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For the last eleven years, I asked my students to fill out a survey about how they use technology. Although I am now teaching university students, I think I’m going to do a similar survey. The questions are both about technology use (have you ever edited a video online?) to attitudes (what is the purpose of a smartphone?) to beliefs (how are devices changing human communication?)

The results always feel depressing.

  • 100% have watched a video online or with a device
  • 96% have played a game online or with a device*
  • 82% have used Facebook
  • 8% have created a slideshow (PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Presentation)
  • 2% have written a blog post
  • less than 1% have edited a video
  • less than 1% have edited audio
  • less than 1% have coded
  • less than 1% have created a visual model

When I look at the data, I notice a trend. Students have never used their devices creatively. They have the power to capture and tell a story but they don’t. They have the power to connect to an authentic audience, but it’s not happening. They have the potential to build models and design products and turn things from wild ideas to tangible realities. However, it’s not happening.

Students Are Consumer Natives

For all the talk of “digital natives,” the truth is that my students come to class as consumer natives. They have watched videos and played video games but they have never created a video (fully edited) or a video game. They listen to music but they don’t know how to play an instrument. True, there are pockets of students who do amazing videos and post them on YouTube or who have found an audience for their work on Wattpad. However, they are the outliers.

This isn’t an indictment on this generation. The truth is we live in a consumer culture. The iPhone is a consumer device. Most apps are designed to make our lives faster, easier and more distracted by amusement.

Furthermore, students attend consumer-driven schools. Ask parents about the meaning of school and the most common answer is to “prepare them for the future.” Press harder and it becomes, “prepare them for better jobs.” We use language like “delivering content” when describing the act of teaching and learning. There’s an unspoken metaphor that students receive a lesson, use what they learned and transfer it into a diploma or a degree.

Students inhabit a consumer culture. They learn in consumer-based schools. It is no wonder, then, that students have little to no experience using technology creatively. And yet . . . watch a five-year-old with free time. Check out the wild imagination. Notice the sheer amount of creative play involved. Give them a set of crayons and paper (without the directions to color within the lines) and see what happens. It proves what we know to be true: we are meant to be creative.


Seven Ways We Can Break the Consumer Mindset

It is deeply human to create. It is part of what makes life amazing. So, how do we get students to shift from a consumer mindset to a creative mindset? Here are a few ideas.

  1. Focus on now rather than the future. The consumer mindset treats education as an investment in the future. On some level, this is true. Education does empower people for the future. However, when we treat it as an investment commodity, we risk missing out on the moment and if we’re not careful we slip into a frenzied mindset asking, “What are they missing that they might need? What have we failed to cover?”
  2. Slow down. I’ve met many teachers who say, “I would love for students to be making things but we simply don’t have time.” When I look at many curriculum maps, I’m not surprised. Most curriculum maps aren’t maps at all. Rather than inspiring people to choose a journey, they present a rigid route defining the destination, the route, and the pace. So, take things off-road. By combining standards and by thinking well about time management, we can still follow the standards at a pace that allows for creativity.
  3. Find a framework. I’m a huge fan of the design thinking cycle because it provides a clear framework for creative work.
  4. Change the structures. The grading system, physical classroom structures, and behavioral management systems are often built around a consumer mindset. By changing these structures, we can foster creativity rather than simply deliver content.
  5. Encourage risk-taking. When students treat education as a consumer commodity, they are motivated to do less in order to achieve more (more bang for the buck). They are also less likely to take a creative risk when it might lead to a lower score. Teachers can be a powerful force in encouraging creative risk-taking.
  6. Provide independent, choice-driven project time. In other words, try out Genius Hour, 20% Time or whatever term we are calling it right now.
  7. Realize that it’s an evolution. Some students are already creative. However, for other students, there are stages they need to go through in order to grow. That’s okay. Give them time to evolve in their creative endeavors.

*I’m not sure which kid it was who hadn’t played a game on a phone, but that child is missing out on one of the greatest things in the world: Crossy Road.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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