Framing Digital Media and 21st Century Learning

Two new surveys released last week provide promising evidence that digital technology in classrooms is playing a positive role in children’s skill development. As children learn to navigate new technologies, they become more active in their learning, more self-sufficient as researchers, and more engaged in what they are doing. Subsequently, their higher order thinking skills – like creativity and critical thinking – are improved. And somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom, this then impacts basic skills in math, science, and reading for the better.

That’s what the New York Times story (“Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say,” November 1, 2012) could have reported. It’s all in there. In fact, most of the teachers surveyed reported using digital media in their classrooms and often to good effect. But instead of focusing on those results, the survey discussions themselves (the Pew Internet Project and Common Sense Media) and the Times article frame the issue as one where teachers compete with technology in a zero sum game for the students’ attention spans…and lose.

The way students process information is changing – that should not be surprising to us. And the fact that teaching methods developed in a different era fail to hold attention as well as they used to should also not be entirely surprising. But framing these studies in terms of entertainment and attention spans plays right into the dominant ways that the public thinks about digital media in the classroom – that digital media is just for entertainment, that it is distracting from “real” learning, that it is dangerous, and that it should be limited in the classroom. So even if the positive messages from the study are buried in there, the “entertainment” frame will cue these dominant ways of thinking and the messages about improved skills won’t get heard.  In short, rather than informing people and challenging them to update their thinking, these news stories leave people very much where they started.

Arguably the most important message from these studies – that these technologies seem to be improving basic skills and higher order cognitive skills – needs new frames in order to get around those dominant ways of thinking. That’s what education experts told FrameWorks researchers, through interviews conducted for two recent projects: one on Digital Media and Learning and one on Skill Acquisition in Education.  Experts told us that digital media, if mentored for students in the right way, can provide useful tools for reconceptualizing learning as hands-on, student-centered, collaborative, and engaging. This reconceptualization of learning is widely regarded as critical for moving education forward in this country, as evidenced by the July 2012 National Research Council Report, “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.”

With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, FrameWorks conducted a multi-method investigation into ways to communicate what experts have observed about the benefits of digital media to learning. Several of our recent recommendations can help communicators get this message across to the public without falling into the traps of those stubborn if outdated patterns of thinking.

  • The first is to orient people towards the future with the value of Progress – to help them see that technology is compulsory for moving our country forward successfully. The New York Times article does the opposite – orienting the reader to the frame of the “good old days” before the Internet and other media tools.
  • The second is to orient people towards a practical path forward, pointing out the value of technology skills for the workplace, through the value of Pragmatism. Clearly the “crisis” tone of the New York Times article frames the issue quite differently.
  • The third is to use a Cooking with Information metaphor comparing information to ingredients and students to cooks. With the help of a more experienced mentor (teacher), children need to be able to find information, evaluate it, and combine it into a product, in a hands-on way. And while the metaphor itself doesn’t even mention technology, it is implied that technology is not a distraction from real learning, but rather it is an important tool for this active learning process.
  • The fourth is to concretize and highlight the mentorship aspect of this learning process with the Information Drivers metaphor. It functions similarly to Cooking with Information, emphasizing that you can only progress in learning by getting your hands on the wheel. But it also shows that we don’t just hand kids the keys to these new tools and set them on their way. We mentor them so that they can do it safely and responsibly and get where they need to go.

Bringing people along, giving them the conceptual tools to rethink outdated ways of looking at the world is a prime challenge for educators and digital advocates. The bad news is that, as long as media is content to parrot old tropes and folk wisdom, the task will fall to you. The good news is that, with a little conceptual help, people warm to the idea of achieving 21st century skills using 21st century methods.  But you have to work to get them there.




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