Thursday, March 17, 2011

Our Kids Are Not Like Us - How The Digital Generation Has Been Re-Wired By Technology

This week we had a Governing Board meeting at my son's school (I'm the Secretary of the Governing Board) and a topic came up that really captured my interest.  One of the teachers was discussing a workshop she had attended about how differently our kids' minds are wired compared to ours.  They call our kids The Digital Generation or Generation Z.

We all know that due to the rapid changes in technology, children are growing up differently than we did, but I had no idea that their lifelong use of communications and media technologies had actually changed the way they think and how their brains work!  Here's one example the teacher gave - when our generation reads a page, we usually read in a Z pattern.  When our kids read, they read in an F pattern... that means, if you put something in the bottom right corner, they probably won't see it!  How crazy is that?

This intrigued me and I wanted to see what else I could find about this new Digital Generation and how the re-wiring of our children's brain changes how they learn.  And even more importantly, if they learn differently, then how are the schools keeping up and evolving their teaching techniques to maximize our children's potential?  Obviously, the methods used when we were in school are now completely antiquated.  I know there are the additions of lap tops and smart boards in their schools, but is this enough of a change?  I'm guessing not...

According to what I have now read, our kids may look similar to us on the outside, but on the inside, there's a whole different world and language going on! In a slide show entitled "Understanding The Digital Generation", they state:
Today, we face a new kind of student. Our schools weren’t designed for them. And our teachers weren’t trained to teach them... The changes we faced growing up were incremental and fairly gradual. But for anyone under age 25, change is affected by the present arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century... They’ve developed a “cultural brain” profoundly affected by digital culture. Because of digital bombardment, the brains of today’s children are changing physically and chemically.
I'm not going to go into all of the details of how those changes occur in the brain - you can read the article if you're really interested - but I'll provide a quick synopsis:   
What this means is that the student who spends most of his or her time focused on a specific pursuit, say sports or academics or the arts, will hard-wire and insulate those specific neural connections. But if the same student spends that time lying on the couch playing games or watching TV, those are the cells that will flourish. Connections that are most used or useful develop into a complex, high-speed neural network. Today, even the youngest kids are exposed to many digital devices, and it’s this digital bombardment creating the cultural brains in our children. As such, they process information differently than we do. Visual memory, processing, and learning skills are being enhanced in particular.
You should read the page on visual learning - it's fascinating.  Basically, our children are visual learners and that retention of information is much greater when there are images involved.  This doesn't bode well for the classic text book or blackboards, not to mention a teacher standing at the front of the class giving a lecture.  The article continues:
The vast majority of students in any given classroom are no longer auditory or text-based learners. Because of the effects of digital bombardment, they think graphically and are, therefore, either “visual or visual kinesthetic” learners. They’re wired for multimedia. Yet the majority of student examination content continues to be text- and vocabulary-based, fixated on content recall.
What I really want to know is what's changed and how we need to adapt to these changes?  Here's a summary of the different preferences The Digital Generation has for learning.  Again, for further details, you can read the article.  I know I'm quoting a lot in this post, but I really thought it important to put this information out there correctly and it's not my expertise.  This is what Digital Learners prefer vs what most educators prefer:

  • Receiving information quickly from multiple multimedia sources - educators prefer slow and controlled release of information from limited sources.
  • Parallel processing and multitasking - our schools still focus on processing one thing at a time, which is a very traditional and linear approach. 
  • Processing pictures, sounds, color, and video before text - educators prefer to provide text before pictures, sounds, and video.
  • Random access to hyperlinked multimedia information - educators prefer to provide information linearly, logically, and sequentially.
  • To network simultaneously with many others - educators prefer students to work independently before they network and interact.
  • Learning “just in time.” - educators prefer teaching “just in case.”
  • Instant gratification with immediate and deferred rewards - educators prefer deferred gratification and delayed rewards.
  • Learning that is relevant, active, instantly useful, and fun - educators prefer teaching memorization in preparation for standardized tests.
I don't know about you, but I am confident that the schools are not even close to catching up to these new, prefered ways of learning.  How will this affect our children? According to Wikipedia, they note the following regarding this new generation of kids:
Some can be described as impatient and instant minded, and tending to lack the ambition of previous generations. Psychologists are claiming an "acquired Attention Deficit Disorder" since their dependency on technology is high and attention span is much lower, as opposed to previous generations who read books and other printed material, along with watching live television. They are also more consumer-oriented than the previous generation, which was focused on technology, retro, and indie culture.

Generation Z are also more individualistic. While members of Generation Y are group and team oriented, members of Generation Z are more self-directed... Despite being in a day care facilities, many children have structured extracurricular activities, reducing free playtime. Parents are becoming more like advisers to this generation.
I think this is a serious issue that needs closer attention.  We cannot prepare our children for a world that no longer exists.  Jobs are changing, how we do busines is changing, the whole world is changing.... and much more rapidly than at any other time in history.  The changes required by our schools to adapt feel so overwhelming.  Teachers need to be re-trained, the classrooms re-organized, the lesson plans revised, etc. etc.  One thing's for sure, we must change the way we have always done things.  As a parent, I also don't have the skills to help my children - my mind was trained the old-fashioned way!  This scares me.  Like you, I want the best for my kids and this topic raises serious concerns, but has received very little media attention to date.  I hope the writing of this article brings new light to the issue and raises awareness to my fellow readers.

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