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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The 21st-Century Digital Learner

How tech-obsessed iKids would improve our schools.
By Marc Prensky
Credit: David Julian

I give presentations to educators at every level, all around the world. All of the teachers are earnestly trying to adapt their educational system to the twenty-first century. During my talks, however, I typically look out at oceans of white hair. Never -- I can't even say rarely -- is a kid in sight or invited to the party.

It is a measure of the malaise of our educational system that these old folk -- smart and experienced as they may be -- think they can, by themselves and without the input of the people they're trying to teach, design the future of education.

One of the strangest things in this age of young people's empowerment is how little input our students have into their own education and its future. Kids who out of school control large sums of money and have huge choices on how they spend it have almost no choices at all about how they are educated -- they are, for the most part, just herded into classrooms and told what to do and when to do it. Unlike in the corporate world, where businesses spend tens of millions researching what their consumers really want, when it comes to how we structure and organize our kids' education, we generally don't make the slightest attempt to listen to, or even care, what students think about how they are taught.

This is unacceptable and untenable. It's also dangerous. We treat our students the way we treated women before suffrage -- their opinions have no weight. But just as we now insist that women have an equal voice in politics, work, and other domains, we will, I predict, begin accepting and insisting that students have an equal voice in their own education. Or else our students will drop out (as they are doing), shoot at us (ditto), sue us, riot, or worse.

So, whenever and wherever I speak, I do my best to bring my own students to the meetings. I ask my hosts to select a panel of a half-dozen or so kids of different grade levels, genders, and abilities to talk with me and the audience. I ask only that the students be articulate and willing to speak their minds in front of an audience of educators. Some groups embrace the idea enthusiastically; others are wary. A few tell me they "just can't find" kids -- and this, from teachers -- or cite some rule that prevents kids from being there. Nonetheless, I persist, both hoping for an effective panel and believing that the group will provide a model for integrating student input about their education into schooling and planning.

Credit: David Julian

What do I find? Almost all the groups are pleased and surprised by the result. In fact, the student panels are generally the highlight of my appearances. This comment after a discussion in front of the West Virginia Department of Education is typical: "It was the best thing we've ever done."

By design, I typically don't meet the students until just before I speak, and my only instructions are to "tell the truth as much as you feel comfortable." I never know what the kids are going to say. One colleague told me, "That's really brave." I don't see it that way. I see the panels as an opportunity to hear what the students think -- whatever that may be. Listening to our students is always interesting and worthwhile, whether the kids are speaking their own minds (almost always the case) or whether they are channeling careful coaching they have received in advance from their teachers and parents (which happens occasionally, and is always quite obvious).

My approach, when conducting these panels, is to first ask the students a few setup questions:

  • What experiences in school really engaged you?
  • How do you use technology in school as opposed to outside of school?
  • What are your pet peeves?

The kids are allowed to pass if they don't want to answer, which takes some of the pressure off, and the audience is invited to join in later.

Every one of these panels is unique, but certain common threads emerge: The students generally express a variety of feelings -- gratitude for the good teachers they have, and frustration with the greater number they find not so good. They are full of ideas but often skeptical that things are going to change much.

So why am I, at the ripe old age of sixty-two, the person who gives students a voice? Perhaps it's because the students agree with what I have to say. (They usually hear my talk before the panel.) Perhaps it's because I communicate somehow to the kids that I truly respect their opinions. It turns out that not everyone can moderate these panels successfully, especially at first. It takes a willingness to accept whatever is said -- good or bad, agree or disagree. But it is important for educators to try, because they so rarely converse with their kids about how they want to learn.

When I first started doing these panels, I regret, I took no notes. But over the past year I have tried to write down as many of the comments as possible. I have heard some enormously insightful comments from the students, particularly about the differences between students and their teachers. "There is so much difference between how students think and how teachers think," offered a female student in Florida. A young man commented, "You think of technology as a tool. We think of it as a foundation -- it's at the basis of everything we do."

"A lot of teachers make a PowerPoint and they think they're so awesome," said a girl in Florida. "But it's just like writing on the blackboard." A student in Albany, New York, pleaded the case for using technology in the classroom: "If it's the way we want to learn, and the way we can learn, you should let us do it."

One teacher queried, "Do computers cut you off from the world?" Not at all, said an excited student: "We share with others and get help. Technology helps -- it strengthens interactions so we can always stay in touch and play with other people. I've never gone a day without talking to my friends online."

One California high school served up a dose of common sense: "Kids grew up around computers. They love them. Their computers are their second teachers at home." A student in West Virginia offered this nugget: "If I were using simulation in school, that would be the sweetest thing ever!"

More than half of all secondary school students are excited about using mobile devices to help them learn; only 15 percent of school leaders support this idea.

Source: Project Tomorrow. Credit: David Julian

Blah, Blah, Blah

OK, so kids love computers. They all agree on that. There's another thing they agree on: No matter where I go in the world -- the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, or New Zealand -- students are mind-numbingly bored in class. Listen up:

"I'm bored 99 percent of the time." (California)

"School is really, really boring." (Virginia)

"We are so bored." (Texas)

"Engage us more." (Texas)

"[My teachers] bore me so much I don't pay attention." (Detroit)

"Pointless. I'm engaged in two out of my seven classes." (Florida)

"The disconnect between what students want and what they're receiving is significant," said Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, which tracks youth culture. "Student frustration is rising."

I've heard some teachers claim that this is nothing new. Kids have always been bored in school. But I think now it's different. Some of the boredom, of course, comes from the contrast with the more engaging learning opportunities kids have outside of school. Others blame it on today's "continuous partial attention" (CPA), a term coined by Linda Stone, who researches trends and their consumer implications. Stone describes CPA as the need "to be a live node on the network," continually text messaging, checking the cell phone, and jumping on email. "It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis," she writes. "We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything."

CPA differs from multitasking, which is motivated by a desire to be more efficient and typically involves tasks that demand little cognitive processing. We file and copy while we're talking on the phone and checking email, for instance.

Is this really new? I don't think so. In fact, I think it has always been the case. Excluding emergencies, or other experiences in which one's adrenaline is flowing, humans typically always have multiple things on their minds. Still others attribute the boredom to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but the T-shirt I recently saw a kid wearing in Rockefeller Center belies this theory: "It's Not Attention Deficit -- I'm Just Not Listening!"

It's none of the above. If you believe the opinions of kids around the world (and you ignore them at your peril), the source of the problem is abundantly clear, and it's this: Today's kids hate being talked at. They hate when teaching is simply telling. They hate lectures and tune them out.

I've heard teachers argue that some subjects and topics need to have lectures, but, in truth, this is only a justification for the failure of those teachers to change how they teach. It is absolutely not true; there are other ways, in any discipline, to get students to learn exactly the same material without lectures -- as well as without worksheets, something else the kids tell us they really hate.

There are better ways to help them learn, and students expect us, as the adults in the room, to know how to use them. They say, for example, "If you made it more interesting we would respond better." And, "If you give us a goal to get to, we'll get there."

Students universally tell us they prefer dealing with questions rather than answers, sharing their opinions, participating in group projects, working with real-world issues and people, and having teachers who talk to them as equals rather than as inferiors. Hopefully, this is useful information for teachers and other educators -- and it is important that educators realize just how universal these opinions are.

Nearly two-thirds of secondary school students want to use laptops, cell phones, or other mobile devices at school.

Source: Project Tomorrow. Credit: David Julian

"My Brain Is Exploding . . ."

For me, though, the best part of the student panels is always hearing the kids' answers to my final question. I ask about their experience that day and whether their soapbox proved useful. "How do you like being able to talk to your teachers and supervisors about your learning?" I ask. I truly love their answers:

"I like the fact that we become equals. Students do not get the opportunity that often to share their ideas. If students and teachers could collaborate, a lot more would get done." (Anaheim, California)

"A lot of students care -- you just don't realize it." (Poway, California)

"Most of the time, the teachers are talking and I want to go to sleep. But now my brain is exploding." (Poway, California)

"Don't let this be a onetime thing." (Poway, California)

"I think it's important that you take time to see what we feel." (West Virginia)

"Now you know what we think and how we feel. Hopefully, that will go to the heart." (Texas)

"I waited twelve years for this." (Texas)

"I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it!" (Texas)

"As a general rule, you don't hear from kids unless they've gotten into trouble." (Anaheim, California)

"Both groups [teachers and students] can learn from each other." (Anaheim, California)

"If you don't talk to us, you have no idea what we're thinking." (Hawaii)

Clearly, the kids find it valuable to share with their educators their opinions on how they want to learn. Although skeptical, they hope those teachers and administrators who are trying to improve their education think so, too, and listen carefully to what the students have to say. Again, quoting the kids:

"It would be good if teachers have this conversation with us on the first day. But often, they don't change anything." (Texas)

"I hope this didn't just go in one ear and out the other." (Texas)

Have there been any quantifiable results in terms of real changes to the students' daily lives? It's hard (and probably early) to tell, although I do know for certain that the panels have had an influence on the administrators in the audiences. Many superintendents have invited me back to do the talks and panels again for their principals and teachers. Australian administrators distributed a three-CD set of the kids' discussions to every teacher they supervise. My great hope is that, once modeled, these types of conversations will be repeated frequently in our schools, in the United States, and around the world.

Bottom-Up Input

After hosting dozens of these conversations, I realize one thing: We just don't listen enough to our students. The tradition in education has been not to ask the students what they think or want, but rather for adult educators to design the system and curriculum by themselves, using their "superior" knowledge and experience.

But this approach no longer works. Not that the inmates should run the asylum, but as twenty-first-century leaders in business, politics, and even the military are finding out, for any system to work successfully in these times, we must combine top-down directives with bottom-up input. As the students have told me on more than one occasion, "We hope educators take our opinions into account and actually do something!" Until we do, their education will not be the best we can offer.

Marc Prensky is a speaker, writer, consultant, and game designer in the critical areas of education and learning. He is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning and Don't Bother Me, Mom, I'm Learning.

Comments (66)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer Caldwell's picture

I believe that the students' imput is valuable but it can not drive the curriculum. If this is the way it is meant to be then each state should have a panel of students providing information about how the state creates the required curriculum. Teachers have been allowed less and less flexibility about the topics taught in the classrooms. Curriclum mapping, state standards and testing have dictated the lessons. This article should be directed more to the state education departments.

dan gray's picture

Student input is an important component to planning, but is just a fractional part of the whole process.

I agree with Jennifer Caldwell. There seems to be less and less time to be flexible with the curriculum and what is taught in class.

becky collins's picture

I think getting student input is a good "idea". However, it's not just a teacher problem. All levels within the educational system have to be on board. When we are given strict guidelines on what to teach, when to teach it and a time frame to get it done, this limits the amount of student input.

Joni Walvatne's picture

As a fourth grade teacher in my 3rd year I'm attempting to have more student input. Currently they complete student interest surrveys during the first week of school. I find this helps me learn about how they learn best. We also create projects and develop our own rubrics. However this takes time. When my fourth graders come into my room and I ask them these questions which get them thinking about how they learn, they seem puzzled at first. When they see that I'm truly interested in their opinions the more they share. Having student input in my classroom hasn't happened overnight, it takes time. We do a lot of exploring together. On a personal note it was a little intimidating for me to let go of some the control in my classroom, but I also enjoy seeing where my students learning will take them. This article was very encouraging. Thanks!

Joni Walvatne's picture

As a teacher in my 3rd year of teaching I have found that asking for student input can take our class on an educational journery. We have had so much fun sharing our ideas and trying new things. I know I enjoy the role as facilitator while my students teach one another. I can honestly say that student input doesn't happen in every class that I'm responsible for teaching yet. I learning right along with my students and I'm very new in the teaching world as well as allowing for student input. I want their learning environments to be as positive and as enjoyable as possible and this takes time to develop. My students often struggle with respecting other peoples opinions. It is a work in progress and I enjoyed reading this article on student involvement in their learning.

Gabe's picture

Letting the youth of the nation speak their mind is great. You can understand their need and wants. But it is up to the adult what is a need and what is a want. We are in an age that is all about selfishness, and I need what I want, and I deserve better, and it's all about me.

I don't believe it is fair to compare kids not being able to voice their opinions to women being suppressed by hegemonic masculinity. Women are developed mentally, are mature, can make more informed decisions. Are you suggesting that teenagers should be able to decide how late they stay up, and all activities they choose to be apart of. Isn't there a reason adults are apart of the rearing process? Perhaps we are forgetting the discipline part of schooling.

That all being said, we need to use technology in our schools, perhaps we can take hints from students, but as many of these other comments have suggested: just asking a student how doing something you don't want to do makes you feel, does not insure better education.

What does our society turn into if we only do things that make us feel good, and make us happy, and are fun, and not boring?

Chelsey Heidemann's picture

Our school is very curriculum heavy and as a second grade teacher I find it hard to believe my students have the time to be bored. On the other hand I can see how they would be bored with the work because sometimes I get bored just checking their workbooks and worksheets. Before starting my instructional technology program and I was a little overwhelmed with trying to find ways to make my classroom more interesting. At the beginning of the year I have the kids and parents fill out a paper that tells me how they learn best and their interests. This worksheet is really helpful for me as I plan lessons and think of ways to engage them more. I will admit that technology in my school is almost non-existent at every grade level and there is no excuse for it. I think this article could serve as a wake-up call to many teachers in regards to listening to their students and giving them a voice. I know that I'm going to work harder next year on engaging my students the way they learn and incorporate more technology into my day.

Marty Mark's picture

Thank you for this thought provoking post. I immediately recognized myself in this student quote: "You think of technology as a tool. We think of it as a foundation -- it's at the basis of everything we do." I can't count the number of times that I've said technology is "a tool to accomplish other tasks". This quote has encouraged me to take another look at my way of thinking regarding technology.

Stacy Marcus's picture

Last school year I taught a new class that dealt with technology in the business world. I thought I would ask the students about technology that they would like to learn more about and then I would try to put a business twist to it. It was a very enjoyable class. The students really got involved in learning the technology and often gave me tips on how to use the technology. Then we had good discussions about how this would be beneficial to the business world. It is encouraging to read an article about how teachers need to involve students more in their learning experience. The more of a say students have, the more involved they may get into their education. Students do need to realize that all of their opinions may not be used but it will help the teacher create a classroom that is not boring. Businesses survey their customers about their products; teachers need to do the same for their students. As I have learned from my experience, it makes the classroom more enjoyable for the student and the teacher. This may be easier said than done when teachers feel rushed to get through certain curriculum but if we teach the way students learn, then we may create a richer classroom experience for our students and prepare them more for the real world.

Deb Bruxvoort's picture

Your point of asking for student input is well taken, and holds true outside the classroom too. Involving students on task forces and committees that make policies and plans that will directly affect students could also be an enlightening experience for all involved. Just make sure we're not just paying lip service.

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