Published on 2012/03/05

The Student Whisperer... Why Not Ask The Kids?

The Student Whisperer… Why Not Ask The Kids?
Sometimes all an educator needs to do to hear their students’ whispers… is ask. Photo by Ludovic Bertron.

I am educated. I have the degrees and I have the papers and I have the CV that says, “I know what I’m doing”. Dandy! But what does that actually MEAN? In most instances it means I passed some sort of quantitative test, set of steps, and jumped through hoops. Ok, fine. I’ll accept that. But to me, and most of my like-situated peers, it means we learned to listen. It also means we learned to ask the right questions of the right people… and quieted our own expert input long enough to hear what the answers we received actually meant. I, along with my closest circle of peers, can be called, “The Student Whisperers”.

As a distance education “Expert” I am often asked what is the next best thing in technology that is going to save the day. After over a decade of being asked the same question, it dawned on me (hey, I’m human – don’t like to rush my analysis’ anymore than the next guy) I came to the startling, yet brilliant, conclusion: It’s not the technology, it’s not how we (as educators, teachers, parents, adults) use it but rather how the KIDS use it. We’ve been asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. We’ve whispered amongst ourselves.

What to do? Why not ask the kids?

Asking your audience how they use your product is a common sense approach to any product marketing technique. While a product may be designed to be used for “A”, a lot of information and re-design/upgrades come from the information gathered by asking the same audience what they actually use the product for which then results in additional uses called “B”.  We know this, so why aren’t we doing it here?

In the world of “experts” there are big conferences, big organizations, big panels, big money, and big ideas. There is a lot of information flying around the room and triple the amount of egos found per capita than in the general population. Everybody has a “Best Practice” that they are convinced is the cure-all for what is wrong in the field. However, what is strangely absent is the child for whom all this is being done for, created for, and facilitated on behalf of. (Pardon my dangling participles; I’m being wild and free.)

Now, with that thought in mind, I had an idea. So I did what I do best: I started asking questions. Not questions of my peers but rather questions of kids I know: K-12-ers. The age group that this whole technology enhanced education environment is supposed to help. The kids that are supposed to rise from the failing U.S. educational system to compete (dominate) again on a global basis. The ones we are pinning our futures on. Those kids.

Here’s a summary of what 25 kids had to say:

  • My mandatory High School IT class teaches how to use Microsoft Office. Only. How is this useful or relevant? I told the teacher I knew faster and more efficient ways to do the same things and got graded down for arguing in class.
  • Nobody under 25 uses Twitter unless you’re a celebrity. Then your staff does it on your behalf. Twitter is for old people and corporations that think they’re young and hip. It’s sad. So why does my teacher keep taking up class time to read her latest Twitter feed?
  • We have the online grade books but the teachers don’t use them except to post grades. They’re supposed to put our upcoming assignments in them (says so in their syllabus’) but only one of mine does that – sometimes.
  • E-mail doesn’t make you technologically proficient.
  • Technology isn’t a ‘thing’ to me and my friends; it’s our ‘way’. What’s so hard about that?
  • The term “Social Media” is just dumb. All media IS social and it should be shared. The companies that are making the most money right now are those that figured that out. The schools, on the other hand, treat social media like it’s gonna be the fall of civilization.
  • PowerPoint presentations were cute when I was in 2nd grade. I’ll be graduating next year yet I have to do another one next week. Really?
  • Technology takes us out of our homes via Xbox 360 Live, our phones, our pads, our computes, etc. We live in a bigger world than our four walls – always have. So why when we go to school do they insist on keeping us in the box? How do you educate like that? No wonder the U.S. is in such deep trouble.
  • We can figure anything technology related out in under 10 minutes. Without the book. Because it’s all the same. Please stop going through the book for 2 full class periods with us – we’ll get there – long before you will. Let us.

Now, please know that this was not a formal scientific survey. I did NOT set it up as such. I simply asked questions of the kids I knew. The answers were summarized with some specifics thrown in. I may take this further and actually construct a formal study at some point down the road. However, I do find the answers interesting… If not a bit sobering.

I’m not going to “Go Expert” on you here. I trust if you made it this far, you can read and assess what has been presented. No need for me to tell you what you just read. What I am going to do, however, is give you a few questions to wrap your head around for the next few days.

  • What would happen if the technology companies stopped being allowed to drive education and education started driving the technology?
  • What would happen if we asked the kids how they actually use the technology and matched our educational design to what they already know?
  • What would happen if we asked the kids how they actually use the technology and matched our educational design to how they already learn?
  • What would happen if schools had student technology panels that had a true say-so in how this was done?
  • What would happen if we truly embraced the concept of peer-to-peer and lateral learning?
  • What would happen if students brought their skills into the classroom and became part of the learning team with the teacher as facilitator instead of content distributor?
  • What would happen if we released fear of the unknown on our end and allowed the students to embrace the known from their end?
  • Can we? Do we dare?

I hear laughter. Nervous laughter. In most of my keynotes and presentations that I have done over the last decade, I ask similar questions. As anyone who knows me or has heard me speak, I like to get to the heart of the issues, the soul, and the unspoken elephant in the room. But even I have missed the core point on this one. I’ve been talking a lot about the technology being the leader and how it’s not what should be driving the show but rather ‘how’ it’s driven that matters. While I still agree with that premise, I’m going to up the ante on myself and now ask:

  • How are the kids using it?
  • What do they see?
  • What do they do with it?
  • What does it mean to them?
  • What do they want?
  • How are they being held back by an obvious conflict of what they know vs. what they’re given?

I’m not suggesting that we turn over education to the children. Not yet. What I am suggesting is that we inquire of the very population we are trying to serve. With a clear road of inquiry, we could find a clearer path to travel. But by asking the same questions of the same population, we’re going to keep getting the same answers – ones that obviously aren’t working for anyone.

Be brave today. Dream big and ask the right people! Whisper to your students and they might just whisper right back to you!

Peace and good choices!

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Readers Comments

Patricia Bowman 2012/03/05 at 1:07 pm

Asking what they want to learn to create curriculums they’ll be interested in… how novel!!!

Thank you for getting the word out, Heidi. Kids aren’t idiots. If they engage in their learning from a young age, they’ll actually understand why they -SHOULD- be paying attention in class. Nothing like getting students into a culture of being responsible for their own learning right from the gun!

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/03/05 at 1:33 pm

Patricia Bowman:

Seems like such a simple approach, doesn’t it?

Engage the student in the ‘how’ while we control the necessities of the ‘what’… eventually we can partner in their educational experience and it becomes a more fruitful endeavor.

The days of “because I said so” and “this is how we’ve always done it” are quickly fading (if not already gone). It’s time to find out what the natives are doing with the technology and stop acting like the immigrants we are – aiming to control the society without a clue as to the societal norms of this digital generation.

Dr. Heidi Maston

C. E. Doudin 2012/03/05 at 6:42 pm

Interesting article.

A few questions:

What kind of new tools do you find students value the most, and why?

You mentioned Powerpoint and Word as real dinosaurs. What are some of the alternatives? Do the cloudioven based versions of these programs make any difference?

Given the rate of change in technology, many different generations of technology could a student realistically see?

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/03/06 at 1:28 pm


Thank you for your feedback! I would love to be able to say there is a “best, alternative, change prediction” that meets all needs but there isn’t. I have found that that isn’t really the issue. It’s how the students use whatever comes in front of them – their self-efficatious behaviours can/will happen with whatever tools hapeen to be presented to them.

My #1 concern isn’t with the ‘right’ tool, but rather with the ‘right’ supportive environment that recognizes what they’re doing, allows them to do it, and incorporates their learning behaviours and patterns into the content and knowledge distribution/acquisition model of learning.


Dr. Heidi Maston

jock 2013/03/04 at 4:12 pm

Educators often find it very hard to give-up control. It’s funny how we think that our knowledge some how has value but, in this knowledge free society its the communication skills that we should value.

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