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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

These Kids Nowadays! School Change and the New Generation Gap (Guest Post by Lisa Cooley)

We adults make as honest an effort as we can to imagine how school and learning can work better for our kids. But we are their worst enemies; or rather, it is our warm/fuzzy ideas of what our own childhoods were like that stand right in the way of our children.

The time had come for us to check our youthful experiences, memories and feelings at the door. It’s simply not relevant, and blinds us to the differences between then, and now.

When we look at kids now, we see things that make us cringe inside and long for a trip back to the good old days. We want very much for our kids to have what we had. We don’t consider that by having those wishes we are inappropriately imposing our values on our children. No: our values are universal! (Hey, baby boomers are the worst at this; we’ve grown up with the sense that we alone know what reality and truth is.)

How many of us look at kids attached to their phones, busily thumbing away without regard to what’s going on around them and think, Oh, that poor child, missing out on the here and now?

How many of us shake our heads when we see kids grappling with enemies foreign and domestic with joysticks and controllers in their hands, headsets on their heads, shouting and grunting and ignoring the real world?

But here’s the thing: these kids are living in a world we created for them. We made it. It is our generation that invented those devices and made them so irresistable. They are using it because it’s as much part of their world as the television and the microwave oven, but we think it’s terrible, just terrible.

We can think that our values have more merit than theirs because our culture is so frightened of the Teenager. The Adolescent. Those miniature adults with the bad instincts and poor impulse control. We have decided that teenagers cope better with structure, rigid expectations, and have rejected their hyper-communicative proclivities for their own good.

I was a teenager in the mid-Seventies, a decade after parents everywhere despaired about these crazy rock-and-roll teenagers. Things had calmed down by my time. Now parents are apoplectic about the devices, the video games, Facebook.

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, had this to say about technology and the generations:

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Sets up a nice natural tension, doesn’t it? So what do we do about it? Is it our role to hold on to our values and fight against the new stuff, or do we clench our teeth and try to understand, try to work with it? (How can we “work” with something that is destroying their minds??)

If it was only the devices, there might not be a difficult solution. But that’s not all that this generation has to deal with. Add to the fact that a wealth of resources are available to all kids, with varying degrees of veracity that one must sift through and sort. Add to that a terrible economy, and a society that promises kids if they go to college, they can get a good job — a statement most kids know perfectly well is a downright lie.

Marc Prensky coined the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant,” and helped bring us to an understanding of what this generation needs and wants — not just because of the hyper-connectivity that they have access to, but as the product of a perfect storm of information and opportunity — or lack thereof. It’s an approach to understanding the generation gap of today that adults should feel obligated to learn and understand.

The generational divide is growing and growing, although there is a small group of adults who are listening, advocating, and trying to explain kids to the rest of us — or urge us to go to kids and find out for ourselves. (A bow here to Lisa Neilson, Kathleen Cushman and folks like them!)

It seems as though our discomfort with the devices carries over to how we feel they should spend their time in school. It’s not entirely generational; it’s supported by the dominance of high-stakes testing and corporate reform that has the biggest influence on how we teach kids now. But maybe there’s something in parents and other adults that feels relief that the system is trying to knock some sense into their heads, getting stuff into them that we feel is critical.

So teens are screwed, aren’t they? Either the system of prescriptive education that gives them no power over what they do, or learn, or try to become, hovers over them, or their parents, mistrustful of all the information they have access to and the devices that are, after all, against the natural order of things, do the hovering. One way or the other we’ll come up with a way of keeping our feet on their necks.

We continue to shape the world of education for children around our priorities and expect them to suck it up, because it’s what they really need. And if they don’t want it, it’s simply proof that our culture has degenerated.

A bit overdramatic? Well, maybe. Lots of generalizations, too. Maybe as adults we’re willing to put up with a lot, make concessions here and there, but we still balk at passing to children control over their own education, and that’s what’s really called for here.

What kind of communities of learning can we create that allow students to pursue the things that draw and fascinate them? Environments that allow them to learn about themselves and who they want to be, in this world that we don’t necessarily understand? Places where they can lead their own learning, with adults working in partnership with them?

I speak to people who worry that real learning cannot take place on a digital device, hooked up to the Internet or chatting with a friend. I admit that some of my neighbors and friends are a bit on the outdoorsy side; I may know more hippies than the American average. But there is a lot of fear there. Not just fear of encountering toxic strangers, but a real fear of damaging the wiring in the brain somehow.

It’s the age-old generation gap. It’s the fear of letting go of our own values. The process of becoming who we are, as adults, might have been painful, joyful or excruciating, but it’s who we are and we tend to hold tight to that.

We want to pass our values to our children. I know I do. Kindness, the ability to see all points of view, to occasionally think of others before ourselves, to be able to find unfairness in the world and voice our opposition to it.

There’s a very good chance that the generation coming up now is as open to those values as we would hope them to be. And the resources that all those devices and hyper-connectivity represent may hold a key to the next generation’s ability to create a better world.

It is possible, but here’s what’s required of us old folks: that we become willing to learn what they have to teach us.


(This entry will be crossed-posted on the The Minds of Kids)

Lisa Cooley serve on the Maine RSU 3 school board and divides her time between her kids and family, teaching violin, making glass beads and designing jewelry, and figuring how how to fix education.



8 thoughts on “These Kids Nowadays! School Change and the New Generation Gap (Guest Post by Lisa Cooley)

  1. Likely a refrain many a generation repeated about the youth of their time. It has certainly been a long heard one regarding hours watching tv. I am unconvinced that hours in front of the tv with its vacuum of much of interest benefits intellectual development. One might say the same of obsessive texting. The device is not the issue for me, but what it carries that will lift and inspire. And that is a question raised again and again, generation after generation.

    Posted by Sandra | December 15, 2011, 11:10 pm
  2. Reading the Adams quote made me laugh and then think of a rule that helps me live in the world without being the old man on his porch yelling at the kids. The rule is this: the only rule is that change is the only rule. Yeah, I know the carpet really tied the room together and that Pete Rose should be in Cooperstown and that Superman could kick Batman’s ass, but in the end everything changes into something else. I think that is the core rule. The comedy of this rule is that what it changes to is chaos (the cosmic joke), the tragedy is that we all are die (that and we all hate our bosses). Thanks again, David.

    Posted by tellio | December 16, 2011, 8:12 am
  3. I don’t necessarily think every generation has as severe a gap with their children as the dislocation that occurred in the 60s. That whole thing was about total rejection of the values that the older generation held. They listened to a certain kind of music BECAUSE it was their own, and their parents didn’t understand it. Same for sexual freedom, drug use. I think we’ve had a more sensitive older generation since then. The explosion of the Internet and hyper-telephony has created what I think might be the first real dislocation since then.

    I am NOT a historian! These are my impressions. I would read a book about it though!

    Posted by Lisa | December 16, 2011, 9:00 am
  4. John’s pencil integration work, I think, helps frame generational issues less as technological or cultural ones, and more as issues of expert-ness and control. New forms of communication subvert old channels of information and unleash ideas and messages that gate-keepers can’t quickly find ways to control using their existing methods.

    For me, it’s never about technology; instead, it’s about helping and asking rather than controlling and knowing. It’s not like the powers-that-be like people of their own generations who attack old problems in new ways.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 16, 2011, 9:29 am
  5. We should fear the children for they do not like what we do to them — Oedipus Rex and Electra are not simply tales warning of incest.

    Still, when they discover “the answer is 42”, will they recall what the question was?

    Let them speak their uncomfortable truths to us; We have forgotten the question.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 16, 2011, 9:55 am
  6. We don’t know what the massive quantity of screen time the average kid is exposed to is doing to her brain development. I think probably nothing good. I agree it is critical for schools to allow/promote creative thinking and engaged learners, because pop culture and parents have dropped the ball.

    Posted by Lorna | December 17, 2011, 12:13 am
  7. While I think it’s important to get past the generation gap and embrace new technology, it is more important for anyone of any generation to think critically about technology. How is it being used? What are the pros and cons? How is it both humanizing and dehumanizing us? To what extent does it empower the user and to what extent is it a method of the power culture? Those who grow up with a certain type of technology and feel that it is normal might just need to pull back and say, “Is this what we truly need?” I am of the generation that grew up with cell phones and then found smart phones to be super-exciting. And yet I don’t own a smart phone, because the cons outweigh the pros.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | December 17, 2011, 9:05 am
  8. Both Lorna and John’s points are well-taken. I guess I’m advocating for getting past the initial fear and rejection of technology, to discover what it means to kids and how it’s changed the learning process. For this information, we need to go to the kids themselves, because our relationship with tech is different than theirs.

    I keep thinking about how rejection of a group or subculture leads to the culture continuing but behind closed doors, in closets, becoming a deeper subculture for its rejection, with a growing deep mistrust of the outside world.

    Sounds melodramatic, but I don’t think it’s entirely off target.

    Posted by Lisa | December 18, 2011, 9:48 am

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