Posted by: crudbasher | December 15, 2010

Why Schools Can’t Create Digital Natives

The #edchat discussion yesterday was interesting and sparked this line of thought.  My good friend @ktenkely also posted a blog post today on this topic found at Dreams of Education.

What is a Digital Native?

There is a lot of discussion on twitter and elsewhere about the “21st century” student.  Part of this discussion relates to the concept of a Digital Native.  This is a term coined by Mark Prensky in 2001. (see his paper here)  I think what he was referring to was how students who grow up with technologies seem to be more at ease and can use them well compared to older people who have to adapt to them.  While I agree with this idea, I want to put my own take on it.

It has been shown in studies that the human brain is most capable of learning at very young ages.  As we get older it becomes less flexible and has more trouble learning new things.  That is why, for example,  very young children can learn multiple languages without accent if they are exposed early enough.  Adults have a much harder time of it and usually have an accent.

Could we perhaps refer to this comfort level with technology as a language?  I have found that I can usually pick up a new piece of software because I have certain expectations of what it can do. Most software can load and save files for example.  You don’t have to relearn that part each time you get new software.

I think the 21st century student is a “Digital Native” because they have a comfort level with the fluid nature of technology itself.  Things progress very quickly these days and yet young people can adapt and start to use new technologies.

Perhaps being a Digital Native is being able to use technology with no “accent”.

This video shows an example:

Creating Digital Natives in School

So here’s the problem with trying to create Digital Natives in school. When I went to elementary school in the late 70s/early 80s I was taught some basic skills to survive in school.   They was reading, writing and arithmetic. These skills have been taught to school kids in the US for about 100 years and for the most part have remained unchanged.  What is important to keep in mind is that these skills were relied on heavily in later grades.  It was just a basic skill you had to have to be able to do the work in the following classes.

I learned to write and read in probably 1st and second grade mostly.  It was another decade before I graduated high school in 12th grade.  I don’t care what you teach the children about technology in 1st and second grade, it will be obsolete by the time they get to 12th grade.

Therefore I don’t think it makes sense for schools to try to teach their students specific technologies.  Nor should school pedagogy be predicated on specific technologies.  For example, I view Interactive Whiteboards as a technological dead end.  It doesn’t do anything to allow personalization of the learning experience and will be obsolete soon when every student has a smart phone/tablet.

What should be we teaching?

Instead I think schools should be teaching critical thinking, analysis and research methods.  The students will adapt to technologies as they go, but we can provide guidance as to what to do with it.  No matter how much technology changes, the fundamental ability to ask questions, posit answers, and draw conclusions (this is learning) won’t change.



  1. I recently interviewed Marc Prensky at the WISE2010 Conference in Qatar. Thought you might likw to hear his response to the question, ” Is there any such thing as a digital native?”

    • Thanks very much for posting that link Derek! Your accent rocks. 🙂

  2. Great article. I couldn’t agree more in regards to the use of technology. And what we should be teaching. Sometimes I think we forget these ‘fundamentals’ because we see these shiny trinkets and assume they will do the work for us.

    • That’s a great way to put it Charles, we can’t assume the technology is going to do everything for us by itself.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. […] Why Schools Can’t Create Digital Natives « Education Stormfront RT @educatoral Why Schools Can’t Create Digital Natives via Education Stormfront (tags: […]

  4. I have learned to not like the term “digital native”. I think it suggests that younger people are born with an inate ability to use technology. In my experience, they do but not necessarily effectively or appropriately. They are really good at surface work of some tools and going deep with games. But it takes time and wisdom to put it all together effectively. Adults have the benefit of life experience and wisdom to apply to their use of tools.

    I think the most significant benefit kids have is they are generally fearless whereas adults have learned to be fearful. Kids are will to try anything new without concern – adults, not so much.

    But, back to your main point. I think kids do need to be taught how to “effectively” use specific technologies to a degree and in context but they will figure out the specifics within context. Teachers don’t need to be experts on tools but they do on process, application, and purpose. As to which tools will be obsolete or have certain value (eg, IWB’s), that will evolve and change over time. The key is to use whatever tools are available in the best possible interest of student learning.

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