Archive for November, 2014


The Future Part 7c: Whose silly idea was this Digital Natives thing anyway?

November 30, 2014

This post is the final part of a series of posts about Digital Natives which are in turn part of a series of posts about The Future.

Last time I mentioned that the endorsement of educational games in the Digital Natives essays made them seem like they were written to promote educational gaming. This possibility should, perhaps , not be a surprise. The essays are written by Mark Prensky who was, indeed, running a company which made educational games. In order to get some further perspective on the idea of the digital native, it is worth exploring his thought in more detail. Here he is in action:


He’s an interesting character whose Twitter bio describes him as a “thought leader” and he tweets stuff like this:

Screenshot 2013-02-20 at 21.33.05 - EditedScreenshot 2013-02-20 at 21.31.30 - Edited

Other articles he has written have indicated what, other than selling games, provides the background to these ideas. Most are the familiar doctrines of the progressive educator. In an article entitled “The 21st-Century Digital Learner” he argues that it is wrong to treat children like children:

One of the strangest things in this age of young people’s empowerment is how little input our students have into their own education and its future. Kids who out of school control large sums of money and have huge choices on how they spend it have almost no choices at all about how they are educated — they are, for the most part, just herded into classrooms and told what to do and when to do it. Unlike in the corporate world, where businesses spend tens of millions researching what their consumers really want, when it comes to how we structure and organize our kids’ education, we generally don’t make the slightest attempt to listen to, or even care, what students think about how they are taught.

This is unacceptable and untenable. It’s also dangerous. We treat our students the way we treated women before suffrage — their opinions have no weight. But just as we now insist that women have an equal voice in politics, work, and other domains, we will, I predict, begin accepting and insisting that students have an equal voice in their own education. Or else our students will drop out (as they are doing), shoot at us (ditto), sue us, riot, or worse.

In an article entitle “Engage me or enrage me” Prensky claims that some students must be “engaged” in lessons because today:

All the students we teach have something in their lives that’s really engaging—something that they do and that they are good at, something that has an engaging, creative component to it. Some may download songs; some may rap, lipsync, or sing karaoke; some may play video games; some may mix songs; some may make movies; and some may do the extreme sports that are possible with twenty-first-century equipment and materials. But they all do something engaging.

By contrast school is boring. The technology is actually just a new twist on the old argument that teachers must entertain rather than educate their students and that if they become uncooperative faced with something other than constant indulgence then they are “sending a message”. Far from being a new development, this is actually the same argument against hard work that progressive educators have used for more than a century of student empowerment and the removal of adult authority.

At times, some of his utterances have been so extreme as to be almost laughable. I wonder how many would agree with the claims here that:

 … the “best methods” to [do] the basics change over time…

….Math “basics” are the meaning and proper use of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, not the methods (i.e. algorithms) we use to perform those functions. Currently our best method for math is a calculator that we always have easy access to (perhaps strapped to our wrists as well).

Communication, too, is a basic skill, with reading and writing merely the best methods of the moment. Now both reading and writing are both very useful methods of communicating, which, to be clear, I think we need to teach until better ways emerge for getting the same information. But once all books are recorded, the Web reads itself, and every child and adult has a text scanner in his or her cell phone that can read any printed text aloud, should we still spend all those years teaching our kids phonics?

 Writing is merely a method for recording thoughts. Not long ago neat cursive penmanship was the best method we had for this, because it was faster than printing and universally legible. Now we have better methods, such as phones, recording machines, IM, and keyboarding. As our kids all get their own phones and laptops, do we really need to teach them the old ways?

This extreme progressive position is combined with a belief in “powerful uses of technology” which seems to contradict the digital natives hypothesis by assuming children need to be encouraged to use technology in “powerful” ways. As ever, as with almost all theorists of progressive education, Prensky provides justifications for entertaining children while teaching what they already know.


And this concludes the series of posts about the future. I hope I have helped establish that rhetoric about how the world will change can be dangerous to education. Of course, the world will change. That is inevitable. But it is not new and it is not something the young have to be prepared for. The thing about the young is that they are young. They are “new” themselves. We don’t teach them to be young; we teach them to be human. Schools do not give children the future, they are the future. We can only give them the past. We give them the best of what is already known, it is up to them to sort out the rest. The future is built on the past; it is not the absence of the past. Attempts to prepare children for a world that doesn’t yet exist can only leave them trapped unable to cope with the world that does exist. As a teacher I dread every curriculum that is promoted as preparing students for “jobs that don’t yet exist” or “technology that hasn’t been invented”. This is just code for “learning that isn’t going to happen”.


The Future Part 7b: Is there such a thing as a Digital Native?

November 29, 2014

This post is the second part of a series of posts about Digital Natives which are in turn part of a series of posts about The Future.

The actual arguments for the claims about Digital Natives (described in my last post) are incredibly weak and are not supported by the research evidence. There is no good reason to accept the premise of a discontinuity between the generations with regard to the use of technology. According to Kirshner et al (2013) who reviewed a number of studies of generational difference in IT use, particularly with regard to learning:

The first question is, Does such an information technology savvy generation actually exist? Margaryan, Littlejohn, and Vojt (2011) reported that university students (i.e., members of the Net generation) use a limited range of technologies for learning and socialization: “The tools these students used were largely established technologies, in particular mobile phones, media player, Google, Wikipedia. The use of handheld computers as well as gaming, social networking sites, blogs and other emergent social technologies was very low” (p. 38). A number of research studies (Bullen, Morgan, Belfer, & Qayyum, 2008; Ebner, Schiefner, & Nagler, 2008; Kennedy et al., 2007; Kvavik, 2005) in different countries (e.g., Austria, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the United States) question whether the Homo Zappiens and/or Digital Native really exists. These researchers found that university students do not really have deep knowledge of technology, and what knowledge they do have is often limited to basic office suite skills, e-mailing, text messaging, Facebook, and surfing the Internet. According to Bullen et al. (2008), “it appears they [university students] do not recognize the enhanced functionality of the applications they own and use” (p. 7.7) and that significant further training in how technology can be used for learning and problem solving is needed. When used for learning, this was mostly for passive consumption of information (e.g., Wikipedia) or for downloading lecture notes. A report commissioned by the British library and JISC (P. Williams & Rowlands, 2007) also overturns the common assumption that the Google generation is the most web literate. Rowlands et al. (2008) concluded “that much professional commentary, popular writing and PowerPoint presentations overestimates the impact of ICTs on the young, and that the ubiquitous presence of technology in their lives has not resulted in improved information retrieval, information seeking or evaluation skills” (p. 308)

The Digital Natives essays make much reference to the plasticity of the brain and the malleability of thought processes is described in detail. However, the fact the brain can change, and naturally does change due to changes in behaviour, does not actually give grounds for believing there is a discontinuity. Far from it, it suggests that changes in the brain have always followed changes in behaviour and that there is nothing particularly pressing or dramatic about this one. I would interpret what we know of the malleability of the brain as indicating that, as long as students behave in school much as previous generations did, their brains can adapt to work in the same way as previous generations did.

A further theme in the Digital Natives essays is the advantages of games in learning. While there may be educational games that are effective, the idea that they are only effective for Digital Natives is not established. In fact one might end up wondering if the entire concept has been dreamt up in order to promote educational games, a point I will return to next time.

It is also claimed in the essays that attention spans have reduced but only for “the old ways of learning”. No actual solid research evidence is given for this just an opinion from a retired professor of biochemistry. No thought is actually given to the possibility that students can be encouraged to improve their ability to pay attention to traditional teaching. Similarly, it is claimed that Digital Natives “like to parallel process and multi-task”. Again this is assumed to be something that should be simply accepted. Kirschner et al also examined multi-tasking when critiquing the idea of a digital native.

 With the term multitasking, people mean the simultaneous and/or concurrent performance of two or more tasks requiring cognition or information processing (e.g., attending to the road while driving and simultaneously talking on a cell phone). The problem here is that human cognitive architecture and brain functioning only allows for switching between different tasks (i.e., performing a number of different tasks or partial tasks in quick succession) rather than the simultaneous performance of tasks, even though the performance seems subjectively to occur simultaneously. Human beings can do more than one thing at any one time only when what they are doing is fully automated (e.g., walking and talking at the same time though even this can lead to falls and other accidents; Herman, Mirelman, Giladi, Schweiger, & Hausdorff, 2011). When thinking or conscious information processing plays a role, people are not capable of multitasking and can, at best, switch quickly from one activity to another. When task switching, first the individual shifts the goal and thus makes a “decision” to divert attention from one task to another, and then the individual activates a rule so instructions for executing one task are switched off, and those for executing the other are switched on. This so-called multitasking involves dividing one’s attention between the tasks, and because each task competes for a limited amount of cognitive resources, the performance of one interferes with that of the other. This interference has been shown at the cognitive, information-processing level in many empirical studies by Brumby and colleagues across a time span of 10 years on the intersection of human–computer interaction and cognitive science (e.g., Brumby & Salvucci, 2006; Brumby, Salvucci, & Howes, 2009; Janssen, Brumby, Dowell, & Chater, 2010).

After considering the research on how people behave when multi-tasking in some detail they concluded “there is strong evidence that multitasking and task switching impair performance and learning, and there is no reason to expect positive effects of educational methods that require multitasking”. Some similar points were expressed in this article  and also by Dan Willingham in the video below:

Even if we were to accept that inability to pay attention and a preference for multi-tasking were an inevitable feature of those who have grown up with modern techonolgy, there are good reasons to discourage it, as explained by technology guru Joe Kraus below:

I see no reason to doubt the conclusion of Kirschner et al that digital natives:

…are not capable of doing that with modern technologies which is ascribed to their repertoire (i.e., the digital native may live in a digital age and world but cannot properly navigate that world for learning) and that they actually may “suffer” if teaching and education tries to play into these so-called abilities to relate to, work with, and control their own learning in multimedia and digitally pervasive environments.

Next time I will look at the ideological background to the idea of the Digital Native.


The Future Part 7a: What’s a Digital Native?

November 28, 2014

This post is the first part of a series of posts about Digital Natives which are, in turn, part of a series of posts about The Future.

A few years ago I sat through an INSET where we were shown pictures of a couple of everyday items and asked what they were called. The wrong answer was “a digital camera and a mobile phone”. Apparently, to our students, they would simply be “a camera and a phone”. This shows that our students are fundamentally different to us as they are “Digital Natives” and, therefore, have to be taught according to all the usual progressive education methods of discussion, discovery learning and groupwork. Or at least that’s what we were told. While I was in no danger of being convinced, it’s probably worth looking this idea over.

The idea’s origin seem to be in this pair of essays from 2001. Roughly speaking the argument is as follows:

  • Our students have changed radically because of technology.
  • They process information radically different to older generations.
  • Their brains may even have changed and are now different from ours.
  • They are Digital Natives; we are Digital Immigrants, and this generational difference is a problem for education.
  • They like multi-tasking, instant rewards and games.
  • They are put out by having to pay attention to things that aren’t entertaining.
  • We must change how we teach.
  • We should teach more about technology and less of the “legacy” curriculum.
  • We should use games to teach.

There are big and small problems with these essays. Some of the smaller details are actually the most perplexing. At one point it is suggested that a simulation could be used in order to teach the Holocaust, apparently one where they “can experience the true horrors of the camps, as opposed to films like Schindler’s List”. How?

More importantly, there seems little clarity about exactly who the Digital Natives are and some of the references to Digital Native culture seem strangely unconnected. Apparently Digital Immigrants don’t think learning can be fun because they didn’t grow up with Sesame Street. Given that Sesame Street has been going since 1969. familiarity with Big Bird and his friends, even back in 2001, was hardly the mark of youth and modernity. We are told that, unlike their teachers, the Digital Natives grew up with video games and MTV, which even then would have seemed a little dated as a distinction.

A more contemporary reference is to remembering the contents of Pokemon cards as an example of what the digital generation can do. Is children’s capacity to memorise trivia either new, or important to how they should learn? The point isn’t really explained or explored.

Next time I will look at the bigger issues of whether the claims about Digital Natives could be true.



Back To The Future

November 27, 2014

This blog is probably not the best advert for my organisational skills, very often it reflects whatever happens to be on my mind and topics get picked up, then dropped, pretty much on a whim. However, I’ve decided to finish off a long-unfinished bit of business this weekend. Unfortunately, I’ve left it all so long that I thought I’d write this quick reminder of what it was all about.

Back in 2012, I started a series of blogposts on how ideas about ways in which the future would be different were used to promote progressive education and, in particular, invalidate the teaching of subject knowledge and the use of traditional teaching methods.

I began with this introduction to the issue:

The Future Part 1: Another Argument for Dumbing-Down

Then I dealt with the idea that it was increasing globalisation and competition from overseas had changed everything:

The Future Part 2: Overseas Competition

Next was the idea that the job market was changing to be less stable and predictable:

The Future Part 3: Changes in the Labour Market

Following that was the claim that technological change was constantly making established knowledge obsolete:

The Future Part 4: Technological Change as Normal and Unpredictable

Then the contradictory idea that we were in a time of unprecedented technological change:

The Future Part 5: Are We Living in a Time of Unprecedented Technological Change?

This was followed by the idea that we now don;t need to know things like we did in the past:

The Future Part 6: Does New Technology Mean We Don’t Need to Know Anything?

I also provided an example that this sort of argument wasn’t new:

A Note About The Future

I had intended to finish this with a blogpost about the idea of Digitial Natives. However, this turned out to be something which led to quite a lot more thinking and writing and I did not get round to writing it until many months later, and never really worked out when to blog it. Anyway, I now plan to cover this in my next few posts, so I thought I’d write this recap for you to put it in context. Apologies for any links and media in the above posts which are now defunct.

Update 3/12/2014: The remaining three posts in the series have now been written and can be found below:


Some links that may be of interest

November 23, 2014

Just a quick note to tell you about some bits and pieces you might have missed (and some things you probably haven’t missed but I feel obliged to publicise anyway).

  1. I was among the contributers to an article about grammar schools on the Prospect website. It can be found here.
  2. There is an OFSTED consultation going on. The form can be found here. I hadn’t really been paying much attention, until I heard a rumour on Twitter that FE colleges had been replying to say they want to keep graded observations. I doubt this is the view of many teachers in FE, so I thought I’d do my bit to publicise it. Some FE bloggers have done the same here and here.
  3. My ridiculous attempts to catalogue the UK education blogosphere are still going on. Details of the latest spreadsheet are here and there are several lists of different types of bloggers also to be found on the Echo Chamber blog if you look for them. Any time you can spare to fill in details about yourself (if you’re a blogger) or others will be appreciated.
  4. I haven’t forgotten about my Wellington petition. Details here and the petition here. It’s proved the point that more than 5 teachers prefer events at weekends, but it’s not really got enough to show how common that view is, so please help and promote.

And finally, I thought I’d publicise some of my favourite blogs. These are all ones that seem to be posting great arguments on a fairly regular basis. I’m slightly wary about doing this as bloggers I’ve recommended in the past have a habit of giving up, but I suspect that, if you like my blog, you are very likely to like these ones:

  • Webs of Substance An experienced maths teacher, now overseas, writing about teaching with a particular emphasis on research.
  • Esse Quam Videri  Another experienced teacher, this time a teacher of history and politics, who consistently writes well-argued posts about a range of educational issues.
  • The Quirky Teacher  A new primary teacher, and new blogger, but so far very prolific. They seem to have a knack for describing what goes on in their school in a way that (unintentionally) winds up a certain type of primary teacher, and entertains everyone else.

Hopefully, some of this will be of interest.


Authentic Concern Versus Emotional Correctness

November 19, 2014

I have talked recently (see “Witch-hunt“) about personal attacks and bad arguments. It dawned on me that I am often subject to two contradictory attacks. The first is that, by suggesting we listen to reason, look at evidence or attend to matters of factual accuracy, I am ignoring the emotional side of things. In effect, that I am a desiccated calculating machine, dryly weighing everything up without any feeling for what’s at stake.


However, at the same time, whenever I have referred to, say, feeling angry about children’s behaviour or disgusted at somebody’s unwise actions, I get attacked for hostility, intimidation or hatred.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 at 19.50.16

I used to get this sort of thing all the time. Now it’s more often aimed at new bloggers, like “Quirky Teacher”.




Screenshot 2014-11-19 at 19.58.47

An example of me showing empathy and emotion. Went down really well, as you can see.


What has gradually occurred to me is that this sort of thing is reminiscent of the “bisected teacher” phenomena that I described here. Those who sit in judgement will condemn teachers both for their feelings and their lack of feelings. This is because it is not emotion, or its lack, that is actually at issue. It is a willingness to comply only with the approved display of emotions. It is not about emotion, but about emotional correctness. It is the right sort of show of concern, not the genuine feeling of concern. Genuine emotions are, by contrast, messy and sometimes difficult to deal with. And often these are to be condemned.

Thinking about some of the ways teachers are supposed to express their concern and fondness for students in schools. The more sincere the feeling, or the more it treats children with some of the respect due to adults, the less it seems to be approved:

Authentic Concern

The following ways of displaying concern or fondness for your students are often not approved of:

  1. Being angry, particularly shouting, when their learning is disrupted or they are otherwise harmed by their peers;
  2. Expressing anger about disruptive or dangerous students to colleagues;
  3. Suggesting it is important for them to be high-achieving, academically;
  4. Being visibly disappointed when they fail or misbehave;
  5. Expression opposition to school policies that are not in their interests;
  6. Expecting them to work hard and follow rules;
  7. Designing lessons only for the sake of their learning;
  8. Respecting their privacy by letting them keep feelings and opinions to themselves;
  9. Letting them work alone rather than with students they don’t get on with;
  10. Objecting to the “inclusion” of students whose behaviour endangers and upsets other students;
  11. Punishing, as firmly as possible, those whose behaviour harms the interests of your students;
  12. Being honest to them, particularly regarding the consequences of their actions and the effect they are having on others.

“Emotional Correctness”

The following behaviours, all either empty or potentially harmful, are very often encouraged as showing how much you care and like children:

  1. Letting them off of punishments, or not enforcing rules;
  2. Giving rewards that are not deserved;
  3. Deliberately trying to get them to like you, perhaps by making childish jokes;
  4. Lecturing colleagues for having the wrong attitude to children;
  5. Making lessons entertaining or relevant to what they are already interested in;
  6. Declaring how much you like them at every opportunity;
  7. Sympathising with their dislikes of particular subjects;
  8. Pretending to be happy in lessons;
  9. Lying to them to motivate them;
  10. Lowering expectations for particular individuals on the basis that you understand them and their needs;
  11. Pretending to be interested in latest popular culture phenomena;
  12. Refusing to let them know how they are doing relative to each other or to where they should be.

Perhaps, I am being overly harsh with some of those items. But I do often think that there is an image in our heads of what a teacher should be like that is closer to being the biggest, most popular, kid in the class rather than an expert advocate of our students’ true interests.


Tell Us About Your Blog (or somebody else’s)!

November 15, 2014

The compiling of details of every UK education blog is one of those little projects I’ve got started on lately. If you are a UK education blogger please check your details (or recheck them if you’ve already looked at them). Or if you are not a blogger, but have time to spare to help look up details about blogs, your help would be appreciated. This is information that I am frequently asked about. Thank you.

The Echo Chamber

There is now an additional, partly editable version of the Ultimate UK education blog list here.

The editable columns are to begin collecting data about the blogs. Please edit it to inform us about yourself, or any other bloggers you know. The information will be used only to publicise the blogs and to answer the question of who blogs about education in the UK.

The information wanted is

  • Twitter Name: People are always asking me how to find their favourite bloggers on Twitter.
  • Gender: This should be M, F,  Unknown (intended for anonymous bloggers) and N/A (intended for group blogs).
  • Subject: This is intended to identify when a blogger mainly teaches one subject. If you teach many subjects (like most primary teachers) put “N/A”.
  • Role: As broad a description as possible. Preferably just Teacher/TA/Head/Consultant. No need to say if you are an AST or have a TLR.
  • Sector: This…

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