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The Digital Lives of Teens: "If You Don't Have a Plan for Them, They Will Have a Plan for You"

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In a recent episode of the new HBO series, Silicon Valley, which tells the story of the trials and tribulations of a young startup company called Pied Piper, we see a scene that captures the challenges faced by non-techies in a land of techies. At a tech conference geared to pitching new ideas, the Pied Piper team mans a booth and prepares for its six-minute pitch.

The hardworking, earnest Jared eagerly and enthusiastically shows up at the team's booth with an inch think pile of printouts. He tells the team that he has researched all of the companies attending the conference and gathered photos of every conference participant in an effort to help the team with networking. Jared eyes a participant a few feet away and frantically starts searching through his printouts to find out who the person is. Meanwhile, Dinesh, a clever, fast-talking programmer on the team, pulls out his phone, points it at the participant, and tells Jared who the participant is. Jared stares dumbfounded at Dinesh and asks, "How did you do that?" Dinesh responds, "Oh, there's an app for the conference. All you have to do is point it at the person, and you gather all of the key data." Jared is heartbroken. His body language sinks. He takes his reams of paper and dumps them in a trash can, only to be called out by a woman walking by who tells him that he threw the paper in the trash can and not the recycling bin. A dejected Jared retrieves the paper and sets out to look for the recycling bin. This character can't seem to do anything right.

Behind the Curve

This scene captures the tension that schools and teachers face with technology adoption. Like Jared, teachers are working so hard to get up to speed with technology, apps, devices, networks, and professional development. The pace of change is exponential. Many teachers find themselves in the same position as Jared -- overworked, under-appreciated, and left holding an "old" model in their hands. It doesn't feel good to them.

The kids they are teaching use technology in an intuitive manner, much in the same way that Dinesh responded to Jared in the scene described above. The kids know of no other way to approach a situation, other than to use what they know and have in front of them -- a device or an app. And the immediacy of solving the problem is gratifying.

For schools, the challenge is how to bring together kids' "native" knowledge regarding technology and teachers' pedagogical experience without entering into a tug-of-war battle that teachers will inevitably and invariably lose when technology is in the ring.

A colleague of mine from many years ago gave me sage advice regarding working with middle schoolers: "If you don't have a plan for them, they will have a plan for you."

There is no truer statement when it comes to deploying technology in schools. Teachers have to design learning experiences around challenging problems where the technology is a tool that needs to be used to solve the problem. If technology sits idly on the side, kids will go in their own direction, gravitating toward games and other "distractions," and teachers will feel "gamed" by the kids. The kids will make their own plan.

So, what can schools and teachers do?

6 Tips for Comfortably Inhabiting Your Students' Digital World

1. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Ask the kids about how they want to learn at the start of a unit. Lay out the learning goals and enlist the kids in a discussion of how technology might be used to deepen the learning experience.

2. Use the kids' expertise.

If something gets stuck, like a projector malfunction, let your students solve the problem, and get out of their way while they're doing it.

3. Games can teach, and they are social.

Start playing games with the kids. Check out the App Store, see what's popular, and get on board. If you play with them, the kids can teach you a lot, and they'll see that you're showing interest in their world.

4. Don't get hung up on the rules.

It's a game of whack-a-mole to try legislating every aspect of behavior around technology. It's exhausting and a waste of energy and resources. Yes, kids will occasionally misuse technology. That's OK. It's an opportunity for a conversation and an opportunity to learn from the child. I've learned more about technology through conversations about "transgressions" than almost any other way.

5. Be a learner.

The best teachers are the best learners. Approach technology from a place of curiosity and connection.

6. Don't give up or give in.

The best part about Jared's character on Silicon Valley is that he does not give up, he continues to work hard, and he is determined to find his way into the land of technology startup culture. The same can be true for teachers. Don't give up, continue to explore, and find ways to reach and teach students with technology. Be open to possibility with kids.

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The Digital Lives of Teens: Part 2 (Fall 2013)
More about the impact of social media and instant data access on teen life

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

@theEdTechSchool's picture

I completely agree that using technology to immediately solve problems needs to be integrated into our pedagogy as students are used to it. But, even in 2014, I think we need to be far more careful about how far we stereotype students as 'digital natives'. Until there is complete, or greater equity, in terms of students' access to digital technology we need to avoid stereotyping a generation while we marginalise more deprived students with less access to social media and technology.

Torn Halves's picture

"...the challenge is...

"...the kids' "native" knowledge regarding technology...

"you're showing interest in their world..."

Another challenge is helping students realise that "their world" is not the world, and also realise that it is not really "their world" (as opposed to being Bill Gates's or Mark Zuckerberg's world, for instance). Education at its best changes students, and performs on the individual the same sort of revolution effected for Western civilisation by Copernicus - a radical decentring of a naive worldview. In the process it is to be hoped that what the author refers to here as "knowledge regarding technology" comes to be seen as something that hardly deserves the name of knowledge at all (technical know-how, perhaps, but not knowledge).

Dr. Stephanie Hatten's picture
Dr. Stephanie Hatten
District Digital Learning Coordinator, Narrative Researcher, Mom of 4 Digital Natives

I love the article. I am a tech spec and I am still behind in tech compared to my four teenagers at home. We have grown closer when I have had them teach me. I think these tips are great for parents as well. Most parenting tips I read are all about monitoring, not using the tech to grow closer. I know tech has helped our relationship because we discuss social media esp. My daughter and I presented a TedXTalk about our rules of respect and that brought us even closer.

MrsNunn's picture

I enjoyed reading your article. Even though I feel young the more technology that I hear about the more I realize I have much to learn when it comes to new technology. I LOVED your first point. I like going to my students to get their ideas so I will definitely try this when the school year starts. One thing that I will try to work on this year is to continue learning and try new types of technology - like blogs!

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