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Some books help you improve on the things you’re already doing. Other books completely change what you do in the first place. Marc Prensky’s Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning is the second kind. Whether you already integrate technology into your teaching or you consider yourself tech-phobic, this book will show you how to do it right: ironically, by keeping your focus off the technology.
Here’s the book’s premise in a nutshell:
- Technology has changed our world, and will continue to change it in ways we can’t even imagine.
- To prepare our students for this world, we need to dramatically change the way we teach.
- This new way does NOT require us to learn all the technology ourselves. In fact, when it comes to technology, teachers should be as “hands-off” as possible.
Chapter Notes and Commentary
Chapter 1: Partnering: A Pedagogy for the New Educational Landscape
We are introduced to the Partnering Pedagogy: Instead of being the ones who deliver the content to the students, we take on a new role where we simply set learning goals, then coach and consult with students as they determine how to meet them.
If I’m understanding it correctly, partnering in its purest form has us say, “Here’s what you need to learn. Use whatever tools work best to learn it. Then prove to me that you learned it, using the final form of your choice.” Students can then jump online, get on their phones, talk to each other, read a textbook, conduct a survey, do whatever it takes to learn the thing, then develop some final product to demonstrate their learning – a video, a podcast, a poster, an academic paper, a website – whatever best fits the content and their interests.
This idea was jaw-dropping for me. Imagine how students would feel with all that freedom, truly learning at their own pace, and using whatever technology was available, instead of waiting for everyone to use the same tool at the same time. And the time it would free up for teachers! Less direct instruction would mean fewer lesson plans, and not nearly as much homework and grading.
Prensky points out that this approach isn’t exactly new, that it exists under different names, including problem-based or project-based learning (PBL). But while a teacher could build a lot of structure into a PBL unit, Prensky’s description of partnering seems more open-ended, which is a little scary for me. The chapter doesn’t include much research to support this method, and when I look outside the book I can’t find any, at least not using the term “partnering.” So I’m left with this question: Prensky’s description of partnering sounds great in theory, but does it actually work?
Chapter 2: Moving to the Partnering Pedagogy
This chapter offers some mental and logistical tips for making the transition to partnering, including ways to determine whether your students are ready, classroom arrangements, and a description of the different levels of partnering.
For me, the most important concept in this chapter is the principle of Nouns and Verbs. In this new pedagogy, teachers should focus on the verbs of school – the measurable cognitive tasks that have always been the aim of education, things like calculating, evaluating and communicating. What we don’t focus on are the nouns – the tools students use to practice the verbs, like online resources, gadgets, and of course, books. These will constantly change and evolve, and will continue to make learning easier, richer, and more fun, but they are not the point. The verbs are the point.
The noun/verb principle made a lot of sense to me, and it should come as a relief to teachers who are intimidated by technology, because it means we can still put most of our energy into our areas of expertise, our specific content. But here’s what I wonder: Don’t teachers need at least a basic understanding of the types of tools (e.g., document creation, presentation tools, etc.) and how they work together (e.g., that videos can be edited, uploaded and embedded) to be able to guide and supervise students using technology? I get that we don’t need to know how to use every tool, but shouldn’t we have a sort of “meta” awareness of the spectrum of tools?
Chapter 3: Think People and Passions Rather Than Classes and Content
Here we are urged to make every effort to get to know our students’ passions and allow students, whenever possible, to follow them. If we are clear about the verbs we want students to practice, we should be able to help them practice those verbs within the context of their interests. It is our job to learn what our students’ passions are and help them discover them for themselves. Prensky offers tips for how to gather, record, and use this information.
The chapter also delves into the different roles teachers and students play in a partnering relationship: The teacher works as coach, guide, and instructional expert. The student works as researcher, technology expert, thinker, world changer, and self-teacher.
For me, this chapter answered more questions than it raised. Reading it helped me get a more concrete idea of how to take some of the theoretical concepts of partnering and apply them in a real way. At this point in the reading, I’m getting hungry for case studies: I want to see these principles in action in a real school, where they are working. If you know of a teacher who is doing these things successfully and has documented them, please send them over. Otherwise, I would love to read a follow-up book from Prensky showcasing real case studies of partnering.
Chapter 4: Always Be Real (Not Just Relevant)
This chapter is best summarized in this quote: “Unlike in the past, when kids really did have to be patient and wait to grow up in order to use whatever they learned, today’s kids can experience immediate connections every day. Kids who learn to download, text, and tweet can immediately participate in profound social revolutions like crowdsourcing (and less profound ones, like voting for American Idol). Kids who learn to play almost any complex game quickly collaborate and compete with others around the globe. When they post to a blog about something they are interested in, kids are reaching a worldwide audience. By joining a Twitter campaign, they help change policy in the biggest corporations.”
The chapter goes into detail about ways teachers can make their course content real for students — connecting them to actual events happening right now — rather than just trying to make the material relevant.
My guess is that although this advice is exciting and rich with possibility, some teachers will feel intimidated by it: Doing this is going to take so much work, so much research, so much time! I already know how to teach my content; connecting it to current events will require me to prep new lessons every year. I think the best answer to this is to start small, with one unit. And partnter with your students here: Instead of putting all the responsibility on yourself for making the content real, involve students in making those connections. How do you react to the task of making content real?
Chapter 5: Planning: Content to Questions, Questions to Skills
Here we learn how to plan instruction: how to actually take our curriculum and standards and turn them into the kinds of guiding questions Prensky recommends we use to frame our units. It is here where I see this book connect with Understanding by Design, the other book we’re studying this summer, because it also takes a “backward” approach, considering what you might ask students to do in a final assessment, and working backwards from there.
I would imagine that developing these guiding questions, and making explicit connections between the questions and the curriculum, takes a lot of trial and error, because there seems to be an art to it — not going so broad that students don’t know what you’re after, but not so specific that they require no real inquiry. This makes me think that working with a small group of teachers on partnering units would be really helpful in getting this right. Again, reading real case studies would go a long way toward helping people learn how this process works.
Tell Us What You Think
I would love to hear from people who have tried partnering and seen success, from those who have tried it and had problems, and from those who are just discovering this concept — what are your questions? Tell us your stories. Marc Prensky has agreed to respond to our questions in some form — we are figuring out the date and delivery system right now — but send in your questions and there’s a good chance we’ll get them answered from the author himself.
Our next discussion of Natives, where we’ll cover chapters 6-10, will be posted on July 14. And if you’re enjoying this one, check out our other book study of Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design.