Teaching the new generation is more challenging than ever
Ask anyone in education and they will tell you that today’s students are very different from yesterday’s. But what they mean by that depends largely on whether they tend to see the bright side or the darker side of students’ behavior, learning abilities and general educational attitude. The darker view sees today’s students as lazy, spoiled, and having a short attention span. The brighter view sees the students as dynamic, multi-tasking, excited, and having lots of opportunities, both because of the digital revolution and because the standards of living have risen everywhere. All these aspects need to be taken into account as we educators and parents start a new school year.
I believe that we can only educate students well if we understand their behaviors, their mindsets, their capabilities, their ambitions, and their worries. Even pedagogy (the way we teach) and the construction of curricula are affected by such an understanding (or lack thereof).
Students today have been transformed by digital technologies first and foremost. Their reading, learning and communication habits are drastically different from those of a generation or even a decade ago. And, largely related (or due) to the digital addictions, attention spans have dwindled and students find it very hard to stay focused through a 50-minute lecture. They constantly need to be “propped up” by a joke, a story, a little video, an activity, or some such action that brings them back to focus.
The digital revolution has also changed the dynamic between students and teachers. Students now expect their professors to be available through email at all times, including evenings and weekends. And many institutions have installed “course management systems” such as Blackboard that allows for all kinds of information (lecture notes, assignments, online quizzes, essay submissions, inquiries, announcements, and grades) to be posted and accessed from anywhere.
The digital revolution has also brought huge opportunities: Access to excellent (and not-so-excellent) knowledge at one’s fingertips, as well as extremely useful networking tools, such as shared drives on the cloud, digital course platforms, interactive educational material, and free online courses from some of the best institutions in the world. In 2016, 28 percent of students surveyed by the Online Learning Consortium said they had taken at least one online class — and the numbers keep increasing.
To both teachers and students, this brings challenges (cheating, plagiarism, lazy looking up of information, etc.) and opportunities (richer content, new avenues to pursue, etc.).
It is important to show the students from day one that the class will be conducted in a “modern” way — a digitally connected and interactive way that will involve them fully. Indeed, the first day of class is crucial for how things will go for the rest of the semester or the year.
Today's students' future can only be bright if we embrace the digital revolution and prepare them well for a complex and fast-changing world.
The first step is to get the students strongly interested in the course. The second step is to get to know the students a bit in terms of their background knowledge and interests. Both of these goals I accomplish by doing two things: I first ask the students what is the most recent news item they have read or watched that relates to this course (e.g., astronomy). The second activity is to have them take a quiz of 10 basic general knowledge questions from the topic at hand: For example, “what is the difference between a planet and a star?” “What is a galaxy?” “Who was Copernicus?” “How old is the Earth?” etc. I tell the students not to write their names, as this is just for me and them to get an idea of what they know or don’t know, and what they will learn. That invariably hooks them.
An essential question for us educators to always keep in mind is what we want the students to get from any given course, since they will likely soon forget most of its content matter. Is there fundamental knowledge that we want them to learn and (hopefully) not forget? What gravity is, why objects rotate, what stars are, and how old the universe is — to pick examples from my field. Or are there more general, useful and transferable skills that we want them to acquire, such as how to research a topic, how to write a persuasive essay, how to draw informative diagrams, how to infer meaningful and significant conclusions from a bunch of data, etc.?
But, in my mind, the most important objective for today’s educators is to teach students how to learn by themselves, now and especially in the future — how to be lifelong learners. Experts have estimated that 80 percent or more of the jobs that today’s kids will have are yet to be invented. And, in a previous column, I mentioned some high-paying jobs that exist today but that students don’t seem to be aware of. The key to this is the ability to switch jobs and fields, which can only be accomplished with lasting learning skills and transferable capabilities.
Educators, first and foremost, and parents as much as possible, need to constantly adjust to the shifting social, cultural, technological, and educational landscape. Our children’s future can only be bright if we prepare them well for a complex and fast-changing world.
• Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum