Thursday, August 7, 2008

Technology, Learning, and What Students Know

Here's a GUEST BLOG POST from Hillary Burgess.  Enjoy!  If you want to submit a guest post, just click here. 


Yesterday, I was telling my husband a story, during the course of which, I said, “Didn’t you get the memo?”  My four year old pipes up, “Mommie, what’s a memo?”  I am accustomed to linking new ideas to ones she is familiar with, then explaining the differences.  So, I said, “Well, sweety, a memo is similar to an email: one person writes something to another person.  Just like email, sometimes one person can write to more than one person.  Usually, though, the person prints the memo out on paper instead of transmitting it via the Internet.”

As I was giving this response, I was monitoring myself: “Am I explaining an unfamiliar term with other unfamiliar terms?  Lets see, will she understand the concept of printing on paper or should I analogize that to drawing with crayons?”  I was (correctly) certain that she knew what email was and understood the concept of the Internet.  I was worried that she wouldn’t understand printing and paper.

I was even more amused when I remembered a similar conversation I had with a friend the first week of college: “What’s email?” I asked.  “It’s just like sending a letter, only completely on the computer, and you don’t have to use punctuation, capital letters, or complete sentences,” was my friend’s response.  Not understanding the concept, I asked, “You type your letters to friends?”

I thought about how this juxtaposition of experiences could inform my teaching.  Students entering law school today probably don’t remember a time when they didn’t have a computer in their household.  They probably never had a pen pal.  Since they were old enough to “research,” the Internet has always been available to them.  And for their college and perhaps some of their high school years, the Internet has been available on their communicators, er, I mean cell phones.

Thus, as I try to link the new knowledge and skills that I am attempting to teach them, I really have to re-frame my links to what they know.  I can’t think back to when I was a student and what I knew, because they didn’t learn a lot of the knowledge and skills I had back then.

Instead, students today have a whole different set of knowledge and skills that they started learning so early, the understanding is inherent in their ways of being.  Their knowledge and skills are things I (initially) struggled to learn.  And so my links to, “what they know” actually have to be “what they know” and not what I knew when I was in their position.

Surely, we will engage in a cultural struggle as what I assumed they would know is not accurate and what they do know is not familiar enough to me in some cases that I know to make the links.  However, in the process, I certainly hope that I don’t give them the idea that they are somehow less educated, capable, or ready than I was when I was in their position because they don’t know what I knew then.  Instead, I hope that my interactions with my students communicates a respect for their different set of knowledge and skills.   In the process, I want to demonstrate a similar respect for my students that I try to demonstrate for all other cultures.

Hillary Burgess
Assistant Professor of Academic Support
Hofstra Law School

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