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

literacy in the 21st century – what does it look like?

I’ve just finished reading a report by Henry Jenkins and others titled ‘Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century‘. As you would notice, I haven’t blogged much recently and the fact that this has moved me to do so should be testament to the effect it’s had.

The report shifts thinking about literacy from being an individual skill that we acquire in isolation to being something we gain and use through involvement with others. It discusses the ‘participatory culture’ that many youth are involved in through media and technology but which is lacking from many of our classrooms. The report also highlights a number of important skills – a set of ‘new literacy skills’ which participants need to be part of this culture.

I won’t go into great detail about the contents of the report other than to implore you to read it. Some of the ideas in it were ones I already had floating around as something I was conscious of in the classroom – the importance of promoting play and how to develop skills in multitasking.

However there were other ideas that I had never thought of before but that suddenly sound like absolutely perfect sense – distributed cognition and collective intelligence. I love this idea that intelligence is not something an individual has alone but is shared across their environment, artefacts they have access to and people they connect with. Looking at knowledge through that lens changes how we see students and their interactions with technological tools. A student accessing Google or using a calculator is not ‘cheating’ but using another part of their network of resources to complete their task. Why do we have to have all our knowledge in our head for it to be deemed valuable? Can’t it be considered equally valuable that we know where to get resources, how to use them and when they’re appropriate?

The list of potential literacy skills required to work effectively with new media is exceptionally valuable and would be a good one for all teachers to consider. I particularly liked a comment later in the report about how teachers shouldn’t see teaching these skills as an ‘add-on’ in what many see as already a bursting school day. We should see them as an integral part of how we teach literacy. Of how we teach in general.

I do understand the larger constraints that classroom teachers are subject to and how it can feel we have limited control over the day to day teaching that goes on in our classrooms. In Australian classrooms at the moment, the focus will, unfortunately, probably be on persuasive writing in a very narrow form thanks to NAPLAN testing which is due shortly. However I don’t believe this is an excuse to ignore reports such as these. It’s not about adding more into the teaching day, it’s about rethinking how we teach.

I think I’ve said enough for now although I’m sure this will be an ongoing train of thought…..

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my research in plain english

I’ve been inspired by the conversations on #phdchat on twitter to try to articulate my PhD research topic in an easily comprehensible way. If you’d like to read some other examples, go to the phdchat wiki. I still consider myself to be in the very early stages of my research and feel a bit bogged down by what my aims are so this is a particularly useful exercise at exactly the right time. In fact, while my general topic area is one I’m committed to and passionate about, I can see my actual research questions and focus changing the further my reading into current research goes. Anyway, here goes – comments and suggestions would be appreciated.


It is widely acknowledged that children’s experiences before they start school contribute to their development of literacy skills. In Australian schools, this is supported through the assessment of students at the beginning of each of their first three years of schooling to identify the experiences they have had and skills they bring with them into the classroom. Many of the classroom practices in the Early Years are then shaped by the experiences it is assumed children will have had at home (such as bedtime story reading or writing letters or cards to relatives).

However, what constitutes literacy outside of school has changed and continues to do so with the advent of digital technologies. By the time they come to school, children will have been exposed to and interacted with a range of technologies such as televisions, computers, mobile phones, ipods and games consoles. The skills they have developed to ‘read’ or interact with these technologies are different again to those that they require for interaction with books, paper and pencils.

My research focuses on the gap between the literacy skills students are bringing to the classroom in their first 3 years of schooling and what schools focus on as literacy during this period. This will involve a definition and analysis of children’s literacy practices at home and at school to see how digital technologies are used and viewed in both settings. I also intend to consider how teacher perceptions of the students’ ‘digital literacy’ skills alter their classroom practice.

If we accept that part of the role of education is to prepare students for full and active participation in society, this gap between literacy practices in-school and out-of-school becomes a crucial one. Potentially, such a gap creates a situation where students arrive at school already skilled in a range of literacy practices however are assessed in the classroom as failing because the in-school and out-of-school literacy practices do not match. It also raises questions about the relevance of classroom content and how this is preparing students for a technologically rich world that they are already experiencing outside the school walls.

New learners of the 21st century

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I have had this one bookmarked for a little while but couldn’t seem to find an hour to watch it. I’m glad I found that hour today. It’s a thought provoking look at some innovative programs that change how we think about learning and what school should be. Couple that with comments on 21st century learning from some of the leading educational technology researchers around and you get a real insight into changes that are possible.

Click here for the link to the PBS site for the full video.

Too dumb for complex texts – my thoughts

I’m catching up with my reading and came across an article in Educational Leadership titled ‘Too dumb for complex texts?‘ written by Mark Bauerlein. The article talks about the failure of graduating high school students in the US to adapt the academic rigours of University and blames this on the lack of study of ‘complex texts’ in high school.

My first reaction to this was a strong ‘ouch’. It sounded like so many opinions I’ve been hearing/reading about of late about the dangers of technology and how detrimental it is to students’ futures. Having thought a little more about it, I’m willing to agree on some of his points. There probably is less of a focus on the study of complex texts in schools than there previously was. I’m also willing to concur that this may be having an impact on students undertaking higher education as they are unfamiliar with the expectations of the academics teaching them. Do I think this is necessarily a bad thing? No. Perhaps we are pushing students into that form of higher education who aren’t really interested/equipped to deal with it. Do I think University is the life solution for everyone? Absolutely not. ‘Higher education’ comes in lots of forms, shapes and sizes and each type suits a different type of learner with different intended outcomes. If some students are finding it hard to engage with texts at a University level, perhaps it’s because the path they’ve chosen (or been encouraged to choose) is not right for them. Some students will thrive in these environments, despite being brought up on a diet of ‘digital diversions’ and will adapt their reading, comprehension and analysis skills to a variety of situations and text types.

I’m not suggesting that students do not benefit from a well rounded diet throughout their schooling and would hope that they continue to experience a variety of texts, ranging from timeless classics to modern digital feasts. However I’m wary of pushing a concept of schooling with the sole intention of preparing students for University. It’s not just this article that I’m reacting to with that statement, it’s a general feeling that I’m developing from Government policies in Australia as well. The purpose of education is a huge and contested topic but, in my classroom, I like to think I’m trying to prepare students for life. That ‘life’ might include further study at University, TAFE or an apprenticeship but it will also include relationships with others, managing and enjoying leisure time and finding meaningful pursuits to help them develop their self worth and place in society. Understanding and negotiating digital texts plays a huge role in all of that and, therefore, has an equally large part in the school curriculum.

web 3.0 and beyond

I attended a webinar this morning with Steve Wheeler, the presentation from which is above.

The salient point for me was the powerful combination of technology and social interaction – something which is obvious in the ‘real world’ but not always in our schools. While I agree that we can’t put all students in the ‘digital native’ basket and assume that they have the same level of digital literacies, we can assume that many of them are participating in self directed learning outside of school which involves a broad range of technologies and interactions with people beyond their own physical sphere. If we can find ways to harness that interest, the tools and the networks within a school environment, we will truly have the ‘personalised learning’ that is so often spoken about. There are certainly some educators I interact with through twitter and blogs who are making huge advances in this area, despite often overwhelming barriers.

21st century learner

I came across this video today while researching different opinions on what 21st century learning looks like and it struck a chord with me. In particular, I like Nichole Pinkard’s comments in it about children of this generation not instantly being ‘at one’ with technology, just because they’re born into a world surrounded by it. As she notes, it relates more to your experiences and exposure to it at an individual level.

I also really like the comments about not just preparing children for future employment but rather for the future in general. Leisure time and social interactions are equally as important and are something our education system needs to help them prepare for.

how to teach with emerging technologies when you don’t know how to use them yourself

I’ve just started my PhD and, over the past year in preparation, have collected a heap of articles/reports/references which I am now beginning to plough my way through. I came across a report published by BECTA in 2007 titled ‘Emerging technologies for learning‘ and have just finished the section written by Marc Prensky. BECTA itself has been closed down with the UK change of government but the report is available in various places (click on the link above for one of them).

In volume 2, Prensky writes about how teachers will never be able to keep up with the technological skills and interests of the young people they teach. I don’t strictly agree with this view from all sorts of perspectives (and it is partly fodder for my own PhD research) however that is definitely a topic for a future post. I really liked his advice for schools and teachers about how they could and should still use the technologies as teaching and learning tools. He suggested that, rather than know how to use a particular type of technology, teachers needed to stick to what we know best – helping students select and use the right tools in an effective, responsible and meaningful way. We don’t need to know how to create a podcast to be able to help students assess their own creation of them. It can be enough to teach students where else they can go to learn rather than having all the knowledge and teaching them ourselves.

I guess all of this is resonating following recent discussions I’ve had with colleagues about blogging. Many saw the benefits for students but were reluctant to actually implement it, for various reasons. A major reason appeared to be fear/misunderstandings about the technology itself. As teachers, we still need to have an awareness of what the technology is, how it fits into the world and how people use it. We don’t, however, need to be experts in using it ourselves, just able to guide students towards tools that will help them figure it out. Obviously there are some of us who are more interested than others but that shouldn’t be considered a pre-requisite.

Certainly food for thought. Now back to the pile of reading…

Every journey begins by finding your walking shoes

Last year I was hugely excited to be accepted to study my PhD through Charles Sturt University. Yesterday I formally made myself start my studies. In that sentence lies the first thing I need to master – “made myself”. My PhD will require levels of motivation and self discipline I’ve not had to show before but which I’m (hoping I’m) capable of. I have a great supervisory team who are already showing how supportive they are however I’m still quite daunted by the whole ‘aloneness’ of the experience.

The title of this post alludes to the fact I don’t even feel I’ve taken a step yet, just found some of the equipment needed. Since being accepted, I’ve been collecting various articles/books of relevance to my topic and yesterday began reading. I can tell already that distraction will be my biggest enemy but not from the usual culprints of facebook, my cat and oprah. As my topic so closely aligns with what I teach, I found myself reading something which I immediately wanted to search/dissect to incorporate into my classroom planning. I’m sure that’s a good thing but could be dangerous to my timetable for getting this finished!

Shall keep this short – I just felt it was a momentous occasion and needed some sort of formal recognition. The journey has begun. I have on my shoes, now to go about chipping a path out of the masses of grass, weeds and rocks that appear to be in my way. . . .