Friday, February 22, 2008

Prensky Rubish? A Response to a Skeptical Native

Back in January a post was made on TipLine - Gates' Computer Tips regarding a student response to Prensky's, "The Need For Change."
The following is my response to this blogpost. I don't normally repost my comments on others blogs but I feel strong enough about this topic to do so here:

I have always been skeptical of Prensky's work though I am always intrigued by his ideas and inspired by much of what he says. Prensky has a way of convincing most of us that our there is a neurological difference between the generations and that the current young generation is significantly different. He does this by pointing to things that all of us see and speaks to frustrations we all have. He does this in nearly every book or scholarly article he writes. I have to admit that I have at times been convinced by some of his arguments and I still think he has some valid points. Our students are different and the world is changing. That is nothing new. The world is always constantly changing. Change happens in different ways in different fields. Ask a 60 yr old in 1890 if the world was the same as when they were young and I am sure you would get a similar response. Ask an illustrator in the mid 1800s if technology is changing the world and I am sure you would hear an earful since photography brought that profession to a near standstill.

It is the nature of our brains to shape and form based on external stimulus. The stimulus that is around now is different than the stimulus that was around before and is different than the stimulus that will be around in the future. However, there is no affirmative evidence that the way we learn is significantly different today than it was in the past. The way we teach is changing and as Scott McLeod pointed out we have twenty years of research that affirms that a constructivist approach to teaching and learning is more effective than other known models. This does affirm what Prensky tells us about how we teach but what I have always been skeptical of and critical of is the method of content delivery Prensky prescribes. It is not that I don't think games have a place in education, to the contrary I think there is solid research to support their effectiveness (see Malone & Lepper, 1987). The problem is that Prensky represents a business interest that benefits financially from the adoption of a game centered curriculum. Also, as
Jamie McKenzie points out, Prensky is not really a researcher and the whole basis for his Native/Immigrant argument is based on one study that he misquotes and spells the author's name wrong.

Prensky represents a polar end of the argument/topic of technology integration in school. I feel his writings are important for reflective practice but that we are building our houses in the sand by basing important pedagogical and curricular components of our practice on his iterations. The other polar end of this argument is represented by the student/teacher response to Prensky's article. I have to say I whole heartedly disagree with most of what this student/teacher writes, although I must admit that I had some similar responses the first time I read any of Prenskys work. I will address each point separately here:

  1. he wrote: "The problem with constructing a "student-centered" curriculum where the
    students spend their time "learning" by connecting with their peers all
    over the world through blogs and whatnot is that this only works if the
    student knows the material already...The whole point of a teacher is that the teacher knows more about the
    topic than you do, and you need them to impart their knowledge to you
    before you can really do anything with it.
    " -This response missed the point. The use of online publication tools in education is not always meant to be some kind of summative assessment. The value in activities such s blogging or collaborating on a wiki is that these tools are fluid. Students learn from interacting with others. A blog can be used to keep a record of progress on a project and to invite feedback from others outside the classroom community. These tools open up a whole world of human resources to students that were not available, or not easily available, before. Also, a student-centered curriculum is not one where the student dictates what is taught or what they will learn but rather a curriculum where the student interests drive the learning. Idealy this would look something like a student and a teacher both taking turns driving somewhere.
  2. he wrote: "so just because kids seem disconnected in school doesn't necessarily
    have to do with technology. More likely its the usual reasons - they
    see us, like their parents, as authority figures trying to "keep them
    "." I don't think this comment is totally off-base. I do agree that drop-out rates probably have less to do with technology than they have to do with other factors. However, technology can play a factor in possible solutions. I worked at an alternative school for two years. I have seen a lot of students drop out and understand the reasons pretty well in each case. Most of the time these students dropped out for reasons stemming from external factors such as homelessness, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, or involvement in organized crime. Of all the students I saw drop out of high school in the past two years I can only point to engagement as being the prime reason in two cases and those were two of the brightest students I ever encountered in eight years of teaching. In those two cases it was less about the technology but rather the methods of teaching and learning that were at fault. Had we been able to personalize their learning more and teach them, or rather guide them, in academic study that was more rigorous they may not have dropped out. However, both students were not motivated to do more because they knew it would not be sufficiently rewarded. I am sure both of these students will go on, much like this teacher/student's father, and have a successful career and life despite their drop-out status.
  3. he wrote: "What matters is not necessarily how much technology you are using.
    Instead, what matters is if you are moving past pure memorization to
    higher level thinking. If you can use technology to do that, so be it,
    but if not, it doesn't make it any less authentic
    ." I completely agree.

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