The Phygitals have Arrived — A Generation for this Century

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The phygital generation or Gen Z finds manipulating virtual reality paddles or headsets, entering an AR world, snap chatting with a friend, or posting an IG story as comfortable as playing a game of soccer under a lighted night, dancing with friends, reading a paper book, shopping with a parent or swinging high in the playground.

Learning spaces today aren’t all physical. Kids today locate themselves in space that is multidimensional, sometimes without walls, sometimes without solid artifacts, sometimes without another “bones and muscle” human.

They move with ease across boundaries, more interested in activity than watching. They are the #experiencedesign generation, kids who want to hack, invent, participate, infuse, create, and connect with their artifacts, memories, ideas, opportunities, communities. Place is just where they happen to be in the moment. Learning is not limited to school or home. Community is not limited to church or soccer practice or the cafeteria. Identity is not limited to demographic check boxes on a census form.

Phygitals value experiences as much as, if not more, than material possessions. They like to make learning – not just receive learning. They return us to our roots as humans because they value the power of story – as told through graphic novels, video games, or one-sitting, asynchronous, multi-device accessible video series. They have moved well beyond their grandparents’ Saturday night at the movies or weekly Tuesday night sitcom episode.

They care about their own wellness and that of the planet. They believe community matters and taking care of community is as important in distant physical places as it is to the people in their hometowns. It’s why, from my perspective, young people in so many school communities across the nation extend themselves to fundraise or collect donations for those impacted by disaster. They also don’t limit themselves to local car washes as the fundraiser of choice. Instead, they augment physical reality by seeking support across a multitude of online fundraising platforms, through social media publicity, and in student-crafted websites.

Phygitals use a multitude of text and image-based tools to learn, communicate, and share with others. They like face time and screen time. Given opportunities to chase down a drone or play foursquare, they will move. They easily locate themselves in a variety of spaces and know how to navigate those with ease.

However, even as phygitals’ sense of space has expanded, their physical need for caves, campfires, and watering holes remains. Our young humans still seek a continuum of places for silent work and meditation, family gatherings, tribal connectivity, and cross-pollination opportunities whether at games or marketplaces.

In school communities that understand and value learners’ active participation and leadership, educators are changing how they set up and use environments, pedagogy, tools, curricula, and assessment. Progressive school communities who shift practices left over from the 20th century become less “schoolish.” And, their children become less schooled as passive listeners and more active as empowered learners.

Educators in such contemporary learning communities value educating children for life more than teaching them to pass decontextualized tests. In taking the risk to make changes that lead to learners who see their voices as important, their agency as desired, and their influence as real, we adults can find inspiration in our capability to teach even as we learn along with our phygital children.

When Kids Make

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They think  ..

ask questions ..

try out ideas

 

They design .. and create

 

They figure out solutions .. and then construct them

They work together .. and sometimes alone

 

They code .. and make things work

They share ideas .. and try out playful solutions

They use tools .. and take things apart

They play ..

work ..

and learn.

 

When kids make they acquire knowledge and competencies in context rather than in isolation from opportunities to make meaning and sense. Sometimes they learn to make for the sheer joy of making and sometimes they make to learn because they are inspired to create with new ideas, skills, or knowledge.

To make is timelessly human.

Noise and the Power of Pause: Slammed, Just Hands, The English Patient

The moving images of three videos I’ve watched over this break remind me that the noise in our lives can become at times so overpowering that we hear nothing. When we lose our capability to hear, learning slows, perhaps even stops.

Slammed

Surfing channels, I discovered young teens, children really, garbed in the uniform of the ghetto pitching their poetry into the audience at the 2010 National Slam Poetry Teen Championships. There’s an irony in that the perfect words of Slam poetry get rewarded on TV and punished in the hallways of schools. I turned away from their images, HBOed into fifteen minutes of fame, and with eyes closed, absorbed these young poets’ spoken words of fear, anger, love, respect. They didn’t spout poetry about unicorns or rainbows but rather a poetry of life on the edge where mothers shoot smack and let their children starve while the Sunday TV preacher asks for donations to congregational causes that keep the preacher in a Cadillac and the right people in office.

I am renewed by the fresh images captured in the spaces for learning that these young poets seek and find inside and outside the school zone. Young people bear gifts for those who look beyond the filtering system we apply to them. They refuse to be invisible in a world that expects them to be. Poets live in all our classrooms. We simply need to shut out the noise and listen for them.

Just hands.

Imagine learning from hands that move in syncopated rhythm across the front of the A-Bomb Dome as they tell a family story of Hiroshima, a father lost for all time with only the lock for his bicycle and his gold molar found. I learned about projection artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, Director of the Center for Art, Culture, and Technology at MIT, from my son who is inspired by his work. Jason, a lover of moving image, tells me that projection art provides a different venue in which to learn, a different space to challenge one’s understanding. He shared a video to illustrate the power of projection art as a tool for learning, to help me grasp his own learning work as well as to explore a different entry point into learning outside the traditional boundaries of how we define education.

The bombing of Hiroshima touched lives of the innocent just as the attack, according to American military history, prevented the deaths of American soldiers trying to end WWII in the Pacific Theater. After watching the video documentary about the creation of Wodiczko’s project, I was caught by the power and passion of an artist to present the tension of multiple stories that evolve into differing interpretations of history.

Image has been used by humans since the beginning to tell the stories of our lives, stories that once past become our history.  The stories told through the projected hands of bombing survivors demonstrate how technology creates a different version of rock paintings in the 21st century. I wonder why we continue to value the screed of our classrooms when there are so many intriguing and interesting entry points for our children to use to access the narrative of learning.

The English Patient

The English Patient has become over the years a museum of art to me, each image forming the portrait, the landscape, the poetry, and narrative of man and woman. Doorways and windows frame perfect oil paintings, a chance encounter with light cast just so to create one more scene for the artist to render into a setting. His brush strokes capture the nuances of sun on a kiss, the silvered pitcher caught on the edge of a tub, angled shadowing of window bars.

When I watched The English Patient this time over break, I was struck that technology simply allows creators a more varied palette of colors from which to choose. But, art springs from the soul, not from the technology.  An artist must see ahead of the brush, the camera lenses, the screen to capture that which will move the audience. The English Patient represents an ecosystem of artistry at work; cinematography, score, narration, setting of scenes, dialogue. In my opinion, it may be one of the most painfully perfect films ever made, not because of the technology that allowed it to become a movie, but because of the capability of humans to make visible to others what they otherwise would not see.

In our lives as educators, we learn to filter others, to render some things invisible. The English Patient gives me pause to consider our capabilities to see each frame of the school day as an opportunity to create, to make visible that which we now filter, to activate a camera bag of lenses in our work. The technology at our fingertips can expand visibility, but it can’t force us to see.

Noise

Over this break, I have considered noise, listened to it unfold on channels that never cease pouring trivia of the world into our lives in a circadian rhythm of news and reality shows by which we tell time. I’ve also watched the noise we create on a social media path of circular logic along which we tell and retell the same arguments for and against just about everything.

As I sought silence along the edges of a town that sits on white sand, sand which lingered for millions of years under Jurassic ocean waters, I thought about the learning evolution of humans from image to oral story to pressed print to screen to search to image to story.  The whisper of a teen poet on HBO, the ghostly hands of Hiroshima, and each perfect frame of The English Patient reminds me that when I subtract the noise, I rediscover the value of the silent, reflective pause as critical in the cycle of learning. That was the gift of this break.

Out of the Quicksand: It’s About Passion not Standardization

The President emphasized the words education and innovation in his State of the Union speech last week. In fact, he used both words in some form at least 10 times each- not necessarily in tandem. While I didn’t do a frequency count of all the words used multiple times, those two certainly jumped out as I listened to his words.

The President's Speech

He also spoke to America’s frustration with losing our balance because we didn’t see change coming. It’s as if we woke up one day and the world had changed without asking our permission. We just didn’t anticipate the shift of global sands under our nation’s feet as the rules of the game changed that govern our economic survival.

We, the current crop of Americans, don’t remember a time when we weren’t the world leader we are today. None among us are old enough to remember the 19th century preeminent status of the British Empire as the world power prior to its decline in the first half of the 20th century. Many of us are too young to have processed the truly recent emergence of the United States as a “super” power in the second half of the 20th century.  We’ve grown up assuming that’s just the way it is and has always been – America leading the world.

Connecting with China circa 1972

Times have changed though. Instead of a universal confidence in our capability to negotiate our way through tough times, some feel we’re sliding into a pit of quick sand and we’re not sure where to grab a handle to pull ourselves out.  The President seems to think our capability to educate and innovate might provide that handle.

In concept, these two words do feel like the right handle when used together. In reality, I don’t see viable and multiple pathways being applied in the President’s education office to link those two words in a meaningful way in our schoolwork. Instead, the “trickle down” economics of USDOE’s approach to public education feels disconnected from the work of those who labor out in the field (with the exception of the National Educational Technology Plan which I see as USDOE’s best work).

At the same time, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best educators in the field could get behind a grassroots-driven plan to support radical invention of a public education system for contemporary learners and learning.  They gather all the time now at teach-meets, un-conferencesonline in social learning media networks, and in formal settings such as this weekend’s EduCon 2.3. They also understand we can’t get to innovation without going through invention as a precursor process.

Unfortunately, the time to simply do what inventors do – think, consider ideas, try things out, talk to others, reflect, modify, figure out possibilities, do something – just doesn’t come often in their world of full time jobs. They need time and the space to do the work of radical invention. If anyone wonders why it doesn’t happen, shadow our best educators for just one day. They need the attention from the private sector to support them in DARPA-like invention work.

The Internet: a DARPA invention

We need radical invention learning models, but we need them working in just plain “old” schools that represent the range of demographics and facilities distributed across the country.  Unless we’re committed to wholesale replacement of the buildings, learners who attend America’s schools, and those who teach, we need to spend concentrated time and resources working as inventors in the schools we have.  The charter concept isn’t bad. We need customized options for kids. It just won’t change the game for the vast majority of America’s millions of students.  All of our students need schools that operate like the best functional communities. All of them deserve the best we have to offer in schools, teachers, and resources. All of them deserve learning spaces where they can pursue their passions.  It’s not about providing that opportunity. It’s about providing that reality.

This year, I’ve spent a number of hours in job-embedded “invention” work with teams of elementary educators. Some of these teams are from upper middle class community schools. Some are from schools populated with children who represent either the urban or rural poor. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common.

They all know they want more for the children they serve. More creative time to think and act upon big learning ideas. More opportunities for project-based learning work for all students, but especially for those trapped in the molasses-slow drudgery of remediation and intervention. More spaces to connect with like-minded educators who also dream different ways to reach out and offer children a handle out of the quick sand of the 20th century testing curricula 1.0 that we’ve adopted across the nation.

Their rooms and schools may look different because of the resources they have available. Most live in the time capsule of boxed places created in the 20th century, but not all. Some have access to additional parent-driven funding for resources about which others can only dream. Their worlds aren’t the same and most likely never will be. Yet, they all see themselves as inventors, creators, designers, builders, and innovators in the learning places where they’ve landed. They just need time, permission, and support to engage.  Each of their inventions may be different and that’s okay. What we need to scale is more creative customization aiming towards passion-based learning inside all our schools, not rote standardization of a one-size fits all model.

What's Your Favorite Learning Experience in This School

We hear that teachers of poor children should be able to propel children over the testing hurdles we place in front of them at equal rates to those of teachers whose children have come to appreciate the Paris Hilton over spring break. But, their worlds are not the same. Their academic and social background knowledge is not the same. The resources their teachers have access to are not the same. The places they call home or school are not the same. While we can find both wealthy and poor schools that have figured out the buttons to punch to get great pass rates, we have not come close to leveling the playing field in the provision of the rich and varied learning experiences that those of privilege have come to appreciate in the schools they attend- public or private. If we believe in the past three Presidents’ public commitment that all children must realize their maximal potential through the work of our system, then we have work to do, not just in schools, but also in every other service sector of our government.

In Life Magazine 1958: Kids Create "Space" Helmets

It’s not Sputnik rocket science to figure out President Obama’s correct in saying that extending the handle of education and innovation provides Americans with the best chance to escape the quick sand into which we are sinking globally. However, innovation of education won’t happen without an infusion of passion into the work of the millions of teachers who serve our young people.  From my observations, I’ve come to see passion for learning and standardization of learning structures and processes as representing an inversely proportional relationship.  The more our schools become standardized, the less passion is evident in the work of teachers and students. In other words, standardization drains passion from our schools. Unfortunately, without passion-driven learning, innovation just won’t occur, not in any field- but especially not in education.

learning passion vs school standardization

The accountability pathway we’re on won’t ever lead us to passion-driven learning. In fact, it does the opposite. Children who get a chance to pursue interests- the things they love- generate a passion for learning in themselves and others. When given the opportunity to create, design, build, work with each other and share their interests and passion, their excitement about learning creates a contagion of creativity among peers and their teachers.  If what America needs the most is to fuel our next generation economy, then we better focus on how we set the stage from the ground up for both children and educators to get passionate about their learning work.  One thing’s for sure. More focus on the standardization of schools, curricula, classrooms, and teachers with the goal of more children passing more high stakes multiple choice tests will not sustain America’s children in their journey towards a 22nd century world.

The Intersection of Tech and Passion-Driven Learning