8 things I have come to understand (about high school students). Part 2

Well since no one seemed to have an opinion on my last entry I am inclined to forge ahead and reveal the rest of my ideas regarding high school aged students. Perhaps in the end readers may interpret my observations as a call for change in regard to how the last four years of secondary education equips people for the next stage of their lives.

5. Even though it is embedded in their socio-cultural experiences, high school students are all over the place in regard to proficiency of technology and information literacy.

In 2008, I began piloting a 1:1 laptop program in an ESL History class as it seemed to be an appropriate time & context  to begin my exploration of using computers as a ubiquitous element of instruction. The class was small, about 10 students, and differentiation through the multitude of web resources was easily facilitated. We set up collaborative Google docs for peer editing, created thematic charts using forms, and utilized news sources to identify thematic concepts in the local, regional, and global settings. I was hooked. But do you think the students were? Not really. The most glaring issue was bandwidth which frustrated the students more than me. However what began to  emerge in the classroom was a very interesting continuum of technical proficiency, organization, and intrinsic motivation to fully explore the opportunities afforded by the web. I still see this today and often ask students to reflect upon what they know about the World Wide Web and how it relates to their lives. Does it make it easier? Does it make it more difficult? The continuum I’m speaking about still exists today as students are confronted with an endless amount of web2.0 tools. Presentation, mindmapping tools, voice threads, & video related resources have learning curves and take practice in order to master and realize full functionality. Students need time in class to explore these tools and they need collaborative buddies to work with them to maximize their features. Identify those students who are patient enough to navigate a new resource and have them demonstrate how it is done.

This can be the kind of product generated:

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More importantly, do not assume that students know how to use (or know the premise) behind a certain tool, especially social media tools. For an early in the year activity create a shared resource that articulates how & why certain tools should be used and update it every month or ten weeks. Tim Tyson recommends a de-gimmickification of web based tools and one way to accomplish this by outlining very clear design elements into your rubrics that the technology may enhance. Either way the message is clear from students: “we don’t always know the technology so give us time to learn it if you want good results and full functionality.”

6. They are generally illiterate.

The focus here is upon the premise that there exists multiple literacies that require student fluency by the time they go off to college. I am not talking about academic benchmarks or standards but more of an ability to understand in contexts and have the aforementioned abilities to construct meaning for problem centered tasks around those contexts. This generally needs to start in an early years program (think TV literacy, or analyzing commercial advertising) and progresses into specific disciplines that require their own set of implicit and explicit knowledge complementing a systems-based understanding of the subject. In history classes this literacy “looks” like recognizing point of view (how a persons belief is connected to their identity) and understanding causation; but it also incorporates systems thinking like historical accident and conjuncture, while having the capacity to understand an event or an idea at the individual, group, and institutional level. Historical literacy is tough stuff. What about media literacy or financial literacy? I would assume they have their own systematic approaches, specialized vocabulary, and practical application. We may wish to consider whether or not our high school diploma grads can read a financial report or a Paul Krugman column, or better yet verify the authenticity of media reports & Wikipedia. Systems thinking and specific literacy initiatives are a logical first step in upgrading curricula.

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7.They are afraid.

I would be too if I was graduating from college with no prospective jobs waiting for me. But really the fear is not related to that but more to the enormous life transitions that await them after graduation and the layers of uncertainty around their relationships, their financial resources, and the weight of future life choices. One could argue that this is a natural phenomenon: the are supposed to feel that way (it’s part of the adult-transitional stage of development). Stress on teenage students from parents, teachers, and friends contributes to the over arching fear of failure. As a Psychology teacher, I have watched the self-fulfilling prophesy in action as learned helplessness becomes a endemic of the high school structure. There are many reasons for this but the two that stick out to me are the rigid pacing of learning and the lack of exploratory learning. More importantly, in the traditional classroom with the “sage on the stage” students are denied regular opportunities to comment and speak on topics or verbalize connections and relevance to what they were learning. If they enter my classroom today and are told to work together with other students, many will struggle due to the lack of real social tools to make this happen or worse, are discouraged by the demands of a problem and believe that the assignment (and teacher) will go away. Basically grades don’t motivate while fear of failure elicits little to no personal investment, cheating, and general apathy. Once again, this should have it’s own blog entry down the road.

8. They are in trouble before school starts.

This is the elephant in the room people. Teenagers (we all are actually) are averaging one less hour of sleep than 30 years ago. The ramifications of this are extremely detrimental to every component of what is necessary for learning: motivation, attention, reproduction, and retention. Executive functions are the hardest hit by sleep deprivation and I am inclined to say that engaging students in verbal skills and developmental is basically fruitless as studies have shown the negative impact of this “lost hour” on verbal fluency.

I for one have attempted to address this issue by cutting back on homework, using time stamps for anything produced outside the classroom (say 10pm time stamp or not accepted). I understand the circadian rhythm phenomena used by apologists that believe students will still stay up past their bed time regardless of school commitments. But I am convinced that through a combination of multiple changes to the time frame of schools along with parent collaboration, it would be possible to marginalize the damaging effects of lack of sleep.

There is still much I intend to learn about my students and for now I am optimistic that innovation and sound research will initiate paradigm shifts in education. I added a photo to the top of this blog yesterday. It is my four year old son Donovan climbing the biggest, steepest temple at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He was determined to get up those steep stairs and with a little guidance and a strong safety net (Me) he achieved what he wanted to accomplish. I pray this trend never changes for him.

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