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.
I watched the Paralympics held in Rio last summer and I was both amazed and inspired by the drive, resilience, passion, and accomplishment of people we label as disabled but who, in many cases, can athletically outperform the average person who has all body parts intact. Disabled athletes use accessibility tools that create pathways allowing them participate in events that years ago no one would have considered possible. These athletes swim, run, jump, fence, ride, throw, lift, row, sail and so much more. The Paralympics celebrates Universal Design, Inclusion, Can Do beliefs, equity, and openness to possibilities. Not only do disabled athletes demonstrate self agency and advocacy but they are surrounded by people — family, friends, coaches — who champion their assets and capabilities and support removing philosophical and physical barriers to opportunities rather than sustaining them.
The Paralympics story reminds me of the barriers to learning we may still erect in front of young people, both in PK-12 and higher education. Rather than promoting equity of access by actively advocating and acting to take down philosophical barriers, we sometimes maintain those barriers because of beliefs and values that limit potential. Access to a full, rich curricula is one example.
I remember talking a few years ago to a teacher who was concerned about a middle school student who was upset because he’d been excluded from reading a book he wanted to read in a book group because of his learning disability. The teacher commented that he just couldn’t read the text and so he had been placed in a less sophisticated book. I was just on the front end of processing background on universal design for learning and asked her if he could listen to the text since he would have no problem handling the cognitive challenge of the content. She replied, “but listening is not real reading.” Quite frankly, I didn’t know what to say. I myself had begun to listen to audio books in the car and felt when I finished a book I had indeed “read” it (for the record I’m a lifelong voracious text consumer which seems to be worth less and less as we move into the Machine Age.) I walked away thinking we have to challenge our definition of what it means to be a reader – and what it means to be labeled as learning disabled.
Today, the district where I work has adopted Universal Design for Learning as one of seven pathways to transforming learning. We are not “there” yet with 25 schools in terms of full ownership of this philosophical shift but we load every student device with an image that includes a suite of accessibility tools so every student can use a multitude of apps that open the door to equity of curricular access. After all, if medical school students listen to podcasts at triple speed rather than going to lectures and use text to speech to turn assigned text into audio to maximize access why would we continue to deny children with learning disabilities access to complex text they can’t read but they can comprehend?
Why would we not choose to create habitable worlds of schooling for all learners?
finding private reading space in the elementary library
I just ran into the work of Professor Rosemary Garland-Thomsen of Emory University who researches, teaches, and writes about expansion of assistive supports to create more habitable worlds for disabled people. The phrase ‘habitable world’ caught my attention because I believe that each learning space, community, and the full curricula of our schools should be accessible to everyone — in essence, schools as habitable worlds of learning.
In her work, Professor Garland-Thomsen speaks to two different narratives that drive people’s decisions about equity of access within a community: either a eugenics philosophy or an inclusion philosophy.
The term eugenics should not be used or taken lightly given its origins and its impact. The worst of American history has been rooted in the Eugenics Movement, a legacy of Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Sir Francis Darwin. Social Darwinism, a cultural perspective on why class systems exist, made child labor and inhumane adult labor conditions acceptable long after slavery was abolished in the US. In the early 1920s, the Eugenics Movement gave birth to the infamous sterilization laws of states across the nation. In Virginia thousands of citizens were sterilized, including under-aged teens and mostly adult women. The tragic case of young Cary Buck, of Charlottesville, Virginia, traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court soon after Virginia enacted its eugenics law. Virginia’s laws were upheld and, in the decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes commented “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Beginning with the sterilization of Cary Buck, the SCOTUS ruling led to decades of sterilization across the nation and citation of Virginia law in the Nuremburg trials in defense of the actions of Nazi Germany.
As the Eugenics Movement faded, the Civil Rights Movement emerged as a progressive force leading to integration of public schools and full community access to public spaces for all citizens through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then Public law law 94–142 or IDEA as it’s known today was enacted in 1975 to support disabled children to attend and receive needed educational services in public schools, regardless of disability. Coupled with IDEA, the 1990 enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act protected disabled people from discrimination, adding a layer to a progressive philosophy of inclusionary procedures and practices.
These three federal acts increased the potential of accessibility to a habitable world (defined broadly as a planet supporting life or more narrowly as schools supporting all learners, Pk-12 to higher education, with the tools, resources, and strategies they need to succeed) for people in communities across the nation.
How do create schools that are not boxes that wall learners in?
In schools today, we talk the talk that learners’ voices matters, their learning agency is valued, and their influence is of merit. When it comes to walking the walk, however, our work breaks down without a relentless commitment from professionals who will challenge assumptions and practices that represent the vestiges of a eugenics philosophy and promote the inclusionary practices to which progressive educators aspire.
If we are to realize our inclusionary aspirations, how do we attend, act, and advocate to confront the soft ‘eugenics’ still inherent in educational settings? How do we change practices that create school cultures where it’s acceptable to:
Sort and select children by perceived differences that limit access to and equity of learning opportunities
Turn a blind eye to ostracizing, bullying, name-calling, and shunning that can represent both adults’ and/or children’s behaviors in learning communities
Negatively label children based on value judgements about gender, color, economic background, class, sexual orientation, native language, parental behaviors, disability/ability and so on
Avoid development of pedagogical skills essential to teach children through a culturally responsive, trauma sensitive, equity of access lens
Ignore differences among children’s assets, resources, and home support outside of school
Refuse to provide access to the tools children need so that print isn’t a barrier to information sources and text entry isn’t a hurdle to showing their knowledge or sharing their creativity
Set up rules, situations and schedules that isolate children from access to their full community whether during recess, play-time, lunch, extracurricular activities, or academic groups and teams?
When contemporary educators endorse and use these practices, we create an uninhabitable world of learning reflective of schooling traditions of the twentieth century. We limit opportunity, potential, and possibilities and never even know what has been missed because we filter the capabilities of young people through beliefs long outdated by the tools available in today’s world.
The Good News ….
We can and are doing better in many schools today. Some teachers make different choices, challenging the normative factory model that is still relatively intact in some schools despite deep, well-researched knowledge about learning.
Social media make us aware of the voices of progressive teachers who practice a philosophy of open-ended learning rather than instruction limited by rigid standards or performance measured mostly by four-choice, one-answer tests. Today’s progressive educators provide children with opportunities to pursue their learning interests, passions, and curiosities as they learn with peers of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and capabilities. Such teachers recognize the learning power when children work together to find solutions, create, make, design, build, and produce learning.
Teachers who create a habitable learning world for all children value them as explorers, pioneers, settlers, and even resisters of learning. They don’t see a singular path as the only one navigable to learning. They don’t see one destination as an end point for a child’s year. They remain open to and notice the semiotics that help them make meaning of the learning community. They study what each child needs to access full participation in the habitat of the classroom. They listen to children to learn about their culture, stressors, assets, values, interests, and capabilities. Such teachers tune into and confront their own and others’ deficit thinking. When faced with their own biases and the biases of others, they don’t back away from tough conversations and reflection. They own their own learning and value working with a heterogeneous community of learners and peers.
Progressive educators are changing education in their classrooms and influencing others so that all children enter a habitable world of learning, one that has for too long been off-limits for some. They seek to re-norm educational practices through an inclusionary philosophy that embraces all learners.
As a mentor said to me years ago, “it takes a long time to turn an aircraft carrier around — and to change an educational practice. Both can be done. It just takes the will and the skill to do it.”
Attend. Advocate. Act. It’s how we will accomplish just that.
This past August , I pulled 4–5 old tech items out of a bag at our New Teacher Academy as part of a welcome message to educators joining our learning community.
I really shouldn’t have been startled when a first-year teacher born in 1993 didn’t recognize a film reel canister. The tech I took for granted as a young teacher had long since vanished by the time he was born.
This younger generation who just started teaching this school year laughed with me as I held high my VHS tape,(the demise of VHS sales) a Walkman disc-player (how the iPod shifted a market), and an old Blockbuster card (for more on how Blockbuster failed to have vision to see Netflix coming) I’d found squirreled away in my now 28-year old son’s vacant bedroom. Then, I asked one young teacher to open a case for a floppy disk. When he struggled with that task, I realized we had moved past my decades-long educational career in a few moments of pulling old tech from a canvas bag.
The tools of the relatively recent past were museum artifacts to many in the room. I couldn’t even begin to explain the intricacies of my struggle to thread a film reel leader through the projector necessary to show Donald in Math Magic Land to an impatient audience of children in 1978.
My experience sharing old tech with novice teachers reminded me of a late night twitter exchange with an English teacher sharing his frustration in trying to describe a pocket watch to kids reading a classic set in the 1800s.
It’s hard to make sense of tools that are no longer relevant to the world our young learners live in and increasingly a new generation of educators …
Technology transitions have always seemed a bit magical as generations of new tools have made their way into schools. It seemed that one day the smell of mimeograph fluid permeated the air in the teachers’ work room where I once worked as a first year teacher and the next day I found myself watching paper copies shoot out of a photocopier; a transition from creating purple duplicator stencils to filling paper trays in the new “Xerox” machine.
As young baby boomer educators we marveled when first introduced to Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 computers that ran on cassette tape players.
And when Jobs’ and Wozniak’s Apple II computers were introduced in schools, the potential in the beige cases wowed us just as the challenge of learning to use this new tool intimidated us. I didn’t know then that we couldn’t begin to envision the even more complex changes still to come:
20 ?”HELLO WORLD”
In Slow Motion: From Pencils to Word Processors ….
We moved forward into the 21st century but the 20th century learning model still dominated, reinforced by the school standardization movement embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Even though tech tools changed workplaces, homes, and entertainment, not much changed in mainstream education. The pencil remained our 1:1 device of choice. Interactive White Boards replaced the chalk board but as a tool used primarily by teachers. Laptop carts replaced more primitive desktop labs but mostly were used as a tool of consumption not production. LCD projectors replaced overhead projectors and the strange and wonderful science fiction of the Internet, laptops, and mobile devices jumped off the screen from Star Trek into mainstream America.
“every now and then a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything…” Steve Jobs, 2007
As technology innovation accelerated, the world became accessible and transportable; first as Blackberries in the pockets of business people and then pretty much around the globe everyone owned a smart phone. Tech communication accelerated — social media, YouTube, an app for everything. Some in K-12 and higher education began not just talking about virtual learning but also making it happen. 1:1 initiatives put laptops in the hands of all learners in some school districts. The advent of Bring Your Own Device allowed kids to connect at school with personally owned tech. Drives became thumb-sized storehouses. Then, the portable thumb became the ubiquitous cloud.
Now consider some teachers and professors who remain in front of the class, lecturing from the dominant teaching walls. Phones ring in backpacks. Text messages are sent under desks. Facebook is open on screens (if allowed). Boredom today shifts learners of all ages from daydreaming, fidgeting and staring into space to actively transporting out of class with their own personal devices. Sound, video and text move them elsewhere at what can seem like Star Trek Warp Speed.
The teacher of the ’80s who once was challenged to compete with Sesame Street is now today’s educator challenged with holding attention in the face of online gaming, instant social connectivity, goofy cat YT videos, and millions of apps. Kids are the most powered-up generation that the world has ever seen and the tech keeps coming.
However, when bored from being seated and expected to listen for far too long, learners drift as they/we always have. Today their choices of drift often take them to tech that provides different paths to dreaming than the doodling or staring out the window of their parents’ generation. The upside is that teachers still matter to kids even as they appreciate being active learners in our classrooms using the high-tech we provide or they bring – along with books, uni-fix cubes, microscopes, paintbrushes and so on.
Technology today gives learners the world.
Tech tools create access. Tech tools provide new avenues for communication. Tech tools allow research to occur anywhere, anytime. Tech tools extend the act of creating. Tech learning tools of this century are as exciting to them as the more primitive technologies of the 20th century were to their parents.
The possibilities of what learners can do today as they search, connect, communicate and make are endless. The potential of technologies to power up learning sets the stage for teachers to create opportunities that take advantage of resources in ways that were science fiction until recently.
Tech tools do not replace people in kids’ lives.
Yet… tech tools don’t check eyes for understanding. Tech tools don’t respond with emotion to a kid sharing a tough situation or experiencing the sheer joy of learning something new. Tech tools don’t design for learning that excites and engages and moves with the flow of a community of learners.
Teachers do all those things and so much more when they go back go the roots of engaging pedagogy.
Relationships, Learning Agency, and Opportunities Matter …
So, every year when I greet new teachers, the important words are about relationships, being open to learning, sustaining efficacy, and challenging learners with access to the best learning experiences we can offer.
Today on almost New Year’s Eve 2015, I go back to where I began the 2015-16 school year —purposefully pulling old tech out of a canvas bag as a starting point to engage new teachers who also are still learners despite their role change. Why? Because a wise teacher told me before I started my first day teaching, “your job is to get kids excited about learning. Do that the first day — and every day after and kids will love learning in your class.”
Learning tools, whether high or low tech, are no more or less important than when I started teaching. They augment our teaching and our students’ learning. No matter their computing speed, the fastest devices today do not replace teachers who set up opportunities for powerful learning and community-building each day, even as they grow and develop their own expertise over their careers.
Tools change over time. The best teachers do as well. That was my message to new teachers in August 2015 and the one I reflect on as we enter 2016.