and follows faithfully. He has been on Minecraft for years and after watching his rich experiences using this platform, I need no convincing of the potential value and power of game based learning in the classroom. Nate loves video editing, stop motion animation and documenting challenges, bloopers and comedy. He has also introduced me to the extensive problem solving, critical thinking, logic and math skills he uses regularly in interacting with his Fifa Ultimate League.
My daughter, Sarah, has always had an eye for photography and a passion for the arts and music. I have watched her over the years work through a variety of interests and apps in which she has created beautiful things with the use of technology. This has included: Pottery HD, Adobe Voice & Slate, Book Creator, Font Candy, and Paper 53. In more recent times, she has started to explore more with video production using iMovie, Videoshop and Vivavideo. She produces videos about our cats, friends, #beautyproducts and other interests. Each of her Instagram posts is a work of art as she is thoughtful about each and every photograph and the words she uses. Her latest passion is the app Musical.ly, which is a fast-growing social media network in which you can create instant music videos. Sarah’s beautiful creations are unique, artistic, and so reflective of her as an individual.
My two middle school kids are not just mere consumers when it comes to their digital engagement. They regularly create, interact and make positive contributions through the use of their technology tools. Of course, they also use text, engage in group chats, play gaming apps, and use Snapchat to make funny photos and stories. We have regular conversations around online etiquette and the importance of a positive digital footprint. But unlike most adults I know, myself included, who use their device for mostly consumption, communication, and organizational purposes…my kids also use their devices for creation and production.
So…are my kids, who are regularly and consciously using their technology to create meaningful content to put out into the world, the norm or the exception?
According to my two, many of their friends have similar interests as them online. And in talking to many others their age in my work, I have found similar trends. Is this reflective of ALL kids? I think not, but this seems to be the age group where curiosity and creation with technology may be most prolific. In my experience, as kids get older, it seems we see less of this. So how do we capitalize on the learners we do have, particularly in the 10-13 age group, who are currently embracing technology as a platform for self-expression and creation? As educators, how can we best utilize some of the “experts” we have in our midst to support learning in our classrooms for even more of our students? How can we help translate these competencies our learners demonstrate as producers into life long skills?
The answer lies in letting go. As teachers in this digital age, it is impossible to be experts in all areas when it comes to apps, programs and technology tools. We have to be open to being learners ourselves and handing over some of the control to our students. We have a wonderful opportunity to empower our students by shifting our role and embracing their skills, interests and strengths. In a blog post by Gerald Fussell about the future of learning and schools, he states, “With many of the pathologies associated with social media we have a golden opportunity to ask our kids to give us a tour of an App and have them show us how to use it. We can ask open-ended questions, adopt a non-judgmental stance, and be an authentic learner. What would be the implications of this approach versus others we have tried?”
Two things jump out at me about this statement; one being the idea of “non-judgment”. We need to show interest in what our kids are doing, ask genuine questions and have an understanding that the world is a much different place than it was when we were growing up. This brings to mind the powerful Apple commercial from 2013, which shows a young man “always on his phone” during the holidays. Of course what we later find out is what he has actually been doing with his device all along, is capturing and documenting beautiful images, videos and memories of his family. Are we as parents and as educators, showing enough genuine interest and taking enough opportunity to know what our children are doing with their time online? Are we celebrating some of the rich learning and creativity that may be happening right under our nose?
The second piece of the quote that resonates with me is the notion of being an “authentic learner” ourselves. Recently my daughter and I sat down and she gave me a 30-minute tutorial on Snapchat. I have used Snapchat for months at a basic level but Sarah showed me numerous other functions of the App. She was open to sharing, incredibly patient and an excellent teacher. It was an extremely positive experience for both of us and I learned a ton I didn’t know about this Social Media favourite of our youth. I was an authentic learner in those moments and it benefited us both and strengthened our relationship. I also learned some things about my daughter and her processing, perspectives, and those of her peers that will help me as a mother. As, parents and teachers, are we taking enough opportunity to be authentic learners in the eyes of children? Are we using the opening we have in technology to get to know our students as individuals, sometimes reverse roles, and let them showcase the knowledge and skills they can share with us?
A few years back, when the school I was working in got its first group of iPads I gave my Grade 8 ELA students the assignment of doing an APP review. We had done book, movie and play reviews previously and this seemed like a natural next step. They had to highlight what the app was used for, how it worked and offer evaluative opinions on the App’s merits and drawbacks. I gave them the criteria, they had a choice in how to present their summary, and they shared their findings with the class. It was a great way for all of us to learn about each of the apps on the Suite and the students were super engaged.
After the presentations and learning about the different Apps from their classmates, we took the assignment one step further. All students chose an App they had been introduced to and produced something to share. What I loved most about that early learning with those Apps, was I knew very little about any of them going in. We all learned together.
In Scott MacLeod’s Ted Talks entitled Extra Curricular Empowerment he highlights numerous examples of creative kids doing incredible things with technology. Kids making extraordinary videos having social impact. Kids with blogs read by millions. Kids who are making, creating and producing using technology to have a positive impact on the world, outside of the school day. He states “Curious, confident, self-directed, disciplined, enthusiastic, passionate, critical thinkers, problem solvers…. These are words that apply to the robust, at-home learning our kids are doing with technology but in school…not so much. The challenge is how do we take the extra-curricular and turn it into the curricular?”
As educators we need to capitalize on the interests and skillsets some of our students already have and help them to navigate and use these tools productively as related to curriculum. We need to offer students opportunities to use technology in meaningful ways regularly in school, just like some of them do at home. We need to model, not only being learners ourselves, but also what safe, responsible, and productive use of technology looks like in today’s digital world and today’s classroom. We need to let go of our fear of the unknown, pass over some of the control and allow our students the room to shine as digital learners and leaders. As educators we need to leverage the resources we have, in fact we need to leverage the resources we are surrounded with….our learners.