Reaching and Teaching Digital Natives

SketchUp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s Sunday morning as I write this.  My son is at his computer doing homework for computer class.  He is creating a 3D model of a bus depot and its environs using SketchUp.  Although the assignment is not really due until Friday, he has worked on it consistently since he got the assignment this Friday.  Why?  He simply loves working with software of any kind.


Did I mention that Lucas is 11 and in sixth grade?  Kudos to his computer science teacher, who decided to harness his students’ love of computers and software to create what I consider challenging assignments.

I am proud of what he has been able to do with programs such as Minecraft, and now I am proud of his latest efforts with 3D modeling.  Whether the realizes it or not, he is learning geometry – and liking it.  This morning, he told me that he wants to be a programmer and go to an institute of technology after he graduates high school.  That makes me so proud!

This may sound obvious to you, but the reason that Lucas’ computer science teacher is succeeding with him is because his assignments are interesting, in Lucas’ opinion.  Daniel Willingham, in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? wrote that one of the important aspects of any activity is the context and its ability to intrigue the learner.  He wrote:

We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought.  But because thinking is so hard, the conditions have to be right for this curiosity to thrive, or we quit thinking rather readily (2010).

Again, this seems obvious.  However, it has many implications for curriculum, lesson design, and content development.  It solidifies the need for  differentiated instruction and makes it that much more complicated.  Lucas’ computer science teacher does not have to worry about standardized tests and the like.  How does an English teacher make sure that her students are not checking out at the first opportunity?

Starting from Where the Students Are

Anyone who has read anything I have ever written (that’s about ten of you :)) know that “starting from where the students are” is one of my favorite phrases.  It brings lesson planning back to reality.  For the purpose of this blog, it brings us back to the title.  How do we reach and teach digital natives like my Lucas?  We meet them in their territory and almost trick them into engaging the content and thinking about it.

For those of us who are not digitally inclined (Dare I say ‘digital immigrants‘?), the question becomes: “Where do I start?”  We do not like teaching what we do not know.  It is important that we try, though.  Teachers – the adults responsible for the education of young people – need to step out of their comfort zone and meet their students on common ground.  It is not enough to know what they should know; they also need to know what the kids already know and use that knowledge to build an environment that lures kids to it and keeps them interested.  There are ways to teach Gatsby (a novel unit that haunts me to this day) that involve technology and contemporary culture while still teaching the content.  We are more likely to reach and teach digital natives when we step outside our familiar environs and take a look around the environs created by our kids.

There is a terrific song by the Indigo Girls called “Closer to Fine.”

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

The less I seek my source for some definitive, they say, the closer they come to being OK in the world.  Seek from other sources, step outside of what you have always known and explore the unknown.  Bring that back to the classroom – and you’ll be fine.

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