Thursday, December 15, 2011

These Kids Nowadays! School Change and the New Generation Gap

(This entry will be crossed-posted on the Cooperative Catalyst)

We adults make as honest an effort as we can to imagine how school and learning can work better for our kids. But we are their worst enemies; or rather, it is our warm/fuzzy ideas of what our own childhoods were like that stand right in the way of our children.

The time had come for us to check our youthful experiences, memories and feelings at the door. It's simply not relevant, and blinds us to the differences between then, and now.

When we look at kids now, we see things that make us cringe inside and long for a trip back to the good old days. We want very much for our kids to have what we had. We don't consider that by having those wishes we are inappropriately imposing our values on our children. No: our values are universal! (Hey, baby boomers are the worst at this; we've grown up with the sense that we alone know what reality and truth is.)

How many of us look at kids attached to their phones, busily thumbing away without regard to what's going on around them and think, Oh, that poor child, missing out on the here and now?

How many of us shake our heads when we see kids grappling with enemies foreign and domestic with joysticks and controllers in their hands, headsets on their heads, shouting and grunting and ignoring the real world?

But here's the thing: these kids are living in a world we created for them. We made it. It is our generation that invented those devices and made them so irresistable. They are using it because it's as much part of their world as the television and the microwave oven, but we think it's terrible, just terrible.

We can think that our values have more merit than theirs because our culture is so frightened of the Teenager. The Adolescent. Those miniature adults with the bad instincts and poor impulse control. We have decided that teenagers cope better with structure, rigid expectations, and have rejected their hyper-communicative proclivities for their own good.

I was a teenager in the mid-Seventies, a decade after parents everywhere despaired about these crazy rock-and-roll teenagers. Things had calmed down by my time. Now parents are apoplectic about the devices, the video games, Facebook.

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, had this to say about technology and the generations:

"Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."

Sets up a nice natural tension, doesn't it? So what do we do about it? Is it our role to hold on to our values and fight against the new stuff, or do we clench our teeth and try to understand, try to work with it? (How can we "work" with something that is destroying their minds??)

If it was only the devices, there might not be a difficult solution. But that's not all that this generation has to deal with. Add to the fact that a wealth of resources are available to all kids, with varying degrees of veracity that one must sift through and sort. Add to that a terrible economy, and a society that promises kids if they go to college, they can get a good job -- a statement most kids know perfectly well is a downright lie.

Marc Prensky coined the terms "digital native" and "digital immigrant," and helped bring us to an understanding of what this generation needs and wants -- not just because of the hyper-connectivity that they have access to, but as the product of a perfect storm of information and opportunity -- or lack thereof. It's an approach to understanding the generation gap of today that adults should feel obligated to learn and understand.

The generational divide is growing and growing, although there is a small group of adults who are listening, advocating, and trying to explain kids to the rest of us -- or urge us to go to kids and find out for ourselves. (A bow here to Lisa Neilson, Kathleen Cushman and folks like them!)

It seems as though our discomfort with the devices carries over to how we feel they should spend their time in school. It's not entirely generational; it's supported by the dominance of high-stakes testing and corporate reform that has the biggest influence on how we teach kids now. But maybe there's something in parents and other adults that feels relief that the system is trying to knock some sense into their heads, getting stuff into them that we feel is critical.

So teens are screwed, aren't they? Either the system of prescriptive education that gives them no power over what they do, or learn, or try to become, hovers over them, or their parents, mistrustful of all the information they have access to and the devices that are, after all, against the natural order of things, do the hovering. One way or the other we'll come up with a way of keeping our feet on their necks.

We continue to shape the world of education for children around our priorities and expect them to suck it up, because it's what they really need. And if they don't want it, it's simply proof that our culture has degenerated.

A bit overdramatic? Well, maybe. Lots of generalizations, too. Maybe as adults we're willing to put up with a lot, make concessions here and there, but we still balk at passing to children control over their own education, and that's what's really called for here.

What kind of communities of learning can we create that allow students to pursue the things that draw and fascinate them? Environments that allow them to learn about themselves and who they want to be, in this world that we don't necessarily understand? Places where they can lead their own learning, with adults working in partnership with them?

I speak to people who worry that real learning cannot take place on a digital device, hooked up to the Internet or chatting with a friend. I admit that some of my neighbors and friends are a bit on the outdoorsy side; I may know more hippies than the American average. But there is a lot of fear there. Not just fear of encountering toxic strangers, but a real fear of damaging the wiring in the brain somehow.

It's the age-old generation gap. It's the fear of letting go of our own values. The process of becoming who we are, as adults, might have been painful, joyful or excruciating, but it's who we are and we tend to hold tight to that.

We want to pass our values to our children. I know I do. Kindness, the ability to see all points of view, to occasionally think of others before ourselves, to be able to find unfairness in the world and voice our opposition to it.

There's a very good chance that the generation coming up now is as open to those values as we would hope them to be. And the resources that all those devices and hyper-connectivity represent may hold a key to the next generation's ability to create a better world.

It is possible, but here's what's required of us old folks: that we become willing to learn what they have to teach us.


  1. Good thoughts Lisa... Listen, listen, listen
    How about an unschool class in school? What would that be? i don't know. Have a group of HS students develop a concept for a class.....
    David Smith

  2. Funny you should mention that, David! I just proposed to my board that we seriously consider starting something like this: