Fired Up To Learn: A Challenge to Educators, Administrators, and Parents

Their robot didn't have a soul.  All the bells and whistles were there – wires connected, embellishments added.  However, this group just wouldn't learn how to program. 

What was I going to do? Sure, one reason we used the Lego Mindstorms was because the Lego's were so unbelievably engaging, particularly for those bodily-kinesthetic learners who often had ADHD.  (Lecture and they're lost but engage their hands and they're all over it.)

This group used their hands but just wouldn't use their heads.

How was I going to pull them into understanding the fundamentals of programming when they thought the cute purple feather across Mr. Morgan's google eyes were the finishing touch?

As I turned their creation over after school and compared it to the other three bots, I saw something. Artistry. Good Engineering.

So, as I thought about what I could do, I considered what motivated these three boys.  Only one week from “getting out” of school and their mind was on girls, earning money, girls, and football camp. I was too tired to bake the cinnamon rolls I knew would also work.


In South Georgia – things aren't black and white, they are black and red:  University of Georgia (UGA) red all the way.  However, I'm in the minuscule minority of families who live breathe and die Georgia Tech gold and black.  (This is certainly something my students and I go back and forth about each fall or whenever the Dawgs play the Jackets.)  I grabbed the Lego brick and started programming.

The next morning, when they pushed the start button, their robot began to move forward as expected.  However, instead of just moving forward it also began to play a song in perfect midi…

“I'm a ramblin wreck from Georgia Tech and a h*!( of an engineer!”

“Mrs. Vicki, you can't do that.  Fix it!”  They screamed.  “You messed up our robot! You've gotta fix it! Now!”

“No boys,” I said, , You fix it.”  I turned on my heels and practically lept to the opposite side of the room.

As I circled among the other groups I continued to peek at the boys huddled in the corner.  Amidst the manual, these boys were working.  They were fired up.

At the end of class, the tall curly-headed leader came to me and said, “Will you write me a note to come back during study hall.” 
“Why?” I asked innocently.

“I've got some more programming to do,” he said.

“Oh you do,” I said, trying to hide my smile, “well, then, of course.”
Then, three days later, the team had their robot.  It was beautifully designed and very well programmed. It would back up and turn a different direction when it ran into the wall and the pressure sensor activated.  A somewhat off pitch UGA fight sound roared out of the robot's tiny speakers.  Mr. Morgan was a winner – in fact it was THE winner that day.  Those boys were amazing builders and incredible programmers. 

The Need for Teacherpreneurs

Many business people are mistaken about how easy they think teaching is.  Business people can fire their employees – we can't fire our students. Our job is to “light the fire” and it takes a lot of psychology, a stubborn streak, and a sprinkling of good old fashioned love.

That was the turning point for me, two years into my teaching career where I realized that I would have to motivate each student a little differently.  I was going to have to customize my classroom to the passions, interests, and learning styles of the students.  Because I couldn't fire them – I HAD TO FIRE THEM UP if wanted all of them to learn.  Teaching transcended textbooks and computers.

The dropout epidemic in this country is happening because kids are not fired up about learning.  Don Tapscott says in his book, Grown Up Digital, that we must move from the traditional mode of “broadcast learning” into the age of “interactive learning” to reach this generation. (130) Don't think this means video games. We must remember that a good teacher is an enormous part of the interactive customization that creates a great classroom.

Todd Whitaker in his book “What Great Teachers Do Differently,” says,

“It is people, not programs, that determine the quality of a school.” (9-10)

But what about standardization? It is possible to have national standards and teacherpreneurs who customize the classroom? In fact, I would argue that in order to have educational excellence that we need both.  According to the Wall Street Journal report examining education in Finland, touted to be the best in the world:

“Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards… ‘. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs,” says Mr. Schleicher, of the Paris-based OECD, which began the international student test in 2000.’

Kids aren't fired up about learning but could it be because many teachers aren't fired up about teaching?

I was in a webinar this past week with Dr. David Rose, a leading educational technology researcher and professor in the college of Education at Harvard University.  We were responding to Wayne D'Orio about whether technology in the classroom de-humanized teaching.  Dr. Rose said,

“We're letting computers do what computer do best and we're doing what we do best. Teach.” 

He went on to say how he, in many ways, felt he was spending more time teaching and knew his students better. I went on to share how technology not only helped my kids become more fluent in technology but I am connecting to them on a more personal and highly engaging level.

Our moderator marveled at the fact that Dr. Rose's story and my story of falling in love with teaching and our students were so similar – he at Harvard and me at rural Westwood High School in Camilla, Georgia.  Technology was becoming so deeply used that in some ways it was a side issue as learning was taking center stage. With the thousands of emails I get from people using technology to teach around the world, I believe this experience is happening at all levels.

The Need for Technology

These experiences resonate with what my friend Chris Lehman, Principal at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, says,

“Technology in learning should be like air: invisible, abundant and only noticeable when missing.” 

We've got tremendous budget shortfalls and cut backs in education. How are we going to keep our technology programs going? Well, 92% of our students aged 16-18 years already have a powerful computer in their pocket that we make them pretend that they don't bring to school: their cell phone.  Eighty-seven percent of them have an mp3 player. (Rosen 31)

These are powerful tools that pack more computing power than we dreamed of having in the early 90's.  The power in their pockets needs to be placed as a prominent tool for promoting learning. Many students often have laptops that they are told to leave home by some educators.

Learning in Hand

Initial results of the Abilene Christian University cell phone integration study into Statistics I shows that students are studying MORE because they pull out their cell phone “whenever” (yes they said whenever!) to study.

I have some friends who have their math classes being taught “upside down” with math lessons recorded and delivered to mp3 players to listen to for homework while students work problems in class where they can receive teacher help. 

Personally, I read at least an hour a day on my Kindle with the daily news, technology news, and other insights sent to me whether I'm on the beach at Destin or in the doctors office with a sick child. I read “wherever” and it has made a big difference in my life and professional career.

The Need for Social Learning Environments

Overtesting combined with over-standardization have turned our education system into something that is totally missing the mark.   Most schools are blocking any tools that begin with the “s” word:  Social.  I think we have the wrong “s” word that we should be eradicating.  Again, the problem is not state or even national standards, the problem is in mistaking standardization of learning outcomes with standardization of delivery. Every classroom and student is as unique as the flowers in my Aunt Nan's garden.  Good gardeners take best practice and customize to their zone, pests, and unique microclimates of their yard.  Good teachers do the same type of customization in their classroom.

Students Say Give us Social Learning!

We brought together students from more than five countries in Mumbai, India this past February for our Flat Classroom™ Conference and they were asked to invent the future of education.  ALL of them, I repeat ALL of them envisioned tools like Like-Write (the winning project) that would harness the power of social media to bring students together for LEARNING.  This wasn't just kids from the USA but kids from China, Korea, India, Australia, and the USA (and some virtual kids from Germany and Hong Kong)

Educators are so hung up on the fact that kids might LIKE to socialize in educational spaces that they are ignoring the fact that they also might LIKE to learn something.  They WANT to understand how to do Algebra II! They want to know how to write that essay.  Sometimes they copy homework just because they can't find anyone to teach them how to do the work that they can relate to!

 Additionally, a recent MacArthur report, Living and Learning with New Media [PDF], talks about the the desire that students have to learn in on-line spaces:

“young people acquire various forms of technical and media literacy by exploring new interests, tinkering, and “messing around” with new forms of literacy…youth respect one another's authority on-line, and they are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults.” (2)

Perhaps this is why World Math's Day set a new world record this past March 3rd with 1.1 million students from more than 58 thousand schools in 235 countries answering 479 million math questions.  This is also, perhaps why programs like Flat Classroom™ projects (of which I'm a co-founder),  ePals, iEarn, Taking IT Global, eTwinning, Learn Central, the K12 On-line Conference or Class Chats are experiencing such explosive growth.  Students want to connect. Educators want to connect.  But we're still not there yet.

We need social spaces for educational learning like the Like-Write, IMPACT (Inspirational Museum Promoting Arts by Children through Technology), and Aha! (Amateurs Helping Adults) that the international teams of students proposed in Mumbai. If you take the time to view these videos, you'll see a certain “flatness” of people helping people with academic subjects or technology on a level playing field.  I don't think many on-line projects have yet achieved this level of flatness as we need ongoing organic communities of learning around our major disciplines. In fact, some of the best examples of this social learning environment I've seen is with the language learning site, Live Mocha and the massive on-line role playing game for learning Mandarin Chinese, Zon.

In Summary

This is not a generation of slackers as some would characterize them.  We all remember the generation gap of our youth.  Some of you had parents who were angered by your undershirts and the rolled up box of cigarettes in your sleeve. Some of you drove your parents crazy with your short mini skirts and others of you with your torn clothing or too-tight parachute pants and muscle shirts.  Every generation seems to dislike the clothing of the youth of the next generation. (Can anyone say baggy pants?)

But the older generations also don't care for the places the kids hang out!  Whether it was cruising, “Lookout Pointe” or “the Mall” – the older generation doesn't like “it” wherever the “it” place happens to be of that generation. (i.e. cell phones, Facebook)

Honestly, I'm tired of excuses and sick of rhetoric.  I see good learning happen wherever there are great teacherpreneurs who have been given the ability to customize the classroom to the learning of the students. 

My tiny classroom in south Georgia is working with public, private, rural, urban, remote, far reaching classrooms from places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Austria, Spain, Oman, Romania, China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the U.K.,  and the USA collaborating DAILY with a small technology budget and a well-maintained four year old computer lab.  We also use cell phones, mp3 players, iTouches, and just about anything technology that they own if there is an appropriate classroom use!

Geographic location is more irrelevant than ever before.  The only location that seems to matter is the person who is located in the teacher's desk and the people located in the front office and IT department as well as the parents located in children's homes.  This is our generation to educate and if they are not being educated, there is no one to blame but us.

Will we be called jailkeepers or freedom-givers?

This generation will either rise up to rebel against educators as their repressive jailkeepers or they will rise up and thank us for setting them free. 

If I had one thing to say to educators around the world, it is that if they will take the journey with technology and IF their administration will empower and support the efforts – that they can fall in love with teaching all over again.  They can become FIRED UP about learning.  And fired up teachers who have the tools and administrative support always, without a shadow of a doubt, produce students excited about learning! (And many of these good teachers are able to teach without the tools and without that support! Good teachers make it happen without making excuses.)

It is about having technology in our hands — every hand. But it is also about letting the teacher customize the classroom enough that she can put “lids down” or “cell phones out” or use the very gestures we make as inputs into the computing devices around us.

If you're overwhelmed, good.
  Because people who are comfortable NEVER change.  They just continue to sleep.  And Rip van Winkle keeps waking up to see desks and boards and teachers behind podiums and he thinks that time isn't really passing. 

Challenge to Educators, Administrators, and Parents

  • Let's engage this generation in the most powerful, intense, always-on ways that we can! 
  • Let's customize the classroom environment with great teachers who look at the unique student and put in place walls, tables, and technologies that interact and sites that let them interact and learn from their peers.
  • Let's deliver learning to their pockets so they can study “whenever” they are ready and “wherever” they are. 
  • Let's hold them to high standards but realize that we cannot reach this generation by over-standardization of delivery methods. We must be interactive. 

This is the most unique, customized generation ever to be in existence and their learning environments should look the same. In fifteen years when we look back upon the road into information millenieum, I think we will look back and see that the greatest pockets of innovation happened where students, parents, educators, and business were all treading the road together.  It is fun, exciting, amazing, and starting the journey is just a little bit like being at the top of that first hill on your favorite roller coaster.

Let's get fired up!

Vicki Davis writes at the Cool Cat Teacher™ blog and can be found at @coolcatteacher on Twitter. She teaches Information Technology and Computer Science Courses and is IT director at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Georgia.


Gamerman, Ellen. “What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart.” Wall Street Journal 28 FEB 2008: n. pag. Web. 30 Apr 2010. .

“Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project.” John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning (2008): 2. Web. 30 Apr 2010. .

Rosen, Larry. Rewired. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 31. Print.

Tapscott, Don. Grown Up Digital. USA: McGraw-Hill Books, 2009. 130. Print.

“The New Digital Classroom, Building Expertise through Technology.” Expert Talks: The New Digital Classroom, Building Expertise through Technology | Web. 30 Apr 2010. .

Whitaker, Todd. What Great Teachers Do Differently. Larchmont, N.Y.: Eye on Education, 2004. 9-10. Print.

All photos purchased from iStock photo and not licensed for reuse unless by Vicki Davis.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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French Teacher May 18, 2010 - 4:06 am

Nice educational content but I suggest getting off of blogger and trying to do your own self hosted Wordpress blog, it is pretty easy actually.

Alyssa July 6, 2010 - 6:44 pm

I really like what you had to say about teaching to students different learning styles. Josh Waitzkin, subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fisher, has a lot to say about this subject as well. Check out the website for his educational not-for-profit,

Comments are closed.

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