“The world they live in”

As I read Don Tapscotts’s piece on Huffington Post (“New York Times Cover Story on “Growing Up Digital” Misses the Mark,” November 23, 2010), a loud gong sounded behind my ears, in particular after this passage:

Kids who have grown up digital expect to be able to respond, to have a conversation. They want a choice in their education, in terms of what they learn, when they learn it, where, and how. They want their education to be relevant to the real world, the one they live in.

The world they live in.  Tapscott and Richel can debate neuroscience all they want–I can’t contribute to that conversation.  However, in all the talk of the past several years about how kids  learn, what makes “them” different from “us,” Tapscott’s few words strike an unfathomably loud chord.

The kids that I teach and coach, 11 to 14 year-olds, live in today’s world.  The immediate, infinitely interconnected, interactive and always accessible world has awoken with them every day of their lives.

When I was a kid, the “world” in which I lived was confined to my neighborhood in Mountainside, NJ, Echo Lake Park which covers a few hundred acres, and the general path that could be traveled on bicycle between my home and Deerfield Middle School.

When I was at home, my world accessible through technology consisted of situational comedy, Masterpiece Theater (which I tried my best to ignore), and the nightly news.  I can recall perhaps a handful of times in the 70’s and 80’s as a teen sitting down to ask my parents about a story being reported through the filter of Ted Koppel or Jim Lehrer.

Almost every advertisement I saw on television made me salivate with envy, whether it was Stretch Armstrong or a Huffy bicycle with mag wheels.  30-minute programs contained a handful of such adds.  I oohed at the weekly JCPenney circular toy section, and I practically went ballistic when the Best Products catalogue, hundreds of pages thick, arrived at our house a few months before Christmas.

In short, if I wanted to encounter the world, I had to go looking for it.

How, then, am I to interpret a typical 14 year-old’s daily journey through their world?  Local and global events stream through the home page of their email account (when they bother to check email), even the briefest of internet use is laden with innumerable pieces of data, and the 24-hour news cycle insists that all news is breaking news, lest viewers tune out.

I read recently that we are confronted by 250 pieces of advertising in a typical day (seemed small to me).  At the end of that typical day, I probably wouldn’t be able to recall more than three of them.

In just the last few years, students have been exposed to the latent socioeconomic and racial divides amplified by Katrina, natural disasters that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, multiple wars being endlessly debated on TV and on the web, and a baseline level of sexuality in pop culture once thought unimaginable.

Add to this the fact that we are learning that the human brain needs to develop into it’s mid-20’s before becoming truly capable of processing some to the things that our kids are being asked to process, either because we’ve worked it into the curriculum or because they can’t avoid not seeing it on their TV/computer/mobile device/web-enabled nav screen in their car/TV-enabled touchscreen in their refrigerator door, etc.

And then they come to school.  A teacher hands them a textbook and, in well-manicured language, tells them that course content will not necessarily extend beyond its outer covers.  A world that they have been habituated to interacting in is traded for a 7 year-old book heavier than their iPad…so heavy in fact, that it acts like an anchor, keeping them from within reach of learning in the world they live in.

If I wanted to interact with “the world,” I had to go in search of it. The kids I teach have “the world” broadcast to them every time they pick up an electronic device (thanks for scaring the crap out of me, Nicholas Carr).  I have a few questions:

Can I make an elementary/intermediate Spanish class as relevant as the world they interact with every day?  Is that my responsibility of an educator in the 21st century?  If so, will you help me?

Am I doing a disservice to students by trying to make my classroom mimic the real world?  The real world, after all, can be a pretty depressing place.  Is there value in making the classroom an idyllic place, sterilized from the “realness” of human events?

I’ll close with two hypothetical assignments to illustrate these questions.  Which would you rather engage in?:

This one?

Your connection to Lima has been delayed, leaving you with a few hours to kill in the Mexico, D.F. airport.  Engage your partner in conversation.  Talk about where you’re from, where you’re going, how often you travel, and what you like and dislike about travel.  Remember to use expressions of formality with strangers!

or this one…

An ambitious Political & Criminal Science student, you’ve earned a grant to explore the fútbol stadium in Santiago, Chile where in the 70’s Augusto Pinochet’s regimen detained, tortured, and murdered thousands of citizens who stood in opposition to his policies of privatization, deregulation, and market manipulation. Today is your first day and you want to make a good impression.  Introduce yourself to your new colleagues, describe yourself personally and professionally, and ask them about their interests.  Remember to use expressions of formality with strangers!

2 thoughts on ““The world they live in”

  1. I like these assignments. They get the kids out into the world in real, spontaneous situations. A former colleauge and friend of mine who taught Spanish and French, Kevin Schrodter (who maintains a great website), used to put an impromptu twist on typical “order a plane ticket conversations” where the kids would have to call him on a cell phone, go through the process of ordering the ticket, and then he’d throw them a curve by asking something like “what credit card will you use to pay for this?” and then when the kids would stammer for a bit and finally start to rattle off a 8 or so digits, he’d respond with “I don’t think that’s enough digits—are you sure you’ve got the right card?” Though I’m a total language neophyte, much to my dismay, I always liked these assignments for how I thought they pushed the kids to think on their feet, much as they’d have to do when really using the language in the field.

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