Last night I stopped by my sister-in-law's house and was enthusiastically greeted by my thirteen year old nephew who is now in seventh grade. Through a boastful grin he announced, "Hey, Aunt Michelle, check out my Biology homework!" I immediately began to pan through my own science homework memories from junior high and could only recall textbooks filled with big words and and really cool bookcovers I made out of brown paper bags that I fondly covered with my "wasteful" doodles. "What could be so exciting about his biology homework," I wondered. He led me to his computer monitor on which I saw a Voicethread with a small talking head on the side that was his teacher, captured via web cam, explaining the homework task which was to contribute comments to the class discussion he had initiated in Voicethread. Whoah.
There are a few very important ideas I took away from yesterday. One, I was reminded about the tremendous gap between K-12 education and higher ed in their use of instructional technology. But that really wasn't "news" to me. What I began to think more and more about is the way the Voicethread homework is engaging my nephew. He is being required to participate in a group discussion. To think critically about a prompt, apply concepts and contribute a unique perspective to a group dialogue. This homework is high level critical thinking wrapped up and delivered digitally through the web which makes it oh, so cool to my oh, so cool nephew. This biology teacher is teaching him how to *think.* Whoah.
Thinking skills are critical to succeed in our information-saturated digital culture. Without the ability to be a critical, independent thinker our younger generation of students will not be capable to sift through and make sense of the dizzying amounts of information that surround them every day in so many different forms: text, images, audio and often all three at the same time.
I applaud you, Mr. Biology Teacher, for teaching your students to *think* about biology. This approach to learning is worlds apart from teaching our students to *know* which requires rote memorization of facts. In a Google-driven culture, memorization of facts is a skill that won't hold much power when our competitors are operating off of two gigahertz.
My third, and final, insightful idea that reasonated with me is the fact that instructional technologies (like Voicethreads, blogs, Second Life, etc.) are the ideal tools to use to teach our students to think. They are interactive and engaging. They place students at the center of the learning and allow them to be content creators. Seventh graders "get" this. And they love it. Does higher education "get" this? What do you think?