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Five Critical Skills to Empower Students in the Digital Age

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Mission San Miguel Arcangel built in Minecraft by DavinMaas.

The beginning of the school year is a time to set the tone for a student’s learning experience, including what teachers expect from students and families. But that first week of school is also the time to teach valuable learning skills that will be used throughout the year. Alan November, a former teacher turned lecturer, consultant and author, challenged teachers to rethink how they start the school year by outlining skills that are crucial to students to learn in the first five days of school. He shared his vision at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in Philadelphia.

1. Learn How to Ask the Right Questions

Questions are at the heart of learning, but some questions create a narrow lens while others widen the field of inquiry. November displayed “A Questioning Toolkit” developed by Jamie McKenzie that explains the many types of questions. McKenzie uses the toolkit with students as young as kindergarten to help stretch young minds think beyond the ‘right’ answer in all their learning. Varieties of questions include probing, subsidiary, organizing, divergent, sorting, etc.

Questioning Toolkit

“I’m pretty confident that during the entire year, some kids might only ask the same questions over and over again," November said. "They don’t have the repertoire of all these questions.”


2. Know How to Get Answers

Search engine results are determined by several factors, including user location and search history. But to dig deeper and find better answers, students need training on how to do advanced searches. This means becoming skilled at using search operators, understanding sources and thinking carefully about search terms. Everyone assumes they know how to use Google with confidence, but knowing how to search for specific information well takes practice. On the first day of school, November said he would teach students how to properly query documents, images, music, maps, etc.

"I have this sinking feeling that we’ve never taught them to design good queries in Google," he said. "We didn’t build a rigorous creative curriculum in teaching children the algorithm and coding you need to understand how to use it and the creative imagination that kicks in to understand perspective from another place where you do not live.”

Knowing how to find information on other platforms is also important. For example, asking questions on Twitter using a hashtag or mentioning experts could yield far more interesting results than a general search engine query.

“A lot of students do not understand how to use Twitter for school," he said. "They’ve never been taught to follow the best minds in the world in the subject they’re taking. They’ve never been taught to ask a question on Twitter because that’s a different kind of question than Google.”

3. Learn About Work Created by Other Students

Digital tools allow students to have access to all kinds of work created by others. When students realize someone their own age created something amazing, it inspires them to do the same. November pointed to the work of fourth graders who are reimagining the classic California school project of recreating the state's Spanish missions. Some students are doing the project in Minecraft, expressing their creativity through the digital media that excites them. November urged educators to show students a broad sampling of work.

“We’re going to show them a range of medium with work by children so they understand during the whole year there are choices of media to use in order to express themselves and what they’ve learned,” he said.

There are other Minecraft California mission videos, but here’s one that demonstrates the building process at 8:00:

Knowing what other students are doing is important, November said, because “student work is sometimes more motivating than an assignment the teacher gives.”

4. Know How to Work with People Around the World

November shared the work of Kathy Cassidy, a first grade teacher in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. She uses a blog and Twitter to help her students communicate and learn with other classrooms around the world. Under the Twitter handle @MsCassidysClass, her students are sharing their work with a global audience, such as this sample of one of four LEGO experiments.

The students also reached out to global peers in Milan, Italy to learn math and play games using the hashtag #guessmynumber.

Through the exchanges, young students are learning about other cultures and one another. November said teachers haven't tapped the full potential of digital tools like Twitter to help students connect globally in part because of concerns over creating safe learning environments.

"Eventually, we need to get past this," said November. "We need to realize that when they’re young is the time to teach them the ethics and moral high ground of using something like Twitter.”

5. Self-Reflect Upon Their Work

Traditionally teachers are in charge of assessing student performance. But what would happen if the student were to evaluate her own work? What if self-reflection became a skill as important as reading?

November cited John Hattie's work analyzing the effect of 138 influences on student achievement. Homework, class size, gender and motivation are some of the influencers on the list. But according to Hattie’s findings, the ability to “self-report grades” has the greatest effect on student achievement.

Even as educators are turning to technology to offer ever more granular data on children's learning, November maintains teaching them to assess their own performance is more useful. Students could grade themselves, providing evidence to support conclusions and comparing the grades against the findings of the teacher.

After all, November said, kids won't be in school forever and when they are in college or at their first job, the ability to self-assess will be invaluable.


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