Blog Post

Teachers Should Change How They Teach Students Today. That's Our Job: Response to NY Times

"Technology is Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say," in yet another New York Times piece that wants to blame this generation for how it learns and blame technology as the culprit in somehow "damaging" kids' learning.   Well, when hasn't  it been the case that the way you learn the world, from birth on, changes the way you learn in school (and everywhere else)?   That, dear educators, is what learning is.  Plain and simple.  It's not our job to teach students in 2012 how to spin and weave, it's not our job in the U.S. to teach our students how to write kanji, it's not our job in 2012 to teach them how to use calculators or an abacus:  it is our job in 2012 to teach students now for the challenges of their lives--in a historical time, in a historical place.  It is our job to help them learn how to be successful adults in their future; it is not our job to preserve for them some nostalgic vision of the future that is clearly past.   


If you want to read the New York Times article, here it is:    The article does admit, beneath the fold, that yes, teachers should be rethinking some of their methods for the new ways kids learn today.  But even that is grudging, relunctant, and a bit stingy in its appreciation of how vastly learning has been changed by kids' early introduction to new forms of interactive, community-based technologies that allow for skill development as part of peer-created, connected, challenging fun.


A very different article in yesterday's news provides the very best corrective to this belated New York Times report on "what's the matter with kids today."   The MIT Media Lab people have created a next-generation experiment on the model of its ongoing  One Laptop Per Child attempt to place inexpensive technology in the hands of the 100 million  first-grade age kids around the world who have no access to schooling of any kind.   They dropped opensource Motorola Xoom tablets in two very remote Ethiopian villages where there was no schooling of any kind, no literacy in any language, no existing mobile or internet-connected technology, and no knowledge of English.    The Androids were programmed entirely in English.   They were dropped into the villages in sealed cardboad boxes without instructions of any kind and given to four to seven year old kids.  


Got that?   Sound like a bad movie plot? . . .   Keep reading.


Without any intervention from the Media Lab people or from adults or from teachers or from anyone who knew either English or how to work a tablet computer, the kids, on their earned, learned like crazy from these devices.   The results are so stunning that I will quote the article:

"The devices involved are Motorola Xoom tablets—used together with a solar charging system, which OLPC workers had taught adults in the village to use. Once a week, an OLPC worker visits the villages and swaps out memory cards so that researchers can study how the machines were actually used.

After several months, the kids in both villages were still heavily engaged in using and recharging the machines, and had been observed reciting the “alphabet song,” and even spelling words. One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint program and wrote the word “Lion.”. . . .Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”


Kids without schooling, without literacy, HACKED the Androids to turn the camera back on . . . without instruction.  That is a breathtaking example of how learning can happen with new technology if we are open to new ways of peer, community-based, shared learning.


We now have devices that are so user-friendly in their interfaces, so enjoyable to use, so inspiring to learning, that these Ethiopian kids were using them not only to hack a system but even to teach themselves the language in which so much of the learning was articulated, even though they did not even have literacy skills in their own language.   The point isn't to learn English.  It is problem solving.  It is learning. 


What the teachers in the NY Times piece need to take from this Ethiopian experiment--what all of us as educators on every level have to take from this experiment--is that, if we do not think learning is something so dreadfully dull that it has to be regulated, assessed, made compulsory, rule bound, divided into disciplines, and in all other ways "measured out in coffee spoons" (as T. S. Eliot would say), then the potential of kids and all of us to learn is enormous.  I have had to unlearn a lot of my own didactic forms of teaching over the years and have had to learn how to practice what I call "structuring possibilities for openness."   It means biting my tongue, not solving the problem or coming up with the answers, but providing the opportunities in which students can help one another to learn and having faith that, if I stay back, they will in fact learn because, as humans, learning is what we do, it's how we thrive. 


Here's the central implication for pedagogy: teaching to enormity is very, very different from teaching to scarcity. 


To date, our model of education puts the teacher up front, with a vast quantity of knowledge to be forced into the empty brain of the student.  That's hyperbolic, of course, but read any teacher-training manual, any assessment justification, or the legislation setting out No Child Left Behind, our 2002 national law, and you see this implication of lack, scarcity, deficiency, unproductivity, lack of motivation, and other forms of negativity.  


Think again.  We know from everything from Yelp! to Wikipedia to online medical, dating, home repair, and other contributing social network sites, from Facebook to Twitter, that we humans enjoy sharing our knowledge with one another.   We humans love to learn.


That's the message of those Ethiopian kids hacking their Androids.   That's the message that we need to think about in transforming schools, teaching, and teacher education--as well as all our modes of assessment--for the world we're living in today.   And I mean that from kindergarten to professional school. To wrap our heads about how revolutionary that insight is, we need a major paradigm shift, from scarcity to abundance, from teacher as the regulator and enforcer to teacher as the inspirer and encourager.


The problem and the potential for learning, everywhere, including in the classroom, are boundless.   That's the challenge.



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9500+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.  In October 2012, she and David Theo Goldberg, HASTAC's cofounders, were named Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, .  The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 :




The OLPC story is amazing.  I mean. I am just, wow from that.

About a week ago I was meeting with some other people who carry the amazing title of "instructor".  We were discussing what was going on in our classrooms.  I was disheartened to hear so many of them say their students are "stupid".  Maybe I am just lucky, but I have yet to have a class of stupid students.  What I have found though, is that if I just teach text, and don't allow the students to have some control over the classroom they never have an incentive to actually engage in a meaningful way.

We've reached the halfway point in the semester at my institution, and my students had to choose the topic for their final projects/performances (I'm teaching intro to performance studies this semester), write a midterm on it, linking it to the theory we've gone over in the class so far, and then bring a short introductory performance of the topic to present tot he class.  After the performances we did a roundtable discussion of what the experience of choosing a topic, taking that topic from their head to the paper, and then moving it to a live performance for an ausience was like.  As always, they were upset that they had 100% freedom in choosing their topics but once they realized it what it meant that they could choose something that they liked, cared about, and was interesting to them (that was the guideline), and that they wouldn't have to tear it down, they felt really glad.  They said, usually when they are in classrooms and they have to talk about things in their life, it is usually in a negative light.  When they realized they didn't have to do that, it was like "a new world opened up".

I feel like whenever we give students the possibility to "open up" or create new worlds, much like the OLPC story, we realize that while students learn differently, at different speeds, and have differenct interests (than each other and us), that it is really hard to find a student that isn't capable or learning, doing, or making something with what we are giving them.  Technology is tool we have to learn to take advantage of. I haven't let go of the idea of a classroom space (especially in the humanities), being a space where we have to teach students how to explore why the things in their life matter, and how.  And show them, if the class is a theory based class, how theory helps with that.  If the way we are teaching and the topics we are choosing to focus on isn't relevant to them or their interests , or their way of thinking and learning about the world in any way shape or form, I think it is disingenuous for us to say we are teachers that care about our students.  I also think it is unfair to teach in that format and then call the students "stupid".

The OLPC story is a perfect example of students who were "stupid" about something (they didn't know), but engaged and excelled once they were able to see the possibilities for doing/making/playing, etc.  If technology can open up a new world to that degree, having a teacher in front of the classroom in adidition to technology should aim to do double that.

As an aside, my students all did a fantastic job with their performances.


Jade, bravo!  As anyone who has read John Tagg's The Learning Paradigm College knows (it should be required reading for anyone in higher education), it is not the students that are "stupid" -- it is the system.  We are working within a system that constrains and impacts students' expectations and behaviors and does the same with faculty. The faculty you were sitting with were committing the Fundamental Attribution Error -- attributing students' negative behaviors to their dispositions or innate talents when, in fact, student resistance to learning is the product of our educational environments.  

This great story by Cathy illustrates this point remarkably well.  Those Ethiopian kids had not grown up in an environment where they were graded, sorted, classified, and told what they were good at and what they couldn't do.  They didn't "learn" in an environment where only performance/grades matters and thus becomes the goal of the student, the professor, and the system.  They were exposed to something new, with no limitations imposed, and did some amazing things (I wonder what they'll be doing with those tablets 2 years from now?).  

The problem is not the students.  As Cathy notes in her piece, humans have an intrinsic desire to learn.  In his book, John Tagg shares a study that was done of high school students.  It demonstrated that the "good" students, the ones getting good grades and perceived by their teachers as top of their class, ready for college etc. did not have significant better attitudes towards education or school "learning" -- but they were able to focus attention for longer periods of time and therefore perform better.  

Faculty need to wake up to the reality that we cannot continue to utilize a system that is failing -- we have to alter that system, and we need to make others aware of the situation.  I know that type of work is going on, and I'm glad to be a part of it.  I have developed an Integrated Model of Student Resistance that is being presented at conferences and so forth, and which I hope to publish in the near future.  It illustrates that student resistance (or being "stupid") is the result of a complex set of interacting elements including external situations and constraints, negative experiences in education and with teachers and sometimes other students, level of cognitive development, and the student's personal readiness to change.  Once we understand what is really going on, we can adapt our teaching methods -- some faculty do this intuitively, but I think it helps to have a model.  Otherwise, faculty do what your peers did -- they tend to blame the victims.  



The way children took to the Xoom tablets--investigated and used them--without any instruction or encouragement, is exactly what I would have hoped for.

I'm reminded of Ewan McIntosh calling for us to grow up the next generation of problem FINDERS, and I think there's some interesting overlap here.

Why have students solve arbitrary problems in the closed system of a classroom when there are oodles of real world problems that need to be solved?

The important thing seems to be: kids will surprise you with their curiosity and resourcefulness and aptitude if you will just let them.