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Snapshot of a modern learner

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Santos is not an enigma, but he is misunderstood.

Santos sends approximately 125 texts per day. He sneaks his phone into classes in his book bag or jacket and is online just about all day. He posts messages to Facebook during class. He looks up answers to definitions of words online. He checks sports scores, plays games, posts his location so his friends can find him easily and streams music through an application on his phone.

His teachers use technology as an event. Outside of school, he doesn’t separate technology from other activities. For him, it is air or water, something that he doesn’t really think about because it’s always available.

Santos opens books and is frustrated when he can’t click on words or pictures for more information. Santos listens to his teachers lecture, feeling strange that he can’t pause, rewind, fast-forward or have anytime access to the information. When his teachers have trouble with technology or Web tools, Santos often helps. He knows how to bypass his school’s Internet filter and access YouTube videos to aid in instruction.

His history teacher recently assigned a project that culminated with a PowerPoint presentation on one of six topics within the upcoming unit. Santos and his group were told specifically what to include: a map of the country they were studying, a statement about the economic impact of the country’s drought, definitions for eight words from the textbook and at least four images depicting life in that country.

If you ask Santos what he did for the history project, he can articulate every detail. If you ask what he learned, he recites the definitions to a couple of the words he defined. When asked to give an example, he falters. Santos participates in school as if it were a giant check-off list. He’s not necessarily always learning at school, but he is always doing something. When he finishes one task, he moves on to another. He does OK, though. His grades are better when he’s interested in what he is doing at school, and marginal when he’s disinterested. Unfortunately, that happens increasingly more often as he gets older.

When Santos is assigned a big task at school, he goes home and creates a Facebook group about it. He shares what he finds on the topic with others, and they share back. He creates opportunities for collaborative learning. His teachers don’t know about this.

Santos knows where to find information. He does not necessarily discern what information is relevant, and he doesn’t necessarily know what he needs to learn from the information. But he knows where it lives: everywhere. He is more likely to find and copy information without attribution than he is to connect ideas and create something from it.

His parents think he would make a good lawyer or doctor. Santos thinks he would be really good at developing augmented-reality programs or designing nanocircuitry that would enable the creation of incredibly small computing devices. He learns about these things at night on his own. He told the career-and-technology teacher at school what he was learning. The teacher handed him plans for a canned cardboard rocket project.

Santos is connected to kids in China, England, Germany and Australia, and he doesn’t think about distance or time when he interacts. The interactions are synchronous and asynchronous. If he doesn’t understand what one of the other kids says, he translates the language with an online tool. He is connected to these kids because of a mutual interest in nanocircuitry. They regularly share ideas and sketches and critique and revise one another’s work. He found them through a message board online. Several weeks ago, they all sat in on a webinar broadcast from Mumbai, India, about nanotubes. Santos did this at 3 in the morning, lying in bed with his laptop.

Santos is a good kid. He accepts the role he has at school, like most other kids. And like most other kids, Santos thinks school is largely a time machine. He leaves his world and goes back in time at 7:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. At 3:30 p.m., he re-enters his world.

Kids like Santos are reverse pioneers, navigating worlds that everyone older than them values. Santos recognizes that topics that truly interest him are largely blocked or ignored at school. He thinks it’s funny that he goes to school to learn a few things that he will be tested on but don’t really represent his current or future worlds. Santos thinks he learns more outside of school than he does inside.

Instructional nostalgia doesn’t count for kids such as Santos. His teachers can’t dismantle his reality to maintain comfort in their professional practice. His teachers are going to have to embrace all that modern learning means, though, act on it with purpose and make technology as ubiquitous as a pencil. Right now, Santos is not being adequately prepared for the world he will graduate into, at least in school. His teachers mean well, but Santos knows that they are accountable for specific content, delivered in ways to help him maximize his score on state assessments, which leaves little time for anything that would matter to him in a meaningful way.

That’s the reason he stays up late at night to learn about nanocircuitry, with a worldwide cadre of like-minded peers.

Santos knows that technology doesn’t move backward. However, he is constrained by a system that is more frightened by “what-ifs” rather than the magnificence of “what could be.”

Technology doesn’t wait until everyone is ready for it. It is innovation. If kids such as Santos are to become future innovators, then they need opportunities to innovate with the tools and technology of tomorrow, not yesterday.

Mike Fisher, a nationally certified former teacher with more than a decade of classroom- and professional-development experience, is a full-time educational consultant and instructional coach. Fisher specializes in instructional coaching centered on curriculum mapping and curriculum upgrades, particularly in the wake of technology, Common Core integration and alignment, and research-based instructional strategies. Fisher is co-authoring a book with fellow Curriculum21 faculty member Janet Hale tentatively titled “Curriculum Transformations: One Unit at a Time.” You can find Fisher on Twitter @Fisher1000, at Curriculum21 NING, on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s EDge social network, at The Digigogy Collaborative or on his blog.