Sometimes the assumption amongst those who think about 21st century education is that the so-called digital natives’  know it all and that we teachers have to stand on the sidelines helplessly watching young people develop in ways we cannot grasp. After all, as the SF writer William Gibson put it, the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.

I am minded of my daughter when studying for her Highers. She had multiple screens open: searching the internet for information, writing homework, communicating with friends (up to 6 ‘conversations’ at a time – only some focusing on the school task), while having the mobile phone in one ear and her ipod in the other. However, she, like me, uses ICT on a need-to -know basis, not spending time exploring different applications or better or faster methods of doing stuff just for fun.

Of course there are many, many young people whose skills are far in advance of their parents and teachers; and also of many of their peers. We must acknowledge this and ensure that these skills are recognised and developed in school as well as out. Marc Prensky refers to a boy who says, When I go to school I have to power down. Young people seem to use technology as easily as breathing.

The disparities between the plugged-in or wireless electronic bedroom and the traditional school contribute to the alienation many students feel about what goes on in their classroom (Professor David Booth 

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However, while I would agree that many young people feel alienated from traditional schooling, there are also many learners – young and older – whose interests, experience and ability to access technology are not as advanced. It is foolish to pretend otherwise. And it is insensitive to assume that such people’s perspectives and experience are invalid.

All learners need guidance from people more experienced than themselves. I may not know much about Twitter, RSS, Lifestreaming, vlogging, virtual worlds or cloud computing, but I know how to help a child move from incomprehension to understanding, how to support her to discover what she’s capable of, how to enable him to set and achieve goals.

I have ventured in to Second Life a couple of times but, quite honestly, preferred to go to my book group. I am aware that Second Life is a sophisticated 3-D environment that can allows for a much greater degree of engagement than other tools, and it offers tools for interaction and creative expression that browsers, chatrooms and e-mail do not. But I don’t know what to do with it! (This picture isn’t of my avatar, which looks as much like me as I could make – a distinct lack of imagination there. But I didn’t know how to make a screenshot last time I went there).2nd Life

The ‘Web as platform’ is a fantastic phenomenon as is the whole social networking area: blogs, wikis, podcasts. These the tools that permit collaboration, communication either in real time or asymmetrically, are exactly those that the students with whom I work can embrace without fear of failure. I understand fully – and am excited by – the need to engage with these new ways of working so that I can share in 21st century learning.

I know those battle-scarred teachers who, on in-service days, assemble at the back of the room with lips pursed like a dog’s bottom (Roald Dahl’s wonderful description). One of them I am not, and hope never will be. But I do need time, and crucially support to develop this necessary knowledge, understanding and skill.cartoon