Archived Opinion

As students change how they learn, teachers must adapt

op gilchristEvery attentive person knows there is a revolution occurring in language, and much of what was once communicated by words is now communicated by images. Texting is quicker than calling, snap chatting quicker than texting, and emoticons quicker than either. My students, for whom emoticons are second nature, are smart, and they have a thorough understanding of icons and symbols. Formal research and informal observations for the last decade tell us these students learn differently than previous generations. Their learning responds directly to their environment’s demands. They learn interactively. They learn through images. They learn through sound. Very few students learn primarily through the written word. And yet the state test they must pass for English IV is a variety of excerpts from literary works and historical documents, followed by multiple-choice questions. 


I understand, perhaps as well as anyone, that being a good reader can make life easier, as in understanding a cell phone contract; and pleasanter, as in having a philosophical approach to difficult times; and more intelligible, as in knowing how our brains work. However, new means of communication are replacing old, and not over a span of centuries, as with the advent of the printing press, or decades, as with television. For these students, it’s overnight. Forget sound bites. Forget tweets. These students can grasp a complex idea by looking at a single image, and the constant bombardment of information has taught them to filter out the irrelevant. 

That is why I apologize to my 17-year-olds when I give them a state-mandated test that tells them to “Determine Melville’s use of the word ‘Patagonian’ in Moby Dick.” Archaisms in context just don’t get through their filter. Yes, this study of layered diction is a beautiful exercise in thinking, but not one the iY generation finds useful. They live in a brave new world of collaboration, creativity, and interaction, but also endless noise, lack of privacy, and fleeting relationships.

I know there is still a place for focus, for calm, for quiet thought, and for the written word in human life. I have taught this for most of my career. That is, until I realized the majority of my students had seldom lived in a home with two adults, or sat in anyone’s lap to read stories, or been without a cell phone, or been in a space not dominated by television, even when there was no food in the refrigerator. So I realized I must meet them where they are if I hope to lead them where I would have them go. I still teach literature. I still teach writing. Most of my students admire smart people and writers as much as they admire rappers and professional athletes. But if educators really want to prepare them for what comes next, we must assess them on how they learn. If we ever decide to test them on whether they’ve adapted to the dizzying pace of the culture we’ve created, I bet they’ll all make straight A’s.  

(Dawn Gilchrist is a writer and a high school English teacher in Swain County. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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