Railing against ‘digital natives’ (again)

All plugged in…

On a discussion forum for my M.Ed, another teacher just asked me why I hate the term ‘digital natives’. Here is my response:

Where to begin?

  1. It was coined by Prensky at the turn of the century (2001)! While an interesting and helpful construct 13 years ago, it is now outdated. Why?
  2. It is binary. Really? Just ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’? Those are my only options?
  3. I won’t go into the baggage behind the terms…
  4. It’s usually used in the same breath (or at least the same paragraph) as “21st century learning” (or, as we call it in the 21st century, um, learning) and/or the phrase “we’re preparing them for their future not our past.” I generally like the sentiment surrounding that second one but it has become part of the set of cliches thrown willy-nilly into conversation to show that the speaker is down with the #edtech movement.
  5. Did I mention it’s binary? Where’s the nuance? Where are the shades of grey? Yes, students in our schools have never lived a day in their lives without Google and all the joys that it brings. But many/most of those students have never actually been taught how to find the joy that Google brings.
  6. Mostly, I think the term “digital natives” is used as a cop-out by some teachers to not do anything. The number of times I’ve worked with teachers – both as a math teacher and as a tech coach – who just magically think students are able to make a good movie about the rise and fall of Mesopotamia because they are in middle school, or with teachers who complain about students using Wikipedia for research but who don’t take the time to actually teach students who to search effectively (or to do academic research), because they are “digital natives” astounds me.

“Kids these days” are really good at staying connected with each other through facebook, or reblogging content through tumblr, or watching cat videos on youtube, or finding the latest meme on 9gag. That doesn’t mean they understand how to repurpose those skills in an academic setting or how to use those skills ethically and responsibly. That is our job as teachers and parents. Yet, the term “digital native” is now used with flippancy (not by all, but by a lot in my experience) to absolve teachers and parents of their responsibilities to teach or parent.

Uncle Ben (or Voltaire, if you prefer) once said “With great power comes great responsibility.

Punya Mishra once said, “Go to Google for information; come to me for wisdom.

I think the term “digital natives” now undermines both of these thoughts…

What do you think? Too harsh?

Image Credit: Photo by me, licensed under Creative Commons

4 thoughts on “Railing against ‘digital natives’ (again)

  • April 2, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Not remotely too harsh. Working across a number of schools as I do, I think clinging to that natives/immigrants dichotomy has been used as a copout by way too many people, and the buzzwords all too often get used to overinflate something that is pedagogically identical to the things it’s being used to criticise.
    Something I’ve started doing is just rephrasing it & reframing the conversation. I use more words, and try to use verbs as much as possible. “21st Century Learning” becomes contemporary learning. If young kids are touted to me as “Digital Natives,” I take away the screen & suggest that young children have been pushing things around to make them move or respond and recognising pictures for centuries.
    With older “natives,” I’ll point out that speed & confidence are no match for purposeful skill development, experience & track record.
    I’ll also ask about the things those Noble Savages have created, or what their preferred mode of communication is when putting something together.
    So far it’s working pretty nicely to silence the buzz and actually get people thinking – the conversations I’m having in schools are increasingly starting from a smarter, more engaged place.

  • April 2, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Couldn’t agree more! The idea that because someone grew up in an age where a particular technology existed they already know how to best utilize it is a joke. I often use Driver’s Training as an example. We’ve had cars for a hundred years now but we don’t refer to ourselves as automotive natives.

  • April 2, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    @Joel Birch It’s the copout that gets me. Like @rgentleman said on Twitter, being ‘native’ to any culture still requires somebody to teach/model the norms. Unfortunately a lot of teachers aren’t modelling those norms for their students…

    And you’re right: words matter. Rephrasing and reframing the discussion is necessary to keep us from hiding comfortably in pre-made boxes. I guess the work of a change agent never ends…

    My only comfort is that I’ve never heard a so-called ‘digital native’ refer to him/herself as such. As soon as they buy into this I think it may be a sign of the coming apocalypse.

  • April 2, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    @Jeff I love the Driver’s Training analogy. As soon as you put it into those terms, I’m sure (or at least I hope) the absurdity resonates!

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