The very first DLD Academy brought together three thought leaders in the field of education: Esther Wojcicki, journalist, teacher and founder of the innovative Media Arts Center at Palo Alto High School, Stanford University’s Director of Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning Petra Dierkes-Thrun and Gabi Zedlmayer, Vice President & Chief Progress Officer at Hewlett-Packard.
If we see education as a key to understanding and being part of the world we live in, then we are currently teaching for a world that no longer exists. Gabi Zedlmayer, a veritable expert in following the changes of the digital paradigm shift, states: “We are living in times that we don’t really understand anymore.” It is true that with the impact of digital technologies, the world of work has changed dramatically in a very short period of time. And it is still changing rapidly. 50-60 % of jobs that today’s school kids will go into after graduating, Gabi believes, don’t even exist today.
Bearing this in mind, it seems reasonable to expect that things at school and university level have changed dramatically as well. But have they? And are we really training the student for the 21st century?
Petra Dierkes-Thrun teaches literature at Stanford University. A very ‘undigital’ subject in the Silicon Valley where everything seems to focus on maths and science. But Petra is passionate about the humanities. “They can answer a lot of questions that arise in the digital world. Humanities teach complex and critical thinking”, she states.
As part of her courses, she uses interdisciplinary learning techniques to connect the ‘traditional’ humanities to the digital world. Petra invites her students to embrace social media and digital platforms for learning. During one course, they used Twitter to create an online role play about a 19th century novel – turning a story and its characters into a real living experience and then inviting the world to participate. And a spirit of fun does by no means replace real academic learning but is there to enhance it. “Today, we are not just teaching the student how to write the academic essay”, she says, “but also things like how to write a deep tweet. And through their own websites, blogs and postings we can turn our students into contributors and away from being mere passive consumers of literature.”
Using social media to bring subjects into the students’ world of today is one thing. But what about using electronic devices in the classroom? Esther Wojcicki with her long-standing experience of teaching adolescents asks: “Why are cell phones banned in some schools? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to develop lessons around the devices that are an important aspect of teenagers’ lives?” Esther would rather see the devices in the classroom – clear guidelines of their use provided. To her it seems a valid point that if 80% of learning takes place outside of the classroom and during that time students spend a lot of time with their phones, why not let the outside in?
Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s seven year old son attends the Khan Lab School, a new kind of school that tries exactly that: Letting the outside in. And not creating another generation of ‘test takers’ but deep thinkers and potential innovators that can thrive in a world that is increasingly ruled by smart machines and linear computational thinking. “Let’s remember that devices are tools in the same way that a pen is a tool that can be used for creative or for learning purposes”, Petra states. And it is exactly the smart and right use of these tools that Gabi Zedlmayer believes is the key to future success: “We should be teaching students how to run a business from their laptops. How to design a webpage, how to do accounting, pricing, marketing, crowdsourcing – all the skills that they need to excel in business,” she states.
Leaving their routines behind can be a challenge for educators. In an age where information is ubiquitous, teachers have to change from being mere lecturers to pedagogically trained ‘coaches’ that give students ownership and lose some control themselves. The key word here is engagement. If students feel that they are taken seriously and can work on their own projects with whatever device they choose, the motivational boost can be huge. Esther Wojcicki, whose high school journalism class won a national award for their school paper, outpacing all other entries form highly acclaimed universities, is not afraid of letting old teaching principles go in favour of adapting to the changing world and the children’s reality. This is where Gabi Zedlmayer sees the ideal transition to the working world: “Encourage kid’s ideas, however crazy. Let them try out stuff and take risks. And teach them how it’s okay to fail, teach the confidence to fail. Isn’t this one of the top attributes of business entrepreneurship?”
The role of educators in the future will thus be much more focused on enabling students to make good use of electronic devices and digital resources – not filling their heads with facts they can easily look up on the web.
However, which facts can be trusted on the web? This is an important question. The internet is a great research tool but also bears a lot of misinformation. “Kids are very good at using their phones for gaming, apps and social media. But very few of them know how to search for information”, says Esther Wojcicki. Digital literacy is therefore a much needed skill. Petra Dierkes-Thrun and Esther put a lot of focus on training their classes how to check facts and sources, how to check if information is reliable, or how to find out if a source is the original one, and so on. Encouraging students to edit each other’s work, checking content for clarity, factual and grammatical accuracy not only helps to add value to the peers’ work. It also develops digital independence.
This independence is important for true digital citizenship. “How to be a good digital citizen just isn’t being taught,” says Esther Wojcicki, who is adamant about teaching children the rules of digital responsibility. That means responsibility for oneself and responsibility for others. Classroom debates should include talking about what and what not to put on social media, about the potentially destructive and harmful impact of words. There are many dangers on the internet and teachers also need to cover topics such as cyber bullying and to provide students with effective strategies to deal with this. Security while on-line and how to keep themselves safe is also integral know-how that should be on the curriculum, both Esther and Petra believe.
The culture of the classroom needs to change for the new digital century that we live in. In a world where one may have to invent their own job and re-invent their skills, we have the responsibility to prepare our youth for challenges and opportunities by giving them the best education possible. We can’t predict what kids will do or go on to do. But we can help to prepare them for the digital future.
DLD Academy group shot
The DLD Academy is a cooperation between DLD, Stiftung Bayerisches Amerikahaus and the Bavarian American Academy –three institutions that foster the Transatlantic dialogue.