Is your child a digital native?

In 2001, Marc Prensky, a speaker and author in the field of education, published a paper called Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants that had a profound impact on how we came to view children, adults, and technology. His theory was that people born in the digital age are digital natives, born into a kind of digital fluency; everyone else is a digital immigrant, and the immigrants’ adaptability would determine how well they worked with technology. The cut-off date is disputed, but generally, either 1980 or 1984 is used as the year after which everyone born is automatically a digital native. From his paper:

Kids born into any new culture learn the new language easily,, and forcefully resist using the old.. Smart adult immigrants accept that they don’t know about their new world and take advantage of their kids to help them learn and integrate. Not-so-smart (or not-so-flexible) immigrants spend most of their time grousing about how good things were in the “old country.”

In the last 16 years, this split between digital natives and immigrants has been used to explain why kids just “get” technology in a way that adults never could, and having a digital native handy became a good crutch for not learning a piece of technology. In the almost 20 years I’ve spent in schools, most of them have been spent with a tacit acceptance that the students were always digital immigrants and teachers were digital immigrants, but this always seemed off to me. It’s easy enough to use a digital device to consume information – really, anyone can do that – but students still need to be guided towards using the powerful technology many have access to as a means to create new information.

In the October 2017 volume of Teaching and Teacher Education, Paul Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere published an article that debunks not only the idea of digital natives but also the idea that anyone can truly multitask.

Kirschner concluded that a true “digital native,” who was inherently better with technology simply by virtue of their age, was a myth: about as real as “a yeti with a smartphone.”

From the article’s abstract:

This article presents scientific evidence showing that there is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because (s)he has never known a world that was not digital. It then proceeds to present evidence that one of the alleged abilities of students in this generation, the ability to multitask, does not exist and that designing education that assumes the presence of this ability hinders rather than helps learning.

Children aren’t digital immigrants… and if you were born after 1984, you aren’t one either. But by encouraging our children and students to use technology to create with technology – photos, video games, screenplays, poetry, computer programs, art) rather than using it to simply consume information, we can better help them utilize the power at their fingertips and learn alongside them at the same time. Use Scratch to learn how to code, build and program a Lego robot, build a Kano computer kit, curate a collection of photographs on Flickr, blog on WordPress, learn to program real applications on an iPad – there is so much that we can do with our children (inside and outside of school) to better use digital tools all around them, whether they were born into that mindset or not.