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”.



  1. Are you sure schools are the future? In the overall scheme of things schools are a recent concept in educating the young. The point about the future is we don’t really know what effect technological change will have. I’m not too fussed about preparing them for jobs that don’t yet exist, I’d settle for preparing them for the jobs of to-day. When we are still getting them to write pages of text by hand when virtually no-one outside a school does that these days excuse me from being a little sceptical of the take over of the futurists.

    • Yes, unless you can provide every single child with permanent one-to-one tuition.

      • I can see why teachers might be threatened by the prospect that schools might become obsolete as we know them now. I’m sure the music and publishing industries had similar thoughts of immunity pre-2000. I don’t think it is anything to do with progressives or traditionalists, more just that the evidence is that technology changes the way things are done. Social systems take longer to change and large public sector bureaucracies are the slowest. As for providing every child with 1:1 tuition, that wouldn’t be necessary though it is conceivable. The telephone killed the telegraph on that very premise. Home education is increasing and teachers (and traditional teaching methods might actually be better off if schools changed. http://thelearningmachine.co.uk/how-to-pay-teachers-100k-per-year/

        • Question: which institute educated the home educators?

  2. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. Oh for fuck’s sake.

  4. I examined the value of Prensky’s phrase and his position as a games designer, in a paper called “Are Computer Games and Educational Cul-de-sac” at the ICICTE conference 8 years ago. http://journals.ufv.ca/rr/RR13/

    If you look into their backgrounds further Andrew, you will find something even more concerning. The most vociferously “progressive” individuals share a rather worryingly covert, anti-schools agenda. During the BSF programme, UK architects were queueing up to listen to, and then put into practice, the theories of a researcher who never hesitated to proclaim his own, deeply negative experience of school. His PhD was called, “Schools as Prisons.” Yet his voice was the single most dominant one in the entire programme.

    The political (not educational) thread running between then, and recent declarations about schools, isn’t difficult to see.

  5. Here come the real digital natives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU

  6. […] Andrew has written extensively about the ‘digital natives’ myth. However, the idea that we are somehow in the midst of a revolution in information that means that […]

  7. […] Andrew has written extensively about the ‘digital natives’ myth. However, it is still popular to claim that we are somehow in the midst of a revolution in […]

  8. thank you, this was a very interesting read. it has also troubled me, this gimmicky corporate-driven re-prioritising of education, in which people haven’t substantiated their claims as anything more than perspectives given the things that we do know about knowledge and expertise. – e.g. shulman’s or deborah ball’s work…

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