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Jon Kennard


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The TrainingZone interview: Marc Prensky


On a speaking tour of the UK Recently, TrainingZone found time in Marc Prensky's busy schedule to ask the author about his new book, 'Teaching Digital Natives' and to talk about his career in L&D to date.

Having studied maths and science before moving into modern languages and humanities, Marc Prensky had also previously worked as a professional musician and actor before graduating from Yale and then going to Harvard business school (didn't we all). He then became a consultant for six years after Harvard, before working in business training which is where he first worked with multimedia and training games.
After several years making games for investment bankers and traders, he started his own company called 'games2train'. With games2train Marc worked with clients such as Nokia, American Express, IBM, and in a post-9/11 world he also found military training to be a fast-expanding area of business. The US military, it seemed, were very into planning and strategy games, and while he worked for them, at the same time he started thinking and writing about digital natives and digital immigrants, with schools beginning to call up and ask his advice. Marc found himself being drawn towards the education sector, and having already written two successful books around the teaching and engagement of younger generation learners, we thought it a good time to ask him about his recently-published third.
"Everything you could possibly want to learn about anything is online somewhere these days, and so the job of the teacher has become more about engagement."

Tell us about your book.

The basic thesis is this: The way we should teach kids today is not by telling them as we did in the past (tell-testing) but by partnering with them. This method has resulted in a lot of different brand names being used such as inquiry-based learning, student-centred learning and so on. This fragmentation has proved problematic, so the idea is that we should bring all these different things under the umbrella of partnering, by saying that instead of the teacher talking and the student taking notes, the student should create and define using any and all technology available, with the teacher's job being to ask the right questions, as the guide, coach and partner.
This is the real future shift in pedagogy, but to ensure quality, rigour and context this needs to happen everywhere in business, military and in schools - but particularly in schools because this is the method kids are receptive to now. One part of the book discusses this: if we are going to reach people in the way they want to be reached we have to reach them through their passions. It used to be very top-down in business ("you have to learn this stuff") but now it's a lot more bottom-up where people are asking "why do i need to learn this stuff and how does it relate to what I'm interested in?". As teachers, we have to take time to find out what people really are interested in by asking them and helping them make those relations. Everything you could possibly want to learn about anything is online somewhere these days, and so the job of the teacher has become more about engagement. There are lots of strategies for doing that (including through gaming of course).
Another piece of the book is the idea of question-led learning; that you don't have to tell people everything you want them to to know, but what's important is to lead people to answers by asking the right questions in an interesting way that inspires them to want to know the answers. The appropriate question used to be "do you know this fact? Yes/no?", now the right question to ask is something that will generate a response of "wow, that's a good question, i don't know".
"What's important is to lead people to answers by asking the right questions in an interesting way that inspires them to want to know the answers."
There's a theme throughout the book about nouns and verbs, and by that I mean that when we talk about technology, we always talk in terms of nouns, e.g. iPhone, Wikipedia, email, PowerPoint and what these nouns really are are just the tools with which to do something.  We have to make the distinction between this and when we use verbs such as present/communicate, and the reason the distinction is important is that the verbs don't change; it doesn't matter whether you're in the 18th century or the 21st century you still want people to learn, communicate well, but the nouns we use to do that change and these days they change very rapidly; so what you want people to be doing is using the latest nouns for the corresponding verbs needed for learning.

What do you think about social learning?

There are two things that encourage this. One is the blending of learning between off and online; the internet facilitates finding groups of people with which you have common interests that you can learn with, the second is peer-to-peer, as the most useful type of learning - especially in companies - happens not from your instructors but from your peers, and social learning lets you set up groups of peers which in turn gives you a lot more horizontal connections. So, instead of existing in a very top-down structure you have a lot more connections with people at the same level as you to correspond with, and you get different results from this.

And mobile learning?

Again there is the verb-noun distinction. The mobile devices are the nouns; it's just a question of what you want to do with them. The fact that you have these devices on you all the time is the key; that they connect you to all these people makes it possible to put into action these learning verbs very easily. Mobile devices make it very easy to do this: communication and sharing is something which we really need more of.

Finally, What future trends do you see emerging in L&D?

With technology, the nouns change all the time; even now people say email is for old people. By the time everyone gets to know a certain type of software it's almost obsolete. What we have to get used to, I think, is rapid change. The speed of change is what's accelerating. Every four to six months you have something brand new, so if you want any kind of feeling of consistency, you have to stick with the verbs, and ignore that the nouns are changing so fast. We need to not think of the technology as the key, just that the technology supports the verbs.

Marc is the founder and CEO of Games2train. He holds degrees from Yale and Harvard and has just published his third book 'Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning'

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

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