Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning

by Lisa Niver /
Lisa Niver's picture
Mar 03, 2012 / 0 comments

Reading Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning by Marc Prensky was a fantastic experience. This book details the importance of real learning is our students. As a teacher, I am always looking to share connections with my students. I want them to ask, “Who cares about this topic?” I have a great answer. I know that brain research says it is easier to learn and you will make a stronger memory if you are interested in your topic. Partnering and passion-based learning are two concepts based in brain research.


Teaching Digital Natives


Prensky says, “Partnering gives students the primary responsibility for:
finding and following their passion, using whatever technology is available, researching and finding information, answering questions and sharing their thoughts and opinions, practicing (when properly motivated, e.g. through games), creating presentations in text and multimedia.”
I think it is frightening for some teachers and parents to think about being partners in learning with their students. It does not mean there are no boundaries or rules; it does mean that adults are involved and responsible, which leads to fewer discipline issues.


Changing roles of student and teachers can be scary, but as Prensky says, “When you feel such fear and need the courage to proceed anyway, it often helps to remember the lion in the Wizard of Ox—you don’t need the medal, because the courage is inside you all the time.” I really hope that more adults will read his work. Cooperating with our students is key to keeping them engaged and to creating life- long learners.


There are so many ways to proceed in passion-based projects with active learning and real issues, we are looking for “a collaborative learning experience in which teachers and students work together to learn about compelling issues, propose solutions to real problems and take action.” This can be called process-oriented guided inquiry or challenge-based learning or Technology-enhanced active learning or quest-based learning.  Let students be partners and you will see their passion and their inner fire revealed!


This year I was able to share a documentary about Tuvalu with my fourth grade students. They were the first students in the United States to see the movie, “Trouble in Paradise.” We took notes and wrote up our questions and then were able to meet with the director of the film. He was impressed with their interest and my principal was thrilled with their analysis and deep questions. Together, we wrote to politicians to share what we learned. The lesson involved many elements of Prensky’s ideas.


Students do not want to be kept busy - they want to do real things. As Prensky states: “Real means that there is a perceived connection by the students, at every moment between what they are learning and their ability to use that learning to do something useful in the world.” He suggests that teachers make every subject more real. “All of today’s science students should be talking frequently, in person or via technologies like Skype, to actual scientists,” he continues.  For making foreign language “real” he suggests “as often as possible in the language class, students can and should travel ‘there’ virtually and connect in the foreign language around their real lives and passions.”  As a world traveler, I share my photos and trips with students and they love to learn about real people in far away places. We have Skyped with an author in London and soon will talk to one in Singapore. I think Prensky’s theories can reinvigorate any classroom.


As a believer in open-book tests, I was surprised to learn about open-phone tests! I look forward to learning more about this on Liz Kolb’s blog, cellphonesinlearning.com. She also has a book, Toys to Tools, which I will look for next. Ideas in education are blooming and we need to keep sharing and partnering with each other to keep up with what is possible and what might work best in the future.


Students want to be partners in their education. Prensky shows us panels where students actually speak to teachers. His view that “…today’s educators almost universally underestimate what students are capable of creating in the 21st century,” rings true in my experience. With the opportunity for real experiences and the option to find their passions, truly the sky is the limit for our students.


Lately I have been asked about the rank of the United States in education compared to other countries. I appreciated Prensky’s note that:


“Will the United States (or any country) be better off in 2050 with a population that is confident that it can compete on international tests, or a population well versed in 21st century tools for problem solving—a population that knows that it can, in any situation, figure out the right thing to do, get it done, do it with others, do it creatively and continually do it better?


Will the United States (or any country) be better off in 2050 with a population that can read and write at a ninth-grade level (assuming we could ever attain that, which is highly unlikely) and in which every person has at least an associate’s degree (ditto), or with a population that is confident that it can make our increasingly digital machines do what they need (i.e., can program at some level) and is highly entrepreneurial?”


I believe we need to be asking the right questions. I do not believe that the global testing gap is the place to put all our energy. Being “behind” truly depends on what you measure…being behind in other areas such as the old-fashioned “school” stuff may not matter. …it is very important that we come to grips with the fact that the things we are required to teach today may not be the things our students need for the future at all, and most of it (likely 80 percent by the Pareto rule) almost certainly isn’t.”


I recommend this book to anyone who is concerned about our schools and our students. Prensky is very encouraging about technology and has a section on tools for further learning and understanding.


I agree with him when he asks: “And finally, why do we insist on measuring learning nation by nation, rather than measuring the world as a whole? Such an approach only encourages competition and fighting, and neglects and discourages the ‘world’ learning that the technologies of the 21st century are so quickly enabling. Education is an area in which we should be all cooperating, trying hard to raise the level not just for Americans, but for every child in the world.”


His two biggest issues, and what I would like to see discussed in the next election cycle, are:

1.    What our students need to learn for the future is, to an enormous degree, different than what we are teaching now.

2.    Future education is now a worldwide issue, not just a state or national one.



We need to teach all of our student’s essential 21st century skills:

1. Figuring out the right thing to do

2. Getting it done

3. Doing it with others

4. Doing it creatively

5. Constantly doing it better


I agree with him that we need deletion committees, a group to search the curriculum and choose the things we will not teach. At an American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference, we talked about dinosaurs as one thing that could be deleted. We cannot teach everything. I think multiplication tables are a great example of what to leave out. I loved his example of learning to tell time by the sun but now we use watches. No one learns the positions of the sun to tell time anymore. Some things are replaced by technology. There will be great arguments about what to leave out, but we need time for our student’s passions! Who knows, someday we may give up classrooms!


“In a world where half the people are under the age of 25, education is still a very unequal and haphazard thing. Many still don’t have access to it in any form. In quite a few poor countries, just getting young people in the presence of a teacher is a huge positive step, and people are still struggling to do this. Whatever our faults, we in the United States and other countries in the developed world are also incredibly lucky for our educational opportunities.”


I hope we can reframe our debates to how do we create opportunities to lead the way to being concerned and informed global citizens instead of the race to the top of the heap on international tests and standards that we are not certain we care about. Prensky concludes, “One of the great opportunities that technology has the potential to bring us is the ability for those who have more, and who know more, to help those who don’t.”




Lisa Niver Rajna, M.A. Ed., is our Geography Awareness Editor. She is an accomplished travel agent, blogger,  speaker, science teacher and member of the Traveler’s Century Club, a unique travel club limited to travelers who have visited one hundred or more countries. She traveled across six continents with Club Med, Princess Cruises, Renaissance Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. Look for her underwater as a PADI divemaster,in the science lab at the Brawerman Elementary School, or traveling in an exotic location, or at her sites, http://www.wesaidgotravel.net and http://www.scienceisntscary.net/