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Beyond the Digital Zombie Stereotype: Three Tips for Empowering Student Agency and Decision-Making

My wife is a vegetable ninja. You see, over the years, she has secretly employed a handful of tricks to ensure that our four sons (and their father) develop healthy eating habits. From the time our boys were old enough to speak, she would offer them a choice. She would say something like, “Would you like broccoli or carrots to eat?” As they grew a bit older, she began ask them to suggest what vegetables should be part of our meals. It wasn’t until several years into our marriage that I realized the same techniques were being used on me. The results were inevitable—slowly and steadily, each of us learned to use our own agency to make healthy food choices on our own.

As I have watched my wife work with our own kids and with hundreds of other elementary students in school where she teaches, I have come to understand what I believe all educators need to understand—that early opportunities for good decision-making are likely to result in better decision making later on. As a vegetable ninja, my wife’s objective wasn’t just to get us to eat our vegetables. Ultimately, she wanted to increase the likelihood that we would make healthy food choices with…or withoutdigital_zombie her around.

Sadly, today’s students are often portrayed in the media as passive consumers of media, rather than active agents and mediators of their own learning. But our young people are not the digital-zombies they society makes them out to be. In fact, educational research actually shows that students are very capable of engaging with technology in increasingly complex ways, and that they regularly discover new, unexpected uses for the tools that they select (Czerniewicz, Williams, & Brown, 2009).

In my recent visits to school districts, I have observed a number of classrooms where teachers are working strategically to create decision-making opportunities for their students. Most often, these opportunities are manifest in the form of control and choice regarding (1) what students learn, (2) how they learn, and (3) how they demonstrate understanding.

WHAT Students Learn

One way for teachers to afford students more control over learning is offer them choices about the content they will learn. In a science class for example, two very similar assignments could be constructed for separate informational texts of comparable difficulty, one on nebulas and another on black holes. Students could then be encouraged to choose between topics, while still completing the same learning objectives as their classmates.
In a number of schools, I have also seen students who are encouraged to choose topics of personal interest and to devote time each week to researching and exploration of the topic. These students prove quite capable of utilizing digital tools and plug-ins such as Museum Box, Evernote, Scrible, and ScrapBook to help collect information and to organize images, videos, texts, audio clips, and links to other resources on their chosen subject.

HOW Students Learn

Today’s students are also adept at selecting and integrating tools to accomplish their own learning objectives. For example, I recently visited with a fifth grader who was using a free app called Lego Movie Maker to turn a book project he had been assigned in one of his classes into an entertaining, stop-motion animation. He insisted that the app was simple enough to use, but expressed frustration with its inability to add narration over the video that he had already worked so hard on.
Immediately, the student began tinkering with combinations of different tools and apps in order to solve the problem. First, he tried recording his own narration using Audacity and Garageband. But after a few attempts, he was unable to import his voiceover into Lego Movie Maker. So instead, he exported the video he had made, and then opened it up in another app called Videoshop where he re-recorded the narration and combined it with the animation. It took him less than twenty minutes to develop and execute a successful solution to the problem.

Over the past several months, I have watched a number of teachers who are seeking to capitalize on students’ ability to exert control over the terms and conditions of their own learning. For example, I recently observed a ninth grade math teacher who started class by asking her students to help her determine how many stars exist in the known universe. She explained that before looking at any formulas or equations used by other mathematicians, she wanted to hear how her students might go about solving the problem and insisted that there were likely several valid approaches. Students were given the option of working alone or with others, and then they spent time formulating responses. The class period was spent sharing, evaluating, and revising various approaches created by students.

The following day, students were asked to self-select a station where they could review the theories of accomplished scientists either by listening to podcasts, watching interviews, or reading excerpts of commentaries by various astronomers and mathematicians. Students then worked at their stations to discuss and critique the various theoretical approaches.  You and I might not be math teachers, but a similar approach can be taken in any of our classrooms or content areas. We too can seek to create opportunities for our students to reflect on learning, to develop strategies, and to select learning styles appropriate to specific learning tasks (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, Ecclestone, & Hall, 2004).

How Students DEMONSTRATE UNDERSTANDING

Choice can also be extended to students when as we ask them to demonstrate their understanding of subject matter. For example, students can be asked to choose between a performance assessment, a portfolio, or other more traditional formats. As a result, our role as the instructor becomes more facilitative and permits the learner to exert more control over learning outcomes (Reynolds & Trehan, 2000).

Since students are often more familiar with emerging digital tools than their teachers are, it makes sense for educators to ask students for their input on how understanding might be demonstrated. Some of the most inventive and insightful student work I have ever seen has resulted from formats and tools suggested by students.

For example, in class we have moved some of our classroom discussions online using TodaysMeet and TweetDeck. Student final projects have taken the form of Audioboo podcasts, Vocabulary Shorts, and Paperslides. Students have also suggested a number of free and inexpensive options for 3D design projects such as Legobuild, TinkerCAD, and Minecraft. But regardless of what tool students select to demonstrate their understanding, the fact remains that learners are more likely to take risks and try out new skills and strategies when they are able to make choices and exercise control (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000).

Today’s students are hardly the digital zombies they are so often portrayed to be. True…our young people are adept at consuming media, but their true capacity lies in their ability to create and to contribute. Today’s classrooms must become training grounds for students’ digital agency. If we as educators truly wish to transform our students into capable decision makers, we must create multiple opportunities for them to choose…opportunities for them to utilize their own tools and to take control of what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate understanding.

References

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K., & Hall, E. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy: A systematic and critical review. London, England: Learning and Skills Research Council.

Czerniewicz, L., Williams, K., & Brown, C. (2009). Students make a plan: understanding student agency in constraining conditions. Research in Learning Technology, 17(2).

Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. (2000). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension to enhance understanding. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Reynolds, M., & Trehan, K. (2000). Assessment: A critical perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 25(3), 267-278.

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