Navigating a complex digital world
Patricia & Don Edgar (published in EQ Australia, Curriculum Corporation, Spring 2009, pp. 8-9)
Demographics, politics and technology have changed the face of childhood. The new child faces a world no adult has ever experienced and many are struggling to understand. Family life has changed, parents and teachers no longer have a monopoly on knowledge and children have the power to take charge, explore new media, create and distribute their own productions. Teachers, parents and curriculum developers must not ignore the implications of these changes for 21st century learning.
The economic model of infinite growth, along with its values of commercial greed and consumerism, has collapsed under its own weight, with the unfortunate consequence that less money can be allocated to the real education revolution that is sorely needed. That collapse triggers policy responses driven by productivity goals, measuring outcomes that are probably outmoded and which misread the true revolutions already affecting children’s lives.
Demographically, children under 17 were already a minority (19.6%) of Australia’s population by 2005. That minority status will make the quality of children’s education a burning political and social issue as the cost of their education soars. Parents and children are caught in a wedge between growing numbers of young adult Solos and ageing Baby Boomers. The Solos question whether having children is a good idea in such gloomy times, do not see other people’s children as their responsibility and view workplace measures such as parental leave and time flexibility for family reasons as discriminatory. The aged have themselves had smaller families in good times and fear any expenditure that could decrease the quality of life and levels of care they demand.
So those who do have children are left to raise them privately, lavishing attention and money on them, treating them as near-equals, fearful of denying them any chance to succeed in a competitive market place. Children have fewer siblings, fewer peers in their own neighborhoods and seek new avenues for social interaction via mobile phones and the internet. Their learning reference point is not parents or teachers, but global peers willing to exchange with them in new and exciting ways.
It is here that the education system is letting them down. We now know around 85% of a child’s core brain function develops before age five and the quality of those early years is critical to life chances. Yet child care workers are poorly trained and low-paid, access to quality care and kindergarten is limited and parents are left to their own devices in stimulating their children in those early years. Parenting, not community resources for childhood, becomes the focus.
Moreover, our schools are still designed on an industrial model left behind in the outside world. Individual learning, testing of fixed curriculum content and unequal competition is valued over cooperative learning, team work, digital know-how and adaptability. The old classroom still prevails, costing more than ever because of reduced class sizes which have failed to improve ‘productivity’ and dominated by testing vaguely defined ‘outcomes’ that narrow down the curriculum to measurable units instead of encouraging inquiry, diversity and innovation.
Worse, perhaps, many teachers fail to see that the nature of learning has itself changed because of the ubiquity of new technology. The home is permeated by mass media ( ? hours watching screen at age ? ) yet pre-school teachers ignore the Montessori dictum that the classroom should be a reflection of the home, the community and the wider world. Primary teachers from the outset of television refused to see its learning potential, assuming it was just entertainment, trivial, even harmful. And now the new media of mobile phones, the internet, social websites, computer games have captured children’s imagination and motivation in ways few teachers ever can, but computer time is rationed, games are vilified as harmful, the computer on every desk is seen as just an add-on to teacher-directed lessons instead of the powerful learning tool it really is.
Parents may not be ‘digital natives’ themselves but they increasingly recognize the power of new media, for good or ill, and expect schools to guide children’s use of media tools effectively. Quality learning will become more of a focus, not less, and private choice will drive changes in modes of learning, curriculum content and the measurement of learning outcomes. As well, students will increasingly outsmart teachers and want to control their own learning process. Lord Putnam of Futurelab in the UK argues we should welcome, not fear this trend and allow children to ‘power-up’ the classroom and take more initiative for their own learning. Since schooling is the child’s ‘work’, why not see them as a powerful new labor force for education, relieving teachers from what they feel is an overcrowded curriculum and retraining so that teaching becomes more akin to the role of navigator, guide, mentor, not transmitting knowledge but challenging critical thought and the ability to search, synthesise and build upon?
The digital divide should not be allowed to exacerbate an already increasing education divide between the privileged and the disadvantaged because inequality itself is a key to all other social outcomes.
Instead of debating whether the internet, YouTube, fist-person shooter games are good or bad for children, we must recognize the horse has already bolted – children are already engaged in, motivated by and taking control of the new technology for their own purposes, both educational and social. We need to harness that enthusiasm in the cause of quality learning and positive social values, not leave the new media to the devices of a market more interested in profit than in the future wellbeing of our children.
But that will not happen if governments continue to treat the curriculum as something that happens only in the school as we have known it, and fail to see that communication policy, health policy, urban planning, the arts and environmental policy are all part of what the new child of the 21st century needs to survive and thrive. Linked policies integrated round the value and wellbeing of future citizens - actively engaged in building quality of life, not just being productive workers - should be the goal of a true education revolution in Australia.
Don & Patricia Edgar (2008), The New Child: In search of smarter grown-ups, Wilkinson Publishing, Melbourne
Patricia & Don Edgar (2009), Young children and new media technology, Discussion Paper for Victorian Curriculum Authority
Patricia Edgar (2009), ‘From children to profit centres’, paper for ShowCommotion Children’s Media Conference, Sheffield, UK, 1-3 July
Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2009), The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Allen Lane, Penguin, London