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Dear Kelly, as usual, your recent post is deeply thoughtful. So is your comment to my previous post. That said, I don’t feel like you’ve quite captured why people are supporting Prensky on this topic of engaging students. For example, in your post you cite this quote from Chris Lehmann:

I used to say to my English classes, ‘Hey, on a warm spring day, I’d rather be outside playing Ultimate frisbee than teaching English, but we all have to be here, so let’s find a way to make it meaningful.’ The flaw in Prensky’s article is that there is a difference between recreation and work.

No one’s arguing against English. What we’re discussing is the importance of meaningfulness and how you get there. It’s awfully difficult to teach in a non-engaging way but still impart meaning. Why? Because you can’t get anyone’s attention. Folks can rail about the injustice of that all they want, but it’s reality.

As I noted in my post, and as any gamer can tell you, good video games are hard work. They also happen to be fun and engaging at the same time. It doesn’t have to be either one or the other. As Jim Collins would say, visionary organizations "do not oppress themselves with … the ‘Tyranny of the OR’" but rather recognize that we can have both at the same time. What Prensky and others are advocating is that we understand that students have the opportunity at home through video games and other technological experiences to do work that is both hard AND engaging. Then they head to school where too often the work is just hard (or perceived as irrelevant) but NOT engaging. But we expect students to do the work anyway, and then we get frustrated because they push back or tune out.

I don’t think anyone is arguing against struggle. I don’t think anyone is arguing that some stuff is ‘difficult and mundane.’ I don’t think anyone is telling kids that life is like a video game or is ‘confusing fun with life skills’ or thinks that we should ‘just let kids play until they’re 21 and then see what happens.’ What we are noting (as do you) is that there are ways of teaching that make the difficult and mundane more interesting, more engaging, and more relevant. There are ways of teaching that go beyond simply blaming kids for their inattention and put more of the ownership for student learning on us. This is a very similar theme to what we’re seeing in the data-driven decision-making arena: schools that take greater ownership of and responsibility for their students’ learning end up with better student learning outcomes than those that simply say, "Well, we taught it. Now it’s up to the kids." The bottom line is, if the kid isn’t learning, your instruction isn’t successful. If you have to be more engaging to make it happen, so be it. That’s part of teachers’ jobs: to be interesting and engaging enough to capture and keep kids’ attention on the learning task and to be able to explain the relevance and meaning of the task sufficiently to motivate kids to work.

People work hard when they find meaning in the task. This is true in school. This is true in life. Yes, there’s some mundanity in life, but I think it’s tough to argue that mundanity is a desirable aspect of schooling, one we should be arguing to retain. If the task to be done today is mundane but will pay off for kids later, it’s our responsibility as educators to explain that to kids in such a way that they buy into it. Just telling them it will be good for them later, and then getting frustrated because we don’t get buy-in, doesn’t cut it. Again, that’s our fault, not theirs.

You note in your comment that the lecture and note method is out of style in most classrooms. I wonder if most people would agree with you. I know from the hundreds of schools that I’ve personally visited that worksheets are by no means out of style. I know that teaching the same thing to all kids, regardless of whether some kids are ready for it or whether some kids already know it, is still predominant. I see a lot of teachers that are seemingly trying hard to engage kids but still haven’t found the magic formula. When this happens, it seems that we have two choices: keep trying to figure out the answer or blame the kids. And while many teachers keep plugging and keep looking for new solutions (including those that involve technology and/or gaming), many begin to blame the kids. It’s these latter educators that I think all of these Prensky advocates are arguing about. I love this recent Seth Godin post: "We’ve ‘tried everything,’ by which we mean we’ve tried a few things that everyone else has done as long as they didn’t involve doing anything differently from what we normally do." For many educators, he hits it right on the head.

All of this has always been true. What is different now (and why Prensky’s article is so salient) is that until recently kids didn’t have anything to compare teachers’ instruction against except other teachers. Now they have these high-powered learning environments called video games that are purposefully designed to keep kids’ brains in their own individualized zones of proximal development. The subject matter may be questionable, but the intentional cognitive engagement that is occurring is not. Personally, I’m not certain that most teachers can ever compete against that. But we have to try if we’re going to stay relevant to students. We can’t expect them to pay attention to us just because we want them to. Discarding rigor or difficulty is not the answer. Finding the right balance of engaging activities (or technologies) to ensure student attention is the answer. Again, to come back to Seth Godin’s quote in my previous post, it’s not the kids’ fault that we don’t have their attention. It’s ours. How do we know when we’re successful? Not when we say we are but when the kids’ actions show we are.

I’ve read your post and your comment each half a dozen times now. I don’t know if we’re that far apart but I wanted to at least note where I think we may differ. Maybe you’ve been blessed with a good teaching staff. Maybe you see less of this because you’re a great administrator. From your blog writing, I’m guessing that this is true. But there still are a lot of teachers who blame students for their lack of engagement and their lack of learning. They may not be the majority, but there are enough of them to be concerning (to me at least). I can’t quite tell if you’re okay with that or not (for example, you note that at age 14 it’s awfully hard to get kids to respond to anything). I’m willing to say that it’s our fault, not that of the students, and that we have multiple examples (including Chris Lehmann’s own school) where middle and high schools have found ways to keep adolescents meaningfully engaged with course content. And, yes, in some of those schools they’re recognizing that technology is not a prerequisite but can be a powerful helper.

You asked what in my own life I’ve found useful from my schooling experience. I was fortunate to have enough good teachers in my life (both K-12 and higher ed) to

  1. instill in me a love of learning and a loathing of seemingly-meaningless work;
  2. motivate me to become an educator myself and serve others;
  3. challenge me in engaging ways to become a better thinker and writer;
  4. show me that school should be about more than just "babysitting;" and
  5. help me see that good teaching is not about the teacher but about the learner.

Here’s what I’m struggling to see: Why are folks arguing so hard for
boredom? Why are folks arguing so hard for mundanity and slogging
through? Why can’t we escape ‘the Tyranny of the OR?’ In my own life I’ve found that the more my work is also recreational, the more I like it. It’s not that I’m engaged in recreation instead of work. It’s that my work becomes more recreation-like (i.e., fun, engaging, interesting). If people work at it, align things right, and maybe get a little lucky, the difference between recreation and work can be awfully slim and life can be rewarding and energizing. There’s tremendous power in being in a job that seems like play because you like it so much!

Thanks for your thoughtful extension of the conversation. I am highly enjoying your blog and appreciate your willingness to think both deeply and publicly about leadership issues. We need more principal bloggers like you. I don’t know if any of us are adding anything new to the discussion, but I’m guessing that those of us who are having the conversation are probably learning at least a little bit.