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21st Century Learners – Myth or Reality? April 26, 2015

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, Teaching Idea.
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Earlier this week I was working with a colleague and her Year 6 group (10 year olds), introducing Google Maps – how to create your own customised map and add your own content. The group is shortly to visit Eyam on a field trip and we were exploring an alternative way to synthesise their learning from the trip, which has both a History and Geography focus. Rather than presenting the findings in a conventional way, using a customised map enables them to be rooted it in the geographical context from which they arose. Although familiar with Google docs, slides and sheets, creating a Google map constituted progression in their digital skills. This lesson then was about laying the foundational skills to enable them to work in the new environment, so the aims included creating a blank map, sharing it with their partner so both could edit, locating a specific point and adding a placemarker, editing the placemarker, adding text and an image, adding a line to represent a route from school to Eyam (then finding a shorter one). An extension task involved exporting the map to Google Earth and ‘flying’ along their route(s). If you’ve never used Google maps for anything other than searching for a place, then all of the above is likely to be quite new and (other than the notion of sharing) involves a different set of features than the ones commonly found in other applications. So in addition to teacher-led demonstrations of the tasks they were to undertake, I also produced a set of instructions to follow; a recipe book if you will. What happened next was quite interesting.

When the class began the activity (working in pairs), few bothered to refer to the instructions I provided and dived straight in, trying different parts of the available interface until they made headway. Those adopting the ‘trial and error’ method made faster progress than those following the instructions, up to the point where they got completely stuck then they floundered, trying to find the relevant point in the instructions (perhaps I need to rethink the way the instructions are compiled?). Once back on track, they raced ahead once more. They also made more mistakes, but seemed comfortable with that, happy to retry an attempt which had gone awry. Fascinating and delightful to see such resilience.

What intrigued and surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have, was how different these ten-year-olds were when compared with the teacher groups with whom I often work. If I’d undertaken a similar activity with colleagues, I’m fairly sure (albeit anecdotally) that the proportions of those who begin with the instructions and those who would open with experimentation would be reversed. Which then begs the question, do young people these days approach a new task with more abandon than their older counterparts? Is this evidence for 21st Century Learners being somehow different i.e. that the digital era into which they were born is affecting their attitude? Or perhaps younger people are more experimental and happier to take risks, where time-poor teachers would rather adopt the low-risk strategy in order to ensure successful completion? If the two groups are not fundamentally different and all I’m seeing is age-related, developmental differences, I wonder where the transition from one approach to the other takes place and if it’s an incremental change, stretched out over time? As ten-year-olds, they’ve little experience of high-stakes testing; perhaps that’s the point when a trial-and-error approach becomes more of a liability and has to be dropped in favour of the safer, low-risk option? Sadly I don’t have the data to provide answers to these questions, but that one lesson prompted an awful lot of pondering!

Footnote. Two days later I was working with another class when a couple of students came by and said they couldn’t find the Google maps they had created last lesson. I couldn’t immediately leave the class I was supporting to help, but suggested they look in the instructions. They had; without joy. Fifteen minutes later when I could pop across to their class, they were all back on track, maps open and immersed in their activities. It transpired that my instructions had lapsed owing to the update to the new version of Google Maps. Although initially flummoxed, their ‘Try. Fail. Fail better.’ approach helped them to get up and running independently … and to be able to explain to me how my instructions needed amending!. I wonder if … more mature learners would have shown such persistence and adaptability?

In this TED Talk, Tim Harford talks about using a trial and error approach, which others discuss in more detail here.

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