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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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.

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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.

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. . . .