Creating Learning Environments

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A while ago I witnessed students taking computer-based classes passing their tests with ease until I figured out what they were doing. They had two screens open -- one was the computer-based course and the other screen was Google, Wikipedia, or Ask Jeeves. When they ran across a question they did not know, they just looked up the answer on one of those other sites (we shut that capacity down in a jiffy).

This incident made me think a bit. What do teachers have to offer students when they can learn anything they want from searching it on the Internet? Why should a student sit in class (or classes) all day long when they can find all the information they need instantly? With so much knowledge everywhere, aren't we trying to sell a product they already have?

Heck, I'm the same way. When I wanted to install radiant barrier insulation in my attic all I had to do was go online and look it up. Hundreds of videos, websites, and resources popped up. I read through a few, saw that they were selling more than explaining and I went on to others. I watched a couple of how-to videos that seemed to know what they were talking about and so I used them. Voila! (Installing the radiant barrier is not as easy as the videos make it appear, however.) So with a little bit of research, I became an instant expert on something I did not know anything about before.

The other day I couldn't remember how to spell a word and before I could turn around and find a dictionary, a student had already looked it up on her phone. I had it right, but it got me thinking again. How is the instant knowledge available changing how students learn and view education? Deep stuff. We are in a transition period because we still have a huge digital divide -- some students and schools have access to rich technology resources, while others do not.

Even if the technology were ubiquitous (I really like that word) in school and out of school, the answer to that question is simple: Instant knowledge has changed how everyone learns because the questions we need to have answered are just a few clicks away.

In the Classroom

It boils down to a focus on what we need to know. What is the role of a teacher in such a scenario? We can help the student realize they "need to know" certain things. How do we do this? Let me illustrate:

In my Spanish II classes, I create scenarios that motivate students to learn Spanish. Currently, for example, we are recreating a hotel and students are the employees and the guests. They will be creating the registration forms, brochures, letter head, menus, television guides, and most importantly they will be designing and practicing the interactive dialogues that occur in hotels across the Spanish speaking world. This gives them an authentic reason to learn the verbs and the Spanish phrases.

The same kind of thing happens in an English class when they create newspapers, or publish books, and in social studies/history when they roleplay the armistice of World War I, or the debates between Lincoln and Douglass. Science teachers do this when they design inquiry lessons about the nature of salt, or experiments concerning plant growth and fertilizer. And math teachers create rich learning environments for students to practice their skills when they set up a bakery business and students have to make financial decisions that can make the shop successful or can make it go out of business.

When the micro computer came into vogue in schools, doomsday prophets predicted the demise of the public school teacher. Now we have so much more technology in schools and student's pockets, and we still have teachers. What then, will be the role of the teacher when each student can look up every answer on their wrist phone, or with their eyeglasses? The teacher's role will be to motivate; the teacher can provide the answer to the question, "Why do I need to know this?"

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