The Desire to multitask and be constantly Connected to the net and to friends as well as the hunger for immediate results influence how young people today interact with the world -- whether in school or at work or at home or while traveling -- and must be taken into account by both educators and employers. However, the ways in which young people are different today as learners may be the most fundamental change we need to understand as we consider hot to close the global achievement gap. The use of the internet and other digital technology has transformed both what young people learn today and how they learn.

Learning Through Multimedia and Connection to Others

Young adults who've grown up on the net are habituated to multimedia learning experiences, as opposed to merely interacting with text. According to the Oblingers, "Researchers report Net Gen students will refuse to read large amounts of text, whether it involves a long reading assignment or lengthy instructions. In a study that altered instructions from a text-based step-by-step approach to one that used a graphic layout, refusals to do the assignment dropped and post-test scores increased." My interviews with students, as well as with their high school and college teachers, confirm that students are increasingly impatient with the lecture style of learning and the reliance on textbooks for information and crave more class discussions.

The Net Generation much prefers doing research on the Internet rather than in stacks of library books -- in part, because of the very different experience it offers. "Prose is supplemented by song. Photographs are accompanied by video. Issues are even turned into online polls and discussions. For the Net Gen, nearly every part of life is presented in multimedia format," writes Carie Windham. "To keep our attention in the classroom, a similar approach is needed. Faculty must toss aside the dying notion that a lecture and subsequent reading assignment are enough to teach the lesson. Instead, the Net Generation responds to a variety of media, such as television, audio, animation, and text."

Once they're on the Internet looking for information, Net Gen students develop a vital proficiency in what John Seely Brown calls "information navigation." According to Brown, "The real literacy of tomorrow entails the ability to be your own personal reference librarian-to know how to navigate through confusing, complex information spaces and feel comfortable doing so. 'Navigation' may well be the main form of literacy for the 21st century."

And as UCLAs Jason Frand observes, today's college students want to be connected to others, as well as to different kinds of information sources, while they learn. "Students with an information-age mindset expect education to emphasize the learning process more than a canon of knowledge. They want to be part of learning communities, with hubs and spokes of learners, rejecting the broadcast paradigm of television (or the note-taker in the lecture hall.)"''

Learning as Discovery

The experience of learning or conducting research on the web is radically different from that of classroom learning or library research. As we're all now aware, on the Internet you type a search string, the results of which show you hundreds or thousands of potential information sources-not just text but also video, audio, and graphics. You click on links that, in turn, have other links you can follow. You may find the name of a person or book or issue that you want to learn more about, and so you conduct a new search, which leads you to a new treasure trove of information and images, with countless additional links. It is an active, dynamic, nonlinear, discovery-based process-more like traveling along a spider web than moving in a straight line from point A to point B. As John Seely Brown writes: "Most of us experienced forma learning in an authority-based, lecture-oriented school. Now, with incredible amounts of information available through the web, we find a 'new' kind of learning assuming pre-eminence -- learning that's discovery based. We are constantly discovering new things as we browse through the emergent digital 'libraries.' Indeed, web surfing fuses learning and entertainment, creating 'infotainment." In confirming Brown's observation, one young woman in the focus group I mentioned earlier confessed that she Googles topics for fun: "There’s not a day that goes by that I don't Google something -- anything. It's not even just when I have to Google something for school. I Google everything. If I'm bored, I'll Google something about my life."

John Beck and Mitchell Wade have studied the "gamers" -- as the young people who play videogames are called. In their book The Kids Are Alright, they report that gamers (who, according to their research, represent 92 percent of the teenage population), "learn differently. Their game experience . . . emphasizes independent problem solving and the rapid acquisition of technical skills, as opposed to sustained attention to the subtleties of Shakespeare or calculus. James Paul Gee has also studied gamers, and in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, he writes that "video games make players think like scientists. Game play is built on a cycle of 'hypothesize, probe the world, get a reaction, reflect on the results, reprobe to get better results,' a cycle typical of experimental science.

When PJ Blankenhorn directed the Boston Center for Adult Education, she was discussing proposals for new courses with a young staff member. "A few people have asked for a class on how to use PDAS," PJ said. "What do you think?" The staff person, a young woman in her 20s, stared at my wife in astonishment, finally saying, "Why would anyone need to take a course to learn that?"

John Seely Brown's observations help us to make sense of this interaction. "My generation tends not to want to try things unless or until we already know how to use them," he writes. "If we don't know how to use some appliance or software, our instinct is to reach for a manual or take a course or call up an expert. Believe me, hand a manual or suggest a course to 15-year-olds and they think you're a dinosaur. They want to turn the thing on, get in there, muck around, and see what works. Today's kids get on the Web and link, lurk, and watch how other people are doing things, then try it for themselves.

Learning by Creating

New developments on the web are giving young people a set of experiences that create a hunger for more than merely learning through discovery. Web 2.0 -- as it is often called to differentiate web use today from early Internet use, which was primarily as a source of information -- provides an extraordinary number of opportunities to exercise one's passion to create. Today, anyone who has even a rudimentary understanding of how the Internet works can fashion new web content that will be seen by all users.

Whether it's creating your own web page on MySpace or Facebook or uploading your band's music or sharing your photo album or posting a video you just shot with your cell phone on YouTube or contributing to a Wikipedia entry or writing a blog about what you think or what you've experienced or reviewing a movie, an album, a product, a service, or a restaurant, web 2.0 is a vast and ever-expanding palate for personal creativity and self-expression -- especially for young people growing up today. According to Rosen@ research, the most common activity of MySpace users involves posting new photographs and videos on their personal web pages. An astonishing 88 percent of MySpace users have added photo or video content to their pages.


None of what I have described above is necessarily meant to suggest that these developments in how young people today interact with the world and learn are all positive. For every upside, there is an equally important caution or concern. Let's review some of the concerns that have been raised regarding the trends noted above:

Multitasking and Constantly Connected.

While multi-tasking may be a useful skill and a pleasant diversion while performing routine tasks, the practice appears to come at a cost. According to Russell Poldrack, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, who co-authored a study that examined multitasking and brain activity: "Multitaskers may not be building the same knowledge that they would be if they were focusing. While multitasking makes them [college students] feel like they are being more efficient, research suggests that there's very little you can do that involves multitasking that you can be as good at when you're not multitasking." Linda Stone agrees. "Like so many things, in small doses, continuous partial attention can be a very functional behavior. However, in large doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively. In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we're inaccessible. " Indeed, young people's connectedness through sites like MySpace and Facebook can sometimes be used in ways that are deeply hurtful. Cyberbullying has become a growing concern for school administrators. Adult cyberpredators are another concern. As I talked to young people who have collected hundreds of new friends electronically through Facebook or MySpace, I wondered to what extent they differentiate between an electronic friend, whom they have never met and who may pass out of their lives in a nanosecond, and an in-person friend, with whom one builds trust and shares experiences over time.

Instant Gratification and the Speed of Light.

You'll recall the young man I highlighted earlier in this chapter who observed that use of fast technologies has "made us less patient, more demanding. We don't want to have to wait for anything." Later during the same focus-group session, several students expressed concerns about how over-reliance on cell phones and instant messaging may be eroding social skills. "People don't talk as much face-to-face," one young woman said. Another added: "You know, when you go to someone's house for dinner with their family, you have to know how to talk to them, to interact. I worry that we may be losing our ability to relate to people who are different than we are."

Learning Through Multimedia and Connection to Others.

The Oblingers, quoted earlier in this chapter, have noted young people's impatience with text-based learning. Tracy Mitrano, who works in the Office of Information Technologies at Cornell University, worries about the ways in which "this generation has been entertained to death." And Susan Metros, who holds a similar position at the University of Southern California and is also a professor in visual communication, told me that college students today "are media-stimulated, but not necessarily media-literate." These researchers are concerned that young people may be avoiding book learning because they've been raised on multimedia that is more entertaining. Metros went on to point out that being a consumer of multimedia doesn't necessarily mean that one has developed the ability to really understand the media and think critically about what one is experiencing. Young peoples' preference for learning with peers may also become problematic when they need to work on something alone -- such as a research paper-for long periods of time in order to get the best result.

Learning as Discovery.

This style of learning is much more engaging than other ways of learning, and there is a great deal of research showing that it leads to a deeper understanding of basic concepts in math and science when compared to simple rote memorization. However, not everything can be learned through discovery. We don't "discover" the times tables, for example. We have to memorize them. And while we will better understand the concept of an ecosystem through observation and experimentation, we must first know something about basic processes such as photosynthesis. Similarly, some basic knowledge in geography and history, essential for informed citizenship, can be gained only through memorization. Finally, the desire to constantly "do" and interact often comes at the expense of contemplation and reflection -- essential aspects of both learning and growth.

Learning by Creating.

Quality is also a question in these times, when anyone can throw anything up on the Internet. Flooded with an ever-expanding torrent of "creative" work coming at them from thousands of websites, how do young people learn to discern the difference between impulsive forms of self-expression versus works of art that are the product of training and discipline? This is an aspect of what Metros meant by being "media-literate." And Carie Windham worries about the impact of all of the creative shortcuts young people take when they IM each other. "I've seen some of my brother's messages to his friends, and I have absolutely no clue what he's writing -- which is maybe the point anyway. But he doesn’t know how to spell. When I try to tell him that's not the way the word is spelled, he just says, 'Well, it is in IM.' I was an English major, and I worry that he'll never know how to use the language correctly."

The above is an excerpt from the book The Global Achievement Gap; Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need -- And What We Can Do About It
by Tony Wagner
Published by Basic Books; August 2008;$26.95US/$28.95CAN; 978-0-465-00229-0
Copyright © 2008 Tony Wagner

Author's Bio: 

Tony Wagner is co-director of the Change Leadership Group (CLG) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He consults to schools, districts, and foundations and served as Senior Advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He has appeared on The Today Show, NPR, McNeil/ Lehrer News Hour and writes for Education Week. A former high school teacher and principal, he is the author of Change Leadership, Making the Grade, and How Schools Change. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.