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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Creating Learning Environments

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

A while ago I witnessed students that were taking computer-based classes. It surprised me that they were passing their tests with ease until I figured out what they were doing. They had two screens open -- one was the computer-based course and the other screen was Google, Wikipedia, or Ask Jeeves. When they ran across a question they did not know, they just looked up the answer on one of those other sites (we had to shut that capacity down in a jiffy).

This incident made me think a bit. What do teachers have to offer students when students can learn anything they want from searching for it on the Internet? Why should a student sit in class (or classes) all day long when they can find all the information they need instantly? With so much knowledge everywhere, aren't we trying to sell a product they already have?

Come to think of it, I'm no different than those students in the computer-based learning class. When I wanted to install radiant barrier insulation in my attic all I had to do was go online and look it up. Hundreds of videos, websites, and resources popped up. I read through a few, saw that they were selling more than explaining and I went on to others. I watched a couple of how-to videos that seemed to know what they were talking about and so I used them as my model (disclaimer: installing the radiant barrier is not as easy as the videos make it appear). Voila! So with a little bit of research, I became an instant expert on something I did not know anything about previously.

Here’s another example. The other day in class, I couldn't remember how to spell a word and before I could turn around and find a dictionary, a student had already looked it up on her phone. I had it right, but it got me thinking again. How is the instant knowledge (that is available almost everywhere) changing how students learn and view education? Deep stuff. We are not quite to the point of the science fiction concepts of instant knowledge, though rapidly science fiction becomes science fact. It seems to me that we are in a transition period, primarily because we still have a huge digital divide -- some students and schools have access to technology resources, while others do not.

Even if the technology were ubiquitous (I really like that word) in school and out of school, the answer to that question is simple: Instant knowledge has changed how everyone learns because the questions we need to have answered are just a few clicks away, and this brings up more questions—Can I trust the answers? How can I double check for accuracy? What information is missing?

In the Classroom

With so much knowledge available, good and bad, for students, it boils down to a consistent focus on what they need to know. What is the role of a teacher in such a scenario? Well, we need to put aside the traditional knowledge acquisition model, “You need to know this just in case” to a new model, “You need to know this in order to (build, create, resolve, discover…) that.” The main effort of teaching shifts to designing learning environments that enable the students to realize they "need to know" certain things in order to accomplish others. How do we do this? Let me illustrate:

In my Spanish II classes, I create scenarios that motivate students to learn Spanish. For example, in order to have a reason to learn the vocabulary and phrases for travel, we recreated a hotel and the students were the employees and the guests. They created the registration forms, brochures, letter head, menus, television guides, and most importantly they researched, designed, and practiced the interactive dialogues that typically occur in hotels across the Spanish speaking world. This learning environment gave them an authentic reason to learn the verbs and the Spanish phrases that pure book-work could not provide.

The same kind of thing happens in an English class when they create newspapers, or publish books, and in social studies or history when they role-play the armistice of World War I, or the debates between Lincoln and Douglass. Science teachers do this when they design inquiry lessons about the nature of salt, or experiments concerning plant growth and fertilizer. Math teachers create rich learning environments for students to practice their skills when they set up a bakery business and students have to make financial decisions that can make the shop successful or can make it go out of business.

When the micro-computer came into vogue in schools, doomsday prophets predicted the demise of the public school teacher. Now, we have so much more technology in schools and student's pockets, and we still have teachers. What then, will be the role of the teacher when each student can look up every answer on their wrist phone, or with their eyeglasses? My answer is that we will always need great teachers. The teacher's role will be to motivate and inspire the students to want to learn, but for this to happen, the teacher must first provide a compelling answer to the oft-repeated question, "Why do I need to know this?"

How do you create learning environments that motivate students to learn? Please share in the comment section below.

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Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Stephanie's picture
Stephanie
Secondary Social Studies

Ben,
I teach at a school where each student is required to have a computer. I agree with you entirely that our role as a teacher has changed. Since my students now have these tools at their fingertips I find that my role is to convince them to take ownership of their learning. As you said, "why do I need to know this?" I present problems to my students, and give them the tools to solve the problems. This entire process requires a much greater depth of thinking and processing. Yes, they have technology in their pockets, but the challenge now becomes how will they use it to solve whatever problem I place before them. I find it great for differentiation because students are able to challenge themselves appropriately.

Dorothy Petrie's picture
Dorothy Petrie
Chairperson ~ PACE (Parents Advocating Challenge in Education)

I take issue with the notion of "instant knowledge". Is there such a thing? Sure, some kinds of knowledge are facts and information, and the manner in which one acquires them, I suppose, may not matter. But "knowing" facts or information does not necessarily mean comprehension, does it? And it certainly doesn't indicate a practical understanding of a subject, let alone an appreciation or even mastery of a given body of knowledge. I have several dictionaries in my house. I have a three copies of "To Kill a Mockingbird" in my library. (I have not purchased an electronic version as of yet.) I have several Biology and Algebra textbooks, as well as more than a handful of devices that I may access the internet within seconds. I propose that we might want to think of this "instant knowledge", because technology is ubiquitous, as a resource, something akin to Cliffnotes, which have been around for some time.
"Why do I need to know this?" seems to be a question that educators have difficulty answering, or in some cases, defending. My response: Don't you want to know this?! The scenarios that you provide for the practical learning of Spanish are excellent examples of how interesting hands-on assignments make learning a foreign language fun and an active demonstration of how having a working command of the language my serve someone. Is that a sufficient answer to the question of "Why"? It may be. Why do we educate our children in the first place? This is the larger question that I will not attempt to answer fully here. There is enormous pressure these days, and it is on the tongues of every education reformer, to make sure our children have the "skills", the necessary "skills" to compete and succeed in the world. We are, I believe, something more than economic beings....and answering the question of
"why to I need to know this?" must be something a bit more than mere practicality, more than what this knowledge can do for you. Through education, young people learn to become methodical, to examine their own work, to self-reflect. School is a place where a student's world can open up, where a young person can begin to learn where they fit in the scheme of things. I am pretty sure none of this can be found on Google, or ask.com, and all the laptop or tablet filled classrooms in the world won't impart that kind of knowledge to a student.

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

" (we shut that capacity down in a jiffy). " I'm always curious why we as educators jump to clamp down on a practice which every professional does on a daily basis. If I have a problem with my electronic gradebook, or need a quick refresher on the trig lesson I'm delivering I either look it up or seek help from colleagues, yet when kids follow these strategies they're generally chastised for "cheating". What is it that we are after, rote knowledge, or an ability to problem-solve?

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

Stephanie, just curious, can students truly be expected to take control of their learning when they have zero to little control over the courses required for graduation and their content therein?

joe johnson's picture
joe johnson
Director of Technology

For a long time I have fought to have this the major discussion for our schools. School leaders must begin this discussion now! Old hands often say well just give it time and we will drop that and go back to what we have always done. Not so in a new world. We are now in the J curve of exponential change after 4000 years of slow increases in communication, travel, and the availability of knowledge to digest, rethink, and grow. Our students have information and the knowledge of ages at their finger tips and can now find it, manipulate it, and grow both it and from it. Our role as educators much change as well as the where, when, how, and why of education. If not we will be superfluous in another decade or our country will be.

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