A Conversation with Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky is an internationally renowned thought leader and the author of many influential books on education. He coined the term “digital natives” in a germinal article published in 2001.

His most recent book, Education to Better Their World: Unleashing the Power of 21st-century Kids, has just been released. I have enjoyed my many conversations with Marc over the years and recently discussed his new book with him by phone.

Marc will be speaking at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI on Monday, November 21 at 6:30 p.m. His talk will be free and open to the public. Seating is limited, so an RSVP is recommended. Click here to RSVP

(Full disclosure: I serve on the advisory board of Marc Prensky’s organization, The Global Future Education Foundation and Institute, and my laudatory comment appears on the jacket of his latest book.)

In your new book Education to Better Their World, what would you say is the core message—a profoundly transformative message—that you are promulgating for shaping education?

Marc: As our world changes rapidly, we are finding that the education that has worked for us in the past is no longer as effective as it may once have been. Our kids—and all of us—need something new.

Today’s kids are becoming empowered, both by technology and by society, to do things that kids could never do in the past. These kids represent a huge untapped group available to make the world a better place. The subtitle of my book is “Unleashing the Power of 21st-century Kids.”

The “academic” education we have offered our kids in the recent past—and still offer today to all, with its core subjects of math, English, science, and social studies (“the MESS”)—which was once useful, is no longer right for these empowered kids nor for the world in which they are growing up and will live.

Our current “academic” education is wrong for the future not because we haven’t added enough technology, or because we haven’t added enough so-called 21st century skills, or because we don’t offer it to everyone equally, or even because we haven’t tried hard to incrementally improve it.

It’s wrong for the future because it has—and we have—the wrong ends, or goals, in mind. Up until now, education has been about improving individuals. What education should be about in the future is improving the world—and having individuals improve in the process.

In addition, our current education is wrong because it is extremely narrow. In order to improve the world, kids require not just content and the “thinking” skills we now offer, but a far broader and more useful combination of effective thinking, effective action, effective relationships, and effective accomplishment skills. By making the core of our kids’ education real-world projects and accomplishment, and by having kids master a much broader set of underlying skills in the process, we can reunite our separate “thinking” and “accomplishment” traditions of education, in new and powerful ways for kids, ourselves, and the world.

We have started our strategic planning at Rocky Hill School by imagining what the most exciting school in the world would look like.

Marc: That is excellent. But it might be even more useful to imagine what the most exciting education in the world would look like, considering one’s “education” to be the processes and experiences one has on the way from childhood to adulthood. Those processes can be formal or informal or, as is usually the case, a combination, and may or may not involve a school at all (other than the proverbial “school of hard knocks”).

Because of the profound changes the world is going through, trying to image “the most exciting school in the world” at this juncture may be like trying to imagine what the most exciting gasoline-powered automobile in the world would look like at a time the world is moving away from gasoline power—and even car ownership—to new and better solutions for personal transportation. The question itself assumes an old context—i.e., “we have a school and we want to improve it.” But are “schools” necessary, or even wanted, in our kids’ future?

So a much more interesting question would be this: “What is the best and most exciting education any kid could receive, and every kid should receive, in the new global context that is quickly coming—and in many places already here? If we think of ourselves not in the “school” business but rather in the “education” business, with “education” defined as before, our answer might be something like this, which I am making this up as an example:

At our institution, young person, we provide an education that meets your needs as a person—not our needs or even your parents’. We have no fixed, or preconceived location, structure or program, but only a super-supportive network and environment and an overall perspective on how to help kids become the best, most effective and most world-improving adults they are capable of being—which we apply differently to each individual in our care. We see our job as empowering young people to continue to make themselves as successful as they can for the rest of their lives, in a rapidly changing and evolving environment.

We ask each of you, our temporary wards, to share with us your dreams—what you want to become—as well as your strengths, talents and passions, and we will design and conduct an individualized and team process to maximize the likelihood of your getting there (or to whatever place your dreams may change to). We are in the business of helping you, individually, through teamwork and accomplishment, become a good, effective and world-improving person in whatever area(s) for which you have true passion. It is our job to help you apply that passion, in positive ways, for your own good and for the world’s. You will leave our care with a résumé of real-world accomplishments in whatever area you have a true passion for—well on the road to becoming the person you want to be.

That, in my mind, is what a true “child-centered” educational institution would be, and I personally can’t imagine anything more exciting for a young person. Would the best organization to do this be a building or campus, with teachers and facilities, that all the kids go to every day? Or might it be some way of letting them roam free, individually or in teams, in their neighborhood or world accomplishing things (with some technological means to ensure their safety)? Might it consist, rather than of in-person classes, only of teams and cohorts from around the world organized somehow on the Internet, with “empowerers” and coaches located all over the world? Would it be putting kids together in teams not sorted by age, but sorted instead by passion, experience, aptitude and strengths? Would it be to still have curriculum, however “improved,” that is taught linearly in courses and classes—with or without technology—or, instead, to have a huge number of real-world projects available to kids, with the world’s information, knowledge and skills to accomplish those projects successfully available on-demand?

Opening up our thinking in this way is crucial, because if we don’t, imagining “the most exciting school” might be thought of only in the context of our current academic educational system. We need to be wary, lest the question unhelpfully collapse into only “How can we offer an academic education in the most exciting way—rather than “How can we offer each child an education that is most exciting to, and best suited to, and in the best way for, him or her?”

It is also important to remember that the various “customers” of education—society, parents, and the kids themselves—often have different agendas, and may define “exciting” in different ways. Right now, perhaps the most important questions we can ask are “What are the true ends of education for each of these groups? Can we agree on common ends?” The answer to these questions is, I believe, changing—in different ways, perhaps, for each of the groups. Is it possible to design an education—or a school—that is equally exciting to society, parents, and students at the same time, also bearing in mind that each of these groups is not homogeneous, but is made up of wildly varying individuals and factions?

Suppose, though, that we do still have schools. What would that “exciting” school look like in your mind’s eye if you were to walk into it?

Marc: Schools are not going away tomorrow. (For one thing, they are the way we assure our kids are safe while parents work.) I have a vision of schools shaped around students fully engaged in projects to improve the world. There may be advantages (in addition to safety and sharing costs) in bringing kids together in one place to work, in teams of different sizes, on projects—we need to focus on those. Our school, however, would need to be wired with the fastest and strongest Internet connections possible—because with technology there is far less need for the students on a team to be physically in the same place. And, in fact, we might prefer, for diversity’s sake, that they not be.

We will need working spaces of many sizes, that can be reconfigured quickly and easily as needed, to accommodate the changing flow of the work. There would be no classrooms as we know them today—the “classroom” is an anachronism that is no longer required and shouldn’t be taking up fixed amounts of space in the kids’ world.

The kids will not be organized into age-based cohorts; all teams will be multi-age, just as workplaces are, with roles chosen or assigned based on the skills, abilities, and development needs of kids (such as trying new roles, and getting better at familiar ones). Kids will interact in varying ways during a day, with and without adults—sometimes in pairs, groups, sometimes working as individuals, depending on their project’s needs at any given stage.

I would expect to walk in the door of such a school and see excited groups of kids in corners organizing and working on projects they were passionate about accomplishing in the best possible way—not just socializing, as I often see today. I’d expect to see kids who are so focused on what they are trying to accomplish that it bothers them to stop to eat. I’d expect to see kids in deep conversation with adults, staff, parents, outside experts, and advisers—conversations related to the work they both are doing, to who the kids are as people, and to the options kids might try that would be well-suited to their individual skills and personalities. I’d like to see kids developing, from an early age, deep self-understandings of who they are, what they are interested in, passionate about, and good at, then going through a process of connecting that understanding to projects, both in their local community and in the larger world. I’d want to see almost all the kids totally engaged in these processes. But whenever a kid goes off track, I’d expect that there are adults watching whose job it is to to say, “Okay, this isn’t working. Let’s try something different.” I’d expect to find any kid I talk to proud of what he or she was doing and accomplishing.

I believe this can happen, because if today’s newly empowered kids are given freedom to choose the ways in which they will work they will want to work together with others of similar interests and passions to make their world a better place.

Some may view this approach as going back to Dewey’s ideas of “learning by doing.” It actually goes beyond Dewey, because Dewey’s thinking was necessarily constrained by the technology of his times. Kids then were not empowered as they are—and are becoming—today. Kids then had none of the powerful tools in the pockets of today’s young people. A teacher told me recently that her fourth grade kids were very excited about an issue, and had started a petition. I replied that that is what kids in classes have done forever, 25 or so kids at a time. But today, those same 25 kids can, in a matter of days, connect that petition to millions of kids. One class of 25 kids could, potentially, collect a billion signatures by the end of the year. These are the kinds of goals our kids can now set, and the kind of scale they can be working at. We are in a very different place in what “doing” and “accomplishing” means these days for young people.

Dewey was asking a different question: How can we prepare millions of immigrant children for democracy?

Marc: An important piece that is different in our time versus Dewey’s time is that today we can ask not just “how can we prepare kids for democracy,” but, instead, “how can our kids do and experience democracy,” i.e., how can they actually build, at their age, with the tools now available to them, a more democratic world? And not just prepare for it, but have it, live it, be it, connect to it, see all its strengths and problems in action? If Dewey were alive today, I believe what he would be advocating would be hugely different. In fact, a great exercise for kids today would be to ask, “If Dewey—or McLuhan—were alive today, what would they think and do?”

You have an appendix in the book with frequently voiced concerns. You respond to the things that parents might bring up. For example, what about assessment and evaluation? Can you speak to that?

Marc: Assessment can be useful, but unfortunately, we far too often focus on assessment not in order to get better, but to “rank” our kids. Except in trivial cases, true ranking is impossible, and a huge waste of our time and resources—we really need only assess whether projects are successful, and how to make them more so, which is actually far easier. We should be focusing more on what are known as ipsative assessments, i.e. whether our kids are continually beating their personal bests at various skills and accomplishments.

An important difference for parents to understand, compared to when when they attended school, is that there are so many more people now in the world—I grew up in a world with two billion people; now there are more than 7 billion. And yet the numbers of places in many of our “best” schools have hardly expanded. So, the competition to attend these schools is hugely higher—it is a very different world in this respect. To get in, kids now have to differentiate themselves and invent new ways to fit into their changing world.

In the Kremlin (in Moscow) there is a fabulous jewel collection. You look in one display window and see piles of thousands of perfect diamonds of all sizes. But there are so many of them together, they seem all the same. Then you move to another display case and see the crown jewels. Out of all those diamonds only a very few—the absolute best—were picked for the crown or scepter—but other, colored stones were required as well. That’s how it is today. The kids striving to do well, and succeeding in academia are the diamonds in the piles. Most kids aren’t even there, but if your kid is, he or she is lost in a pile. Today, parents must encourage and help their kid be that special, colored stone—i.e., be unique and individual in ways that they personally want to and can improve the world, based on their talents, interests, and passions. Every kid—academic success story or not—needs to become a superstar at something that he or she truly cares about. As a parent, you need to know that your kid can no longer get into a top school with just grades, and that developing a passion, and learning to apply it, is the most important preparation for college—because higher education works infinitely better for those who already know what they want to study or do. Kids have to be working, from early on, almost entirely at things they are passionate about. As a parent, you need to help your kid demonstrate that he or she has a deep commitment to something that drives them to world-improving actions. Kids’ passions and interests may change, but it’s really important that we help them find their passions at a given time and apply them to accomplishing in ways that better the world—the process of doing so is what will make them succeed in life, and is something they must get started on as early as possible in K-12 education. This is both schools’ and parents’ job, in my opinion. A kid’s being just “well-rounded” isn’t enough anymore—it makes that kid, in this world, like those diamonds in the first window.

I’m wondering how broadly you would construe “world-improving.” This could obviously include kids’ work on how to mitigate Zika transmission, but could it be kids who want to perform in the arts?

Marc: Yes. It includes not just the arts, but most anything a kid is passionate about. The important point is that they get better both at doing their art (or whatever they love) and in sharing it with people, via performances, exhibitions, or in other ways, to better others’ lives. They could, for example, join a musical group that tours all of the senior places in their area to use music as a form of life-bettering therapy. I make a real distinction between achievement and accomplishment—achievement is something you do personally for yourself; accomplishment is something that you do for others. To become a great musician and never perform for others is not what I mean by either “world-improving” or “accomplishment”—it is only achievement. Our current school system is based on achievement, not accomplishment. But companies no longer hire people based on achievements; they hire people based on their accomplishments. They are looking, as it says on the Google website, for “people who can get things done.”

In your schema, where would a student fit who is only interested in research? Is there a place for such a student?

Marc: Of course there is—the world needs researchers. But we’d be better off with researchers who think of research not as something they do only for themselves, but as a contribution to the world. There needs to be a reason for why they are doing it, i.e., an “applied passion.” Their interest can stem initially from “I love finding out about things.” But as they are in a society, it is important that they also be doing the research for a purpose. They need to think “I’m doing this research I love and hopefully it is someday going to pay off for the world.” This is true of even the most “basic” research. The world needs people who find things out—it is part of helping make their world a better place. Hopefully, someday someone will apply their research to something immediately useful. Each of us needs to better our world in in a slightly different way, because we are all individuals.

I applaud you on a profoundly important and transformative book, which fits into the trajectory of your career. To close out, I ask that you either discuss the role of the teacher in your schema, or anything else that you would like to discuss.

Marc: Thank you. I will do both.

First, teachers are incredibly important; if kids only raised themselves with no extended, formative contact with adults that would not be a good situation, or lead to the best outcomes. Adults have experience, they can, and often do, help shape and influence kids in positive ways. Most of the people who have chosen to become teachers love kids and want to help them grow and flourish—so much so that they have chosen to do this as their profession.

But we do need to ask: “What’s the best way for teachers to help kids?” I believe it is not to teach them any “subject,” but to understand each kid’s strengths and passions and to get to know them as individuals. It is to encourage each student and help him or her go as far as they can in applying those attributes to the world and do something useful that will earn them a living. As one very successful actor says of his former teacher: “She showed me I could take my dreams as seriously as I wanted.” That’s what education, and teaching, ought to be about. Those people who love a subject but not kids, should be in research or something else rather than in teaching.

My 11-year-old son, who goes to a very highly rated public school, is given a program of things that he must learn about. He is bored in class he tells me, at least half the time. This is a common complaint, even in the finest private schools—one that is rarely, if ever listened to or taken seriously by adults. My son often asks me, “Why am I learning this?” and I sometimes say to him, “Let’s do it another way. Let’s find a problem that you would be interested in solving.” Last time he chose bike theft, which is prevalent in our community. After we identified that issue, he stayed up most of the night thinking about solutions, and insisted we had to talk about it in the morning, because he was still thinking about it. Later, he came back to me with ideas and diagrams, some of which are probably patent-worthy. That’s an example of education being for the kid, and not for the parents, or society (although we all benefit). We need to construct our education in a way that this sort of thing happens constantly, and leads kids to want to acquire, on their own, the kinds of knowledge and skills they need to solve these real problems.

As kids do these projects that passionately interest them, the teacher needs to act as a coach and encourager. The teacher has to focus not on teaching a pre-ordained curriculum to all, but on looking at each kid at work and figuring out how to help them do that work better while helping them acquire—in a way that that they see as useful, and not demotivating—each of the underlying skills that we have developed as humans, and that we think our kids should have. I list ways of doing this in my book. As I write there, “The amount of ‘content’ that everyone truly needs is surprisingly small and high-level. It probably includes little more than a high-level knowledge of the layout of the world and of its diversity, the major arcs of human history, the major tenets of science, and some knowledge of how we govern ourselves. All the rest is detail, useful only to some. On the other hand, Effective Thinking, Effective Action, Effective Relationships, and Effective Accomplishment are important to all stu­dents at every grade level. It is crucial for an effective education that every student focus on becoming as good as they possibly can at each of these overarching skills.”

The final thing I’d add is that, as I read your blog—which I am glad you are writing and am proud to be included in—and as I look at what people are doing in the world of education reform, I would encourage you, and others, to go even further afield from what we currently do, and not just try to incrementally improve our current practices. I encourage you to ask all the people you know who think of themselves as being on the “future edge” of education “How can we escape—without losing much that is of true value—from the ‘academic’ paradigm of education that our schools have become trapped in? How can we move away from seeing ‘learning’ as synonymous with ‘education’? How can we move toward seeing it, rather, as one means to the real goal of education, which is creating a better world?”

I would encourage you and others to be asking questions like these: What would education (i.e., the process and experiences that make kids into the best, most effective and most world-improving adults) look like if we ignored all tradition and started from scratch? Are schools and classrooms necessary any longer for the best education, or are they just historical constraints that we put on ourselves and are thinking that hold our kids back? Given that our kids are so much more empowered than in the past and are so much more capable of connecting and working together around the globe—and quickly becoming more so—how can we reconceive what education means in the world?

I believe this kind of thinking is what is now beginning, in pockets, by individual kids and adults, by forward-thinking schools and administrators, and even by some whole countries, around the globe. That thinking, and the actions it is leading to, is what Education to Better Their World is about. It describes an emerging “vision of education” to help us escape from the old “academic” paradigm of schools, and move to the “better their world” paradigm. It describes the kinds of changes and investments that will, eventually, make us all better at moving our kids from childhood into adulthood in their new and different context and world—with our kids very much included and involved in reinventing this process.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI.

One thought on “A Conversation with Marc Prensky

  1. JeffRe Guy Duclos

    1) Generally speaking, adults have more experience and knowledge then children.
    2) Initially children will need to take the advice of an adult.
    3) Eventually adults should allow students to join the adults in plan making, with the eventual intent of putting the students in charge of their own education, with adult supervision.
    4) This should happen slowly over time with the goal of each person, adult/child, taking responsibility for the individual and/or the group being successful.
    Yes, relatively speaking all students should be winners.

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