Top Ten Changes in the Last 18 Years

The end of a year marks a time when the past and future collide.  We look to the past contemplating successes and failures, while at the same time we look to the future wondering what the New Year portends.  As I contemplate the past year it dawned on me that I have been teaching for 18 years.  Then a thought crossed my mind that really got me thinking—students graduating high school in 2012 were born the year I began teaching.  So, what has changed in the 18 years I have been teaching, and how has it impacted education?  The following is a top 10 list of what I believe are the most profound changes I have noticed since I began teaching 18 years ago.

10) Occupations
Is the 9 to 5 job obsolete?  If not, certainly more people work from home, use technology as an essential job requirement, and switch jobs more frequently today than they did in 1994.  In fact, many 2012 high school graduates will be majoring in programs in college that didn’t exist when they were born, let alone when they were in the 4th grade.  These majors include: biotechnology, nanotechnology, forensic accounting, computer game design, Homeland security, and organic agriculture (just to name a few).  What are we doing to prepare students for these new and yet to be invented occupations?
9) Concentration
This is totally unscientific, but I believe that students (and adults) in 2012 find it more difficult to concentrate for longer periods of time than they did in 1994.  Or, is it that we find it harder to concentrate on topics that disinterest us?   I have found myself absorbed in searching for new music on Spotify, for example, when I should be working on a research paper for my graduate course.  Maybe the ease of access to stimulating new media has created a situation that when there is a task that involves sustained mental exertion on a mundane topic it becomes too easy for us to escape to a more immediately rewarding experience.   How do we keep our students attention in class on meaningful mentally stimulating exercises?  How do we teach students to persevere through the mundane work that is sometimes necessary in school and life?
8) Civility
I’m not convinced that students in 2012 are less civil than students were in 1994, however, the incivility can have greater impacts due to the simple fact that we are more connected in 2012.  Many students are living a much more public life through Facebook and other social media.  Nobody truly has hundreds of friends, but most high school students do on Facebook.  This makes their life more public since they share more aspects of their life with their hundreds of “friends”.  This public life is not a totally bad thing, but when students take incivility online the uncivil act gets spread far and wide in ways that were impossible in 1994.  How do we teach students to be civil in their face to face interactions as well as their online interactions?
7) Writing
Whether students are better writers in 2012 than they were in 1994 is a tough question for me to answer.  What is easy for me to recognize is that students in 2012 write more and write differently than students did in 1994.  Today it is pretty obvious that students are writing more through texting and chatting online.  In addition, in my class students write every day related to concepts they are learning.  Most of the time the writing is very informal, but other times students need to defend an opinion, or summarize what they have learned in class that day.  Their writing is shared more often and is subject to feedback from their peers and from me.  When I started teaching my students wrote less and got less timely feedback due the nature of the writing technology in 1994.  How are we using technology to provide students with opportunities to write with timely and relevant feedback?
6) Privacy
Students in 2012 are living a more public life online than they were in 1994.  This presents many great opportunities to showcase their talents and explore interests.  This also presents a situation where too much information is broadcast far and wide with potentially harmful consequences.  How do we teach students to recognize what should be kept private and how to protect their privacy?
5) Reading
I believe that students, in general, are reading more in 2012 than they were in 1994.  The popularity of Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games series is evidence of this belief.  However, the reading of non-fiction works has not caught on as much as fiction.  An aspect of non-fiction reading that still needs developed is identifying fact from opinion and determining validity of sources.  The fact that more information is available online from more diverse and non-expert sources than ever before is making non-fiction reading skills more essential in 2012 than they were in 1994.  How do we cultivate a love of reading while teaching students to be literate 21st century consumers of media?
4) Media
In 1994 I used to take my students to the computer lab to play Oregon Trail.  In 2012, students can play Oregon Trail, or a multitude of other games, on their laptops in class against one another.  They can then watch a variety of educational video clips about westward expansion that adds context to their game experience.  Students can then create vodcasts detailing their experiences moving westward in the 19th century based on real diaries and letters found online.  Finally, students can create their own educational video detailing westward expansion and develop a companion augmented reality app that can be downloaded for people traveling to Oregon that augments historical sites along the way.  Opportunities to learn with digital and online media in 1994 were either severely limited or non-existent.  How do we use digital media to transform teaching and learning?
3) Testing
High stakes testing is a fact of life for students in 2012.  The approach of spring ushers in testing season for 8th graders in Pennsylvania, since March and April is when they take their reading, math, writing and science PSSA tests.  The development of the Pennsylvania Keystone tests will only add more high stakes tests for the Commonwealth’s students.  Although a lot of useful data is collected from these tests, the time devoted to the tests and the politically high stakes nature of the tests has, in my opinion, made education about political data. This new reality has turned students, teachers and schools into either winners or losers.  This fact has made students and teachers political footballs in the game of education reform for politicians and billionaire philanthropists.  How can we refocus education to encourage student passion for learning while at the same time assess what students have learned?
2) Information
In 1994 the authoritative source of classroom information was the textbook and set of Encyclopedias.  To access more information the class had to go to the library and search the card catalog for relevant books or magazines.  Compared to 2012 it is safe to say that the information students had access to was severely limited in 1994.  In 2012 students literally have the world at their fingertips if they know how to search the Internet, online databases, and understand how to leverage the knowledge of social networks.  With this access to information reading and writing skills have become even more important as a baseline for entry into intelligent 21st century living.  Jumping off from basic reading and writing skills students need to apply these skills to develop digital literacy skills that enable them to interact fluidly as consumers and creators of digital and online information.  By becoming active participants in digital and social networks they create information as well as gain access to knowledge from previously unknown or unattained sources.  It is safe to say that information has gone from being static to dynamic in the 18 years since I began teaching.  That is why the number one change I have witnessed in my teaching career is:
1) Connections
Students in 2012 are more connected to others and a seemingly unlimited wealth of information than students in 1994.  This connection provides many incredible opportunities for learning, but it also presents a challenge for students to use these connections for positive endeavors.  Students who have grown up in the past 18 years are the so called “digital natives” who naturally interact with technology, like texting and gaming.  This may be true, but I have found that these “digital natives” are not all very native when it comes to leveraging social networks for learning.  A few students in my 1:1 laptop classes have created online study groups or collaborative assignment agendas on their own, but the vast majority of my students need to be taught how to effectively participate in these online networks.  It is easy for students to just consume information from these learning networks, but for a truly collaborative learning network to be successful students need to contribute to as much as they consume from the network.  This is not a natural inclination of many students.  Teaching students to be contributors as part of the learning process is an essential habit students in 2012 need to learn.  Giving students opportunities to collaborate with other students from around the world is a major benefit students in 2012 have over students in 1994. Is there a better way of preparing students for their future than by having them learn with students from various places in the world?
The Next 18 years?
Children born in 2012 will graduate in 2030.  I wonder what the next 18 years have in store for students and teachers.  One thing I know is that 2012 will seem like an antiquated time when these students graduate.  In the meantime, I am resolving to do a better job of teaching students for their future and not my past.
What will education look like in 2030?  Leave comments to let us know your predictions.
This article was published originally as Art’s blog on DLE and is reposted with permission.

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