At a conference yesterday, a colleague approached me and asked me about working with “these students today.” Since being on a sabbatical and overseeing an outreach program at his institution, he’s been away from teaching for a few years. This semester, however, he’s back in the classroom and he’s troubled by the students’ work ethic, their level of engagement and their ability to critically think. He wondered how I’m able to work “with these students today!”
There is no doubt that students in our classrooms have more access to technology and information then ever before. Some have written that this unprecedented access to technology has changed the students. For instance, Marc Prensky has written extensively about Digital Natives and claims that the brains of our students have changed by being constantly connected. While Prensky’s work has been debated and scrutinized, it’s also been fodder for those educators who see technology as the downfall of humanity, for learning, and just about every other societal aspect we value.
I try not to get too caught up with debating whether the students have changed or not. My role as a educator is to teach the students I have. I don’t spend too much time worrying about the types of students I had five years ago or the ideal students with whom I’d like to work. The students I have are the ones I am going to teach. I need to do everything in my power pedagogically to help them learn and help them meet my expectations. If I’ve been a successful educator with “these students today” (and you’d have to talk to my students to know for sure), it’s because I believe in a few foundational tenets that guide most of work. I shared these principles with my colleague and explained that these aren’t really new concepts at all. They’re rooted in concepts shared by John Dewey almost seventy five years ago.
1. Meet the students where they are. I’ve written about this in other posts, but I think it’s relevant here. Being successful educators requires that we understand our students and use this understanding to guide our instruction. We shouldn’t lower our expectations but we do need to develop lessons with our students in mind. Understanding students and their needs is important, Dewey writes in Experience and Education, because
“without this insight there is only an accidental chance that the material of study and the methods used in instruction will so come home to an individual that his development of mind and character is actually directed.”
2. Make the content relevant and meaningful. I know this may be difficult with some content areas, but I think it’s important for educators to help students make connections between what they’re learning and their lives. We need to ask ourselves “How will what they’re learning inform other areas of their lives? Why is it important?” As educators, we often focus on the “future” at the expense of the now. By making the content more meaningful in their present lives, students can be more motivated to learn. As Dewey writes:
“It means that a person, young or old, gets out of his present experience all that there is in it for him at the time in which he has it. When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted. The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.”
3. Let the students take ownership. Last week, our campus held its Spring Convocation. At the event, our associate provost shared a video compilation of some interviews he conducted with students. One theme present in all of the student interviews was the students’ desire to take ownership of their work. Students want to play an active role in developing the classroom structure and want to make choices in the way they can present their work or be assessed. This sounds like a pretty radical idea but it’s also rooted in Deweyian philosophy. Returning to Experience and Education, Dewey writes:
“The way is, first, for the teacher to be intelligently aware of the capacities, needs, and past experiences of those under instruction, and, secondly, to allow the suggestion made to develop into a plan and project by means of the further suggestions contributed and organized into a whole by the members of the group. The plan, in other words, is a co-operative enterprise, not a dictation. The teacher’s suggestion is not a mold for a cast-iron result but is a starting point to be developed into a plan through contributions from the experience of all engaged in the learning process. The development occurs through reciprocal give-and-take, the teacher taking but not being afraid also to give. The essential point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence.”
Experience in Education was published in 1938 but Dewey’s words still resonate with us in the 21st Century. As we struggle with “working with these students today,” I wonder whether we’re just wrestling with concepts that educators have faced for decades, concepts like freedom, democracy and liberty. It’s easy to target a cell phone, Facebook or an iPad as the negative catalyst for our students. I think the real challenges are much bigger.