By Jennifer Fawcett
I am conflicted by the idea that today’s students are basically a new kind of people – ones that require a specialized approach, and teachers that understand that there is a great divide between their generational thinking and the needs of the young ‘uns. This is possibly because I am a Millennial teaching Millennials. What makes this such a diverse generation gap is the huge explosion of technology that for better or worse has changed the way we interact with each other.
I think about how exciting email was to me – not having to wait for letters from afar was amazing for my family when we moved halfway across the world. I remember as a young child sending my grandparents faxes when they moved away as well. I played Carmen Sandiego for hours with my friend on her dad’s state of the art Apple Commodore Computer, which nowadays looks like a weird beige typewriter. I printed out homemade posters on my neighbour’s dot matrix printer, with the joined up paper with the dots on the side that you had to peel off. Now I can take a picture of my children playing at the park with my phone and email it to my mother across the Atlantic. If we are especially organized, she can watch them playing in real time via Skype. How amazing, that this kind of interaction is possible!
Possible, but necessary? Many writers who discuss pedagogical methods are advocating that modern communication technologies should be integrated into teaching activities. Use the book of Faces – the young people will like it! As many colleges and universities now employ communication systems such as Omnivox and Moodle, to me this point seems a little moot – most teachers that I know do take advantage of technologies such as these that allow readings and class notes to be made available online to their students. However, my great difficulty with these is that since students have these materials ‘at their fingertips’ they tend not to actually read and absorb any information contained therein – it’s kind of like the Google phenomenon where we don’t bother to commit anything to memory because if need be we can just Google it. Sometimes I feel that using all these technologies – smart classrooms with interactive whiteboards, PowerPoints and Prezis that dance and sing, audio clips, movies etc are all avoidance activities. It’s like spending a day cleaning your office and your desk but not actually getting any work done.
I came across an article by Novotney (2010) which integrates many of the research findings about how this magical generation learns into a discussion about how to employ methods that will engage them in the classroom. While the author does advocate the use of multimedia to enhance learning for the current generation of students, she also highlights another point which I think could be pivotal to utilizing efficient and meaningful teaching methods. She calls on the work of Meyers, who discusses the idea of service learning. He uses community engagement to teach his students – requiring them to volunteer at different organizations that serve less fortunate members of the community. This application of classroom study to real-life led many of his students to tell him that these activities resulted in lessons that were remembered well after their classes had ended.
When teaching a class such as introduction to sociology, this after all is one of our greatest challenges. Getting students to use their sociological imagination, to put themselves in the shoes of someone else and see how their individual life can’t be understood without understanding the society they are living in is key. It seems that coming up with ways for students to experience other lives could be the answer to a learning experience that goes beyond technology or new teaching methods.
Novotney quotes research highlighted in the October 2009 issue of Teaching in Sociology that demonstrates that “when paired with structured reflection and classroom discussion on student experiences, service learning can improve students’ academic, personal, social and citizenship skills.” (2010, p.60). While we might not all be able to send our students on stages or work experience such as this, we can use those aforementioned wonder technologies to bring the lives of other humans into the classroom. There are a wealth of documentaries and other similar resources available to do this. As Novotney suggests at the end of the article, it’s important to recognize that today’s students are not necessarily much different than those of the past. Learning how to do something by actually doing it is hardly a new idea. Aristotle himself said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” We have a myriad of ways to allow our students to learn through doing, and we have to be careful of relying on technology to give us (or them!) the impression that we are teaching and they are learning. It’s a good tool, but a poor master.