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.




  1. I think the Digital Native thing has been fairly well debunked – I’m not sure even Prensky (who coined the term originally ) holds to it in the way he proposed it. Have you seen this https://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2014/09/17/39-the-idea-that-young-people-are-digital-natives-is-a-myth-39.aspx – Angela Macfarlane has been saying this for some time.

  2. I really don’t understand why anyone would think that children can now multi-task when before we couldn’t. No, technology has provided problems to children’s education: it provides children with more, and more easily obtainable distractions. Interestingly I was told the other day by a software engineer that their workplace was moving towards a working environment which minimised interuptions so that those deep in thought creating new code and/or problem solving could be more productive.

  3. An interesting perspective. @bobharrisonset has a quiz he gives to adults to check how close they are to the “digital natives”. I believe it was made by his digital leaders or at least some savvy IT kids in the school. He asked them to make a quiz that would test whether some one was cool with technology or not. What it seems to show is that there are significant knowledge areas in contemporary culture where the kids are well ahead of their teachers. I believe it is these kids that were dubbed the digital natives and the adults that scored poorly on this test that were the digital immigrants. At least it is one definition probably among many. I didn’t think it was anything to do with the politics of teaching methods until I read your blog here.

    Nevertheless, I think the concept is flawed for the following reason. Sure some kids know a lot more than some adults but a lot of kids know enough to be dangerous and some expert adults know a lot more than any kids. Expertise is relative. I have empirical evidence of this from the baseline tests which provide 2.5 million data points. What would be interesting would be if we could get a representative sample of teachers to do the test because mostly the kids doing it did it before getting any formal teaching and so the comparison would be a reasonable objective comparison of the generations inherent knowledge. The average mark is just under 40% but one or two achieved over 90 and the variation within year groups is far greater than across them which calls into question age related stages. I should think some kids will be off the scale after a years teaching whereas others will still not score the average.

    In the end a lot depends on what knowledge we think is important. In a digital age, Is knowing about interoperability and data structures more important than 1066 and all that? Is being able to edit and format text more important than having neat handwriting? Is knowing how to systematically search for information more important than knowing library book classifications? Deciding the priorities is to me far more important than fashion statements either from proprietary technology brands or in labelling kids with meaningless titles.

    • 1. Mr Ian – stop trying to be objective. That is not the point of the blogosphere.
      2. Surely digintal natives is yet another shorthand for something far more complex as a phenomenon
      3. Your description in para 2 sounds like (I say this as a loose comparison with no scientific basis) a descritpion of the gneetic make up of humans across the planet. That is that there is a large amount of variation (the vast majority in Africa) which produce very different people with very different appearnaces, skils, etc but who are all humans.
      4. Your proposed study is v interesting. I am a governor and my thing is how do you get parents involved with kids education (which seems to me the main difference between my schooling and current state schooling. It is the obvious way but what happens to people who do not have computers or who do noth ave a base level of IT competence?
      5. Why is IT not looked at as a fantastic opportunity to broaden education? It certainly is for my own, and my knowledge base has massively increased…whether by long or short-term memory…and the Khan academy is great and my daughter loves maths as a result. (BTW I don’t think her adult world will be in any way comparable to mine and i am tryign to devise strategies for her education that reflect that.

      • The point of the blogosphere is for blogs that might or might not be objective. I tend to like objectivity – probably my maths and physics upbringing and the need to keep my business solvent.

        Shorthand labels often mislead more than they inform.

        The baseline tests test specific knowledge associated with technology. Empirically what children in a range of ages know.

        People that do not have computers are becoming rarer than people that do not have books in the UK.

        I do look at IT as a fantastic opportunity to broaden education. I do think the way and what we teach should consider technological change. I don’t think labels that stop people thinking about it properly are particularly helpful. ipad and similar brands are more about social fashion learning and cost a lot of money doing things for the wrong reasons.

        Probably the only value in the term “digital native” is in the sense of familiarity with and acceptance of technologies when compared to many adults but that could be said about many aspects of learning because children tend to be more accepting than adults in general.

  4. Harry,
    Indeed, the digital native myth has been debunked, also by myself so I won’t go into it.
    While reading your blog about the camera and phone, my answer to the workshop-giver would have been that the children were language poor and had no idea of retronyms.
    Also, I was planning to tongue-in-cheek answer your question in the title with: A digital native a native American or aboriginal with fingers.

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. […] Teaching in British schools « The Future Part 7a: What’s a Digital Native? […]

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