please do not call them digital natives

Part of my PhD looks at who the students are that are currently going through the first few years of primary school and what characteristics and experiences may have shaped them. As soon as people here this, I inevitably get the ‘Oh yeah, they’re digital natives’ comment, followed by a range of stereotypical references to ‘hyperactivity’, ‘inability to focus’ and ‘wanting to be entertained’. While I’m still pushing my way through readings and research papers to make some decisions for myself about who they are and what may (if anything) define them, I am certain they are not ‘digital natives‘ in the original intention of the phrase.

In fact, stirred enough by such references, I did an impromptu survey of my colleagues and found that it is actually the majority of our teachers who now fall under this banner. In my school, over half of our classroom teachers are, technically, ‘digital natives’. I say ‘technically’ because I don’t believe it’s as easy as labelling a blanket with a bunch of characteristics, just because of the year you were born and throwing it over everyone.

In my school, we have teachers who are confident and active users of technology. We also have teachers who are not convinced of the benefits and power of technology to enrich either their or their students lives. And we have those who are ‘waiting for the storm to pass’, not realising that this is a permanent weather pattern that has set in and that they will have to adjust to. In each of these categories that I have described, there are teachers with a range of birth dates, both pre- and post- 1980. Their prior experiences with technology, their willingness to take risks generally, their philosophies on teaching and the influence of early experiences with family and friends all shape their comfort levels with and use of technology rather than any chronologically determined set of rules.

So it is with our students. It’s not fair to them to assume that, just because they have been born into an era where technology surrounds them, that they are comfortable, confident, capable or even interested users of it. The gaps between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ still dictate what access to technology many of our students have and the influence of their carers needs to be considered in how the use of technology is modelled.

As I said at the start, I’m still deciding the finer details of who they are and what characteristics they might display. I want to keep an open mind for the ‘data collection and analysis’ bit of my research and not take in a massive set of assumptions with me. But I do believe that the year they were born probably has about as little significance as my astrology sign has on predicting whether I’ll win the lottery this week. Although I might go and buy a ticket, just in case…..

Photo courtesy of Cristóbal Cobo Romaní @flickr

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One thought on “please do not call them digital natives

  1. It strikes me that what you want is for everyone to take time to get to know the students and people in their life. Stereotypes of all kinds, including digital native & immigrant, paint too broadly and cheat us out of knowing our students.

    Thank you for raising this issue and reminding us to linger, listen and learn what we can about our students.

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