Engaged Learning: What’s It All About?

You’ve probably heard people make this statement again and again in discussions about the rapid technological changes of the 20th Century. This is especially true if you work in the field of education, where teachers and administrators are grappling with the mighty issue of how best to prepare your child for a future in which he or she can make a good living and build a rewarding life.

Today’s employers are telling educators that schools need to do a better job of preparing students to:

· manage large amounts of information,

· understand and use new technologies,

· solve complex problems,

· adapt to change with flexibility and imagination, and

· work creatively in teams.

Because of global competition and advances in automation, employers say, these are the kinds of skills that will help future workers adapt and prosper.

To be successful in our technological society, students must know how to use 21st Century tools such as computers. They must be able to assess, analyze, and synthesize information and then turn it into knowledge. In short, they must be good at the skill of learning and be willing to learn new things throughout their lives.

Schools throughout the nation are taking steps now to change education to meet the needs of the future. You’ve probably already heard about efforts to use more computers and technology in the classroom. And you may have heard about new approaches to teaching, including Engaged Learning, Authentic Learning, and Project-Based Learning. These approaches stem from new findings in brain research and are designed to develop the kinds of skills needed in tomorrow’s workforce.

Teaching kids to become lifelong learners has never been more important than it is today. As a parent, you can and should play a key role in supporting this process.

Engaged Learning: Education’s Vehicle for the Information Highway

If you have a child in public schools, you will likely hear a lot about Engaged Learning in the next few years. This approach to teaching and learning plays a key role in the statewide Technology Plan adopted by the Board of Education. It is an important new trend in education throughout the nation because it combines many strategies of effective teaching into one model.

Engaged Learning is focused on helping children learn how to be successful learners. It gives students the primary responsibility for their own learning goals. It provides many “real world” problems to solve and issues to discuss and explore. Tasks and projects often combine the use of skills and knowledge in two or more different subject areas.

Children may be asked, for example, to work in small groups to organize a make-believe trip to a distant city. As part of this “trip,” they may need to do reading and Internet research to determine which sights and attractions they will visit. They may be asked to develop a travel schedule or itinerary and then, using math skills, put together a realistic budget. Using computers and spreadsheet software, students could set up a computerized budget and expense tracking system.

These kinds of “real world” activities help students develop the higher-level thinking skills that experts say are important to succeeding in the future workplace. Students need to be able to think creatively, work together toward common goals, and use technology to solve problems and create products.

Teachers who use Engaged Learning do not have to have access to computers and other technological tools in the classroom, but it is very helpful. The kind of challenging, interactive environment created with Engaged Learning is well-suited to classrooms where there is (1) access to computers and other high-tech tools and (2) a teacher who is trained in how to use them. Teaching in this learning atmosphere also requires a high level of classroom management and facilitation skills to handle a variety of activities at one time.

Understanding the ‘Digital’ Generation

Once you’ve suffered the embarrassment of having to ask a 10-year-old for help in programming the VCR or coping with a frozen computer screen, you can truly understand that there is something different about this new generation of kids.

The kids who fill today’s playgrounds and classrooms are growing up with all sorts of electronic tools and toys that their parents could only have dreamed of as children. These kids tend to be very comfortable around new technology. For a perfect example, just put a 9-year-old in front of a brand new video game system and stand back in amazement as he or she quickly masters it!

While children fearlessly take on the brave new world of digital technology, parents have a little more trouble accepting it. We question whether all that time spent on the computer is really valuable. We worry that too much time surfing the Internet will turn our children into isolated, anti-social beings with the attention span of a gnat!

Should parents be worried? According to Don Tapscott, author of the new book Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw-Hill 1998), parents need to relax a bit and understand that, as a group, today’s cyber-savvy kids are doing what they need to be doing.

Tapscott has spent years researching the technological, social, and economic forces that are shaping the 80 million kids he refers to as the Net Generation. He defines this group of “N-Geners” as the kids who will be between the ages of 2 and 22 in the year 1999. Tapscott’s studies reveal some fascinating insights about today’s kids:

Kids are more comfortable than many of their parents around technology and innovation.

They are already learning, playing, communicating, working, and creating communities very differently than their parents.

They prefer the interactive, collaborative nature of the Internet to the passive nature of television.

The really important concerns for parents of N-Geners and society at large, says Tapscott, are (1) Making sure that we do not become a society of technology “haves” and “have-nots,” which will imperil the future of kids growing up without access to technology and (2) Adjusting our generation’s attitudes toward the rising influence of the Net Generation.

Parents, as always, will play the key roles as the Net Generation comes of age, and Tapscott offers these guidelines for the cyber-smart family:

  • Parents set parameters (limits and guidelines) for their children’s activities.
  • Parents teach children how to protect themselves. The best protection is knowledgeable children who follow basic safety rules.
  • Everyone in the family looks out for the privacy of the family.
  • Parents and children are both curious.
  • Family members listen to each other.
  • Family members are media critics.
  • Parents and children learn together as a family.
  • There is two-way communication and trust.

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