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Don Tapscott, a self-described “digital revolution expert,” writer, educator and business consultant has spent more than a little bit of time and money exploring how this generation learns, and importantly, how they should be taught. While his research has focused on higher education, his claims and his studies hold implications for kids, tweens, and teens and how they receive and process information across multiple contexts.

In his latest book, Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World (2010), he suggests that the way we teach today’s youth is misaligned with how their brains are wired. Specifically, he describes the classic university lecture model (and let’s face it – the oft used research presentation model) as applying 17th century technology and philosophy to a 21st century student-base. Expanding on an idea that served as the centerpiece of his 2006 work, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything(which along with his latest work, was co-authored by Anthony D. Williams), he describes today’s students as being cognitively oriented towards collaborative learning versus “being broadcast to” based on their life-long experience “making, changing and learning from digital communities” (listen to an interview in which he describes this shift, in depth, on the website for NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

Tapscott has investigated this theory in numerous studies (one which he priced at $4.5 million and included a sample of 11,000 youth!)…But perhaps what was more interesting about his theory, which seems to hold some water, is the strong reactions it garnered from callers into the above-mentioned radio show on which he was a guest.

First, a professor (who revealed his age to be a young 31) vehemently disagreed with Tapscott’s assertion that we need to change classroom approaches to adapt to today’s students’ learning styles. Using his own college students as evidence, he claimed that this generation was more entitled, more self-absorbed and more isolated and isolating than they should be. He described students who protested assignments that involved reading over 30 pages, and cited numerous examples of students bypassing class, only to search a topic on Wikipedia, where they can find questionable but convenient information in sound-byte chunks. Rather than catering to these tendencies, this professor asked educators to continue to push and challenge students to engage in “real learning,” even if it meant sitting and listening or reading a book.

Tapscott has heard this rebuttal before. He countered with a compelling story of one student who he met who claimed that he didn’t “read books.” Upon getting to know him better, Tapscott found that the student had a 4.0 GPA. He had friends and was president of his school’s student body. His girlfriend was from New Orleans, and when Katrina hit, they went to her home and set up a health clinic (based on information and know-how they gained from networking – virtually and with people they met through social networks. They became immersed in understanding how to provide affordable healthcare to a population in need. The clinic continues to serve 9,000 patients per year. 

But can you get a job without reading books? Well, it might be too soon to know. This guy followed up his college experience at Oxford, where he went for free. He received something called a Rhodes scholarship.

To be fair, we have straddled this issue. Anyone who reads our blog, or knows us, knows that we see few youth trends as signs of a doomed generation. We explore – and are fascinated by – change as part of our trade. But some of us (this former English-major writer included) still revel in reading the old-fashioned way, and really hopes our children find reading to be one of life’s great joys. While I’m confessing, I also likelectures – which makes me an overly eager and enthusiastic Ph.D. student – I apologize to my peers. But I think Tapscott’s point is not to suggest that paper is going away or that listening to an expert isn’t important. He champions dialogue and connection. He pushes for experiences that engage students in hands-on learning, not passive receiving (giving an interesting example of how Boomers grew up being broadcast to by the television, in contrast with this generation who expects to log-on and customize and even co-create content to make it work for them). Finally, he promotes the idea that today’s youth have ideas to give, not just information to learn. This makes sense to us (and it’s in line with the 21st Century learning initiative, which most educators have embraced as the new way students should be learning today).

This debate might have started with questioning the college classroom, but we think it has implications for anyone creating programs and sending messages to today’s youth. First, make sure you’re bringing them into a dialogue – not merely dictating to them. Second, recognize that they relate to authority different than in the past. It’s not about rejection, but it might mean that you need to partner more than posture, and allow for multiple ways of being right. Finally, don’t underestimate their desire to connect. This is far from an isolated generation – this is a group eager to build and engage in community, and to make a difference in the places where they live and play.