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Teaching the last backpack generation

4 min read


This is the last generation of students who will carry backpacks to school.

For teachers and parents, the realization that education will look very different from our own experience is a major paradigm shift. Never in the history of education has the delivery of instruction been so drastically altered so incredibly quickly. As I work with teachers across the country and read the literature surrounding the revolution that we are undergoing in education, I am excited about the possibilities of mobile learning but also concerned about the reluctance I see from teachers. Although the potential for educational technology is limitless, teachers must embrace the idea that mobile learning is not only here to stay but that it is important and powerful. Mobile learning is not about tools; mobile learning is about teaching. Here are three reminders that serve teachers well as they prepare today’s students to achieve in tomorrow’s world.

1) There is freedom in being willing to fail in front of students.

When a student struggles with an algebra problem, throws up his hands in disgust and walks away, we often ask him to come back, take a deep breath, slow down and relax. However, I often see teachers in classrooms or at workshops who throw their hands up in disgust and walk away when technology does not work perfectly the first time. When we let go of that fear of failure and are willing to say, “Well, that didn’t work, let’s try another way,” we model persistence and resilience for our students. And, really, what better lessons can we teach our students? In addition, we realize that we teachers have the freedom to fail again and again on our way to great success in the classroom. As Henry C. Link said, “While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.”                                       

2) Creativity is key — think beyond the bells, standards and academic calendar.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is being creative. Often, when working with teachers, I will show a digital tool and ask the audience to come up with as many different ways as possible that they could use the resource in class. Or I will show an application that was designed for entertainment and ask them to come up with a way they could use that app in their content area. Teachers tend to struggle with this exercise because, somewhere along the way, we forgot how to be creative. Our job as teachers and facilitators of learning is to engage students by utilizing the digital resources they use already. For example, it is easy to think of using a Fast Food Calorie app for studying nutrition in health class. It takes creativity to see that social studies teachers can use that same app with Google Earth to start a conversation about obesity in inner cities and the effects the obesity epidemic has on other areas of our culture such as learning, work and health care.

3) Your class is your co-teacher.

Finally, and this was one of my biggest breakthroughs in the classroom: We don’t have to work so hard. For example, before every new unit begins, we can challenge students to find one app or Web resource each about the topic we are about to study. The students can then make a 30-second video on their mobile device explaining how the app or resource works and justifying how it helps them learn. Since they are doing this before the unit begins, they come to class with background knowledge and we have also compiled a list of apps and resources they use to study. In addition, each teacher has created a library of resources for use in the unit.

Again, it is never about the tools, it is always about the teaching. Once we realize it is OK to fail, that creativity is valued and encouraged, and that the Last Backpack Generation is full of co-teachers, we can truly embrace the educational revolution of mobile technology. Now go get crazy in the classroom!

Zachary Walker is a K-12 certified special educator and technology consultant. Zachary was a recipient of the 2012 Think College Emerging Scholar Award for his research on the impact of technology on both students and teachers. He can be reached at or at @lastbackpack on Twitter.