Pity that poor monster, the un-adapting older teacher

On a basic level, the hesitance to get wiki-with-it is natural. People fear what is foreign–it keeps species alive, etc. And unless he gets training in it, the un-adaptive older teacher will fear what he is ignorant of, what he has not himself positively experienced.

And yet the tendency for older educators to feel threatened by newer interactive media is at least partly an emotional reaction, an ego-defense that can interfere with learning. The read-write web shakes the older educator’s sense of self, his public identity, which has always been “the smartest person in the room” when it comes to relevant knowledge. Writing no longer means paper and pen, and the schoolmaster is no longer the authority he was.

In terms of the power balance in the relationship, web 2.0 tools give a lot of power to the student, power that in the last century was the educator’s to give or withhold. This is why the un-adaptive older teacher zealously guards against student use of texting, IMing, or consulting with Wikipedia. And perhaps this is what lies beneath administrative attempts to sabotage or otherwise supress teachers trying to incorporate the new media. Central office administrators, too, feel scared, and react to their perceived power loss over closely determining curricula.

In the same way that the 16th c. Roman Catholic church was threatened by the printing press, and started the Spanish Inquisition. But “the enlightenment” was underway. Just so, the school today can no longer keep a student from communicating with whomever she likes. That student is a “digital native,” and her world goes far beyond the older and un-adaptive teacher’s perception.

Back in the 20th century, a child’s work was known, if at all, by his/her classmates and teacher. Except for “science fairs,” interscholastic competitions and summer camps dedicated to showcasing talents, there was little opportunity for the public school student to gain an audience outside school. A child could strive and achieve “A” papers, but who could proudly hang the “A” papers on the wall? Not the child. The last word in every conversation was the teacher’s.

Not so today’s kids. Even as you teach them (i’ve had students secretly videoing my class, have you?) they are elsewhere, possibly critiquing your competence (ratemyteacher.com), possibly chatting with their huge network of friends, and quite possibly passionately researching the information they deem relevant.

Yesterday’s student was thrall to the classroom and the school day–and away from school he was just a kid in the neighborhood playing alongside other kidsfor as long as mom and dad let him play outside.

But no longer. This was brought home to me several years ago, when, checking up on what my pre-teen son was up to one day, I discovered him at real-time play with counterparts in Russia, India, and South America–all at the same time! That they were working in coordinated military operations and killing aliens and each other is beside the point. I saw the vast difference between his and m experience: my son’s neighborhood was the planet.

I believe the 21st century digital future is big enough for everyone. We can coexist happily. Just as a city works well to the extent that it assimilates the flow of populations in and out of it, digital natives (today’s student) and immigrants (their older teachers) should strive to abide harmoniously in the same learning space. Digital natives should not be feared by their immigrant elders, who would do well to look carefully at the entire situation before judging it not academically significant. If literacy education is about engaging students in meaningful, cooperative and creative communication with other human beings, then older English teachers should recognize the great benefit today’s media are providing.

And it would behoove the digital natives to value their elders for being, if nothing else, providers of content that all the best information-processing machines cannot, as yet give: wisdom. The digital native should find ways to bring the older teacher into the pursuit of better curriculum. “We’re NOT abandoning you!” they need to reassure the older ones. “Help us visualize!”

Both sides need to step back and recognize the possibilities that interacting with the other holds. The important things do not change on the web. Quality information is still quality information, crap still crap. But real scholarship is also still real scholarship. If they can just be brought into the digital realm, senior educators will provide strategic vision and practical discretion to the digital natives.

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