What enhances student motivation, engagement and learning? We know many answers to that question.
- Motivation is enhanced when students have the pathways and agency to accomplish tasks on the way to goals that are self-determined.
- Engagement is enhanced when students use their strengths of character and capacity.
- Learning is enhanced when students practice and persevere with mindful grit and determination.
- All of the above are enhanced in the presence of positive emotion and resilience.
We hear regularly in the media and from both teachers and parents that students are increasingly more difficult to engage. Technology, especially in the form of the ubiquitous cell phone, is often considered the culprit. But technology is not going away. Nearly all students in our K-12 schools and most undergraduate universities today are “digital natives”, the term for a person who does not remember ever having lived in a world without digital technology. This matters because we are in a transition period that is about to abruptly end. Rather like the masters of the oral tradition lamenting the coming age of writing, and the great scribes lamenting the invention of the printing press, in the near future we will have only retired teachers to lament the good old days (if they were) of reading, writing and arithmetic.
In their place, our newest teachers, born about 1987, will bring to school an integrated and automatic sense of uses of technology, and they will likely be less offended by the many ways that their students use it. By the time in digital history when these newest teachers were born, the CD-ROM existed, Apple had invented the Mac, and Windows machines were not far behind. The cell phone was invented, too, and ISP’s and e-mail, as we know them (albeit dial-up versions), were around as of 1995. Our newest teachers were only eight. By then they had learned ABC’s, geography, and math facts by playing with the electronic toys and games that would make modern mobile phones and their numerous apps seem completely second nature to them. Digital natives, unlike digital immigrants, have no “good old days” to look back to.
Digital immigrants, on the other hand, are people who have moved (or in some cases were dragged) into the digital age. They may have said of the first cell phones that they would never catch on. After all, who would want to be available 24-7-365, a term that was not yet invented? Conversely, they might have been early adopters, but no matter how tech-savvy digital immigrants think they are, they have a holdover that digital natives do not: they think in the dual languages of before and after digital. Yes, you may be addicted to your Blackberry or texting, but being a digital immigrant means you are not oblivious to the incoming technology tide like a digital native is. Our digital natives are our future, and lamenting the many ways that they do not engage in school as we knew may be true, but it is not helpful.
The digital divide exists even among those with digital tech access. Last week, I tuned my fiber optic-connected, flat panel, HD display to the BBC (technology, but as I was reminded, very low-end) to see Senator Edward M. Kennedy eulogized at his funeral in Boston. I was later chided by one of my students that I had wasted my time, because if anyone had said something that was really important, I could have “YouTubed it” later. Here was a big event, the end punctuation to the Kennedy era, and I was being told that my time could be better spent in some other way. “But then I wouldn’t have seen the whole thing live,” I said. “Exactly,” my student replied.
Compared to one of my early memories, that of sitting on my father’s lap for hours, watching a small flickering black-and-white TV broadcasting JFK assassination news, today’s kids have more news and information available to them in more types of digitally-supported media than we could have imagined back in the days when as a nation we just trusted Walter Cronkite.
Education Reform: Let’s Ask Students What Works
Kids today take for granted that any information they need can be Googled, that their friends are on Facebook or IM, that important events will eventually show up on YouTube, and that they are no one without their cell phone. And from the point of view of the digitally anointed, they are right; there is no need to see a news item “live and late-breaking” since it is digitalized for later consumption, which they may or may not ever take advantage of. On-demand is about more than movies—it is about the way kids want to learn, too.
New approaches for motivation, engagement and learning may only be as far away as kids’ cell phones. Even low-end cell phones do more than make phone calls. For students aged middle school and above, the cell phone is the technology of choice, with capabilities like video, MP3, messaging, HTML browsing, and GPS, in one tiny package.
If we work to find out what students can do with their technology and how they choose to use it, instead of trying to keep that distracting technology out of schools, we might find out more clues to the changes in motivation, engagement and learning. With the power of technology, we can track the effects of these approaches, too. School districts can conduct an Appreciative Inquiry that includes their students and young prospective teachers. To ignore the truth that these people are the future of education—of teaching and learning—will make the inevitable paradigm shift far more painful than getting started now.
Parts of this article were originally featured on the Positive Psychology News Daily. Read my column there on the 5th of each month.