Commentary 3: Why Professor Johnny Can’t Read

Why Professor Johnny Can’t Read

Engaging today’s learner has become a difficult task for many of today’s educators. Teachers, administrators and schools are, in many cases, frantically trying to decipher what is needed in order to teach the learners of today. The notion that simply adding technology into the mix of our regular classroom and expecting student engagement to merely ‘happen’, is a false hope all around, though this is what some are indeed hoping to occur. As Mabrito and Medley discuss in their article Why Professor Johnny Can’t Read: Understanding the Net Generation’s Texts, teachers and instructors need to do more than simply understand the environment in which their students engage and learn, they need to work within it as well.

Mabrito and Medley call the new generation of learners the “Net-Gen”, or “Net Generation”. This group of learners is different from previous generations of learners because of their digitally enhanced world and that their knowledge of the world comes primarily from digital sources. This generation of learners is, due to the fact that they have been born in a digital age, the “first generation of virtual learners – learners accustomed to seeking and building knowledge in a technology-enhanced environment” (Mabrito and Medley, 1).

Mabrito and Medley go on to discuss the characteristics of the Net-Gen student and how they are different from the students who came before them. They discuss the ability to multitask and how their brains are “literally wired differently from previous generations, their brains shaped by a lifelong immersion in virtual spaces” (Mabrito and Medley, 2). Their learning spaces are different from those experienced by previous generations, with opportunities for collaboration and interaction, much of it online and virtually, that was not possible in schools before this.

The implications for schools of today are massive. Most schools today, though some have begun the shift, are still trying to engage learners using methods of yesterday. Schools today do not understand, at least not fully, how today’s learners construct their social identity and how important this is for both their personal lives, as well as their educational lives. The people that today’s students make connections online with socially, are often the same people that they share ideas with, collaborate with and create content with, both inside as well as outside of the classroom.

Mabrito and Medley argue that in order to truly engage the learner of today, teachers and schools need to do more than simply understand how they learn, they need to take part in this new learning themselves, and I could not agree more. There is a shift happening with schools that are beginning to take notice and trying to engage learners in this new digital space, but there is still much work to do. Medley and Mabrito mention a couple of different universities that have begun to do this (they give the example of Second Life environments) but they are few and far between.

I recently attended another Apple institute for educational leadership and it dawned on me, yet again, how all we are trying to do at this stage is get school leaders to understand the new environment – we have not yet begun to try and get school leaders to engage learners in this new environment. Educational leaders are invited to institutes such as these and, hopefully, most walk away with the understanding that there is much work to do and that there is much change needed in the traditional classroom we still see today. However, they walk away with the idea that they need to get someone else on their staff to engage these new learners, when really it is they who we need to do this work. It has to be ‘top-down’.

This reading has really resonated with me because it is a frustration I continue to feel on a daily basis. Being a young administrator who is fully engaged in technology and digital learning spaces (though I admit I cannot keep up entirely!), as well as an Apple Distinguished Educator who runs workshops for other administrators, this is a frustration I feel quite often. We continuously argue that the classrooms need to change to engage these digital learners and yet the seminars and workshops that we run to make these arguments frequently still look and interact the same way that the traditional classroom runs. It reminds me of the one and a half hour lecture I once sat through on the topic of differentiation.

Schools need to encourage their teachers to use the same learning spaces that their students are using in order to better understand their students. This is fine, and I agree with this entirely, but I also think we need to encourage our administrators and school leaders, at the top, to use these learning spaces as well. If the leadership at the top are the ones who are able to affect change in their schools, then they certainly need to be able to understand it properly.


Mabrito, Mark and Medley, Rebecca (2008). Why Professor Johnny Can’t Read: Understanding the Net Generation’s Texts. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, Vol.4 Issue 6.

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1 Response to Commentary 3: Why Professor Johnny Can’t Read

  1. Annette Smith says:

    This makes me think about some of the ‘Silver Bullet’ solutions that I ran across while I was an elementary teacher. This is the situation where a board, or a principal, or a politician for that matter, funnel a great deal of effort and money toward buying and installing some great new thing that is going to, of its own accord, fix whatever issue they see as the problem. In our school it was usually computers. We spent a huge amount of money on iMacs one year, but nothing on training the staff to use them, and nothing on ensuring that they would be adopted board-wide. Result: they collected dust. Same kind of situation in which big universities bought in to Blackboard, which is far from perfect, and can’t get out of contracts (or have put too much money in to turn back now).

    My personal preference is a lot of open-source software and a lot more people to customize, maintain and evangelize it. is perfectly fine for teaching children how to work in a word processor, and the skills are totally transferable. I think the money not spent (as opposed to ‘saved’) on proprietary licenses could go toward educating the educators, and building capacity within the teaching staff. Maybe if staff felt they were being properly supported, and had enough time to learn without pressure, they would be less resistant to technological change?

    I’m sure there are plenty of opinions to go around!


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