A while back I recall reading an interesting statement attributed to Dr. Jackie Gerstein:
“I don’t do teaching for a living; I live teaching as my doing.” I thought to myself, what if we substituted student for teacher: I don’t learn for a living, I live learning as my doing.” How do we engage our students to ensure that learning is not something that is defined but rather something that is experienced as effortlessly as breathing?
Students today, digital natives, are more informed and better connected to others around the world than at any time in history (the essential argument of Thomas Friedman’s, The World is Flat). But this does not mean that they are ready for this level of information and interconnection. The fact that they have access to more information and people does not mean that they know how to organize it, synthesize, find meaning within it and become better thinkers. Compounding this issue is the reality that we do not, consistently, help them acquire these skills through the use of the technology which is, in effect, their second skin.
One educator who has recognized this reality is Kristen Hawley Turner who in the most recent Phi Delta Kappan declares that she has “evolved from being a grammar guru who questioned teen language [instant messaging] as a degradation of Standard English to one who sees adolescent digitalk as a complex and fascinating combination of written and conversational languages in a digital setting”
In her article, “Digitalk: A New Literacy for a Digital Generation” she argues that the language teenagers use when writing texts and other electronic communications is not deficient. It is just a different language used in special contexts. She argues that “today’s teens are highly adept at using language and that their mastery of the digitally written work far surpasses that of many adults. Although they merge multiple language systems by manipulating language and usage they create rules and rituals that effectively communicate ideas with an intended audience. However, some students have difficulty with Standard English and mistakenly use the conventions of digitalk in academic writing. By helping students become aware of those conventions and leading them to compare them to the conventions of Standard English, she delivers an engaging article that shows teachers how they can use this form of literacy to improve students’ academic writing.
Hawley Turner’s article reminds us that we need to have conversations and agree on the student outcomes we value – then create the systems that can deliver. We need to show students how to transform their knowledge into critical thinking models that will help them make the right decisions every day. In doing so, we demonstrate what Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, calls “a willingness to respond positively to change [which ] leaves people open to new possibilities and more comfortable with the inevitable vagaries of life.”
In the end, the ability to use digital devices in no way means that students know anything about global awareness or health literacy, learning and innovation skills, life and career skills or even media literacy skills. But digital devices and digitalk are our students’ tools of choice and we need to recognize that “this doing is learning.” Kristen Hawley Turner is ‘dead on’ in writing that “by valuing the language that adolescents use outside of school and engaging students in writing about content in less formal ways, teachers can focus on writing and critical thinking, and they can give value to the literacy that students bring to class. And by teaching code-switching practices, teachers can help young writers become conscious of the language choices they make.” Consciousness around choice, core curriculum, critical thinking, personalized education: 21st century learning and it didn’t cost anything in terms of infrastructure!