Archive for November, 2007

The tribe that crossed its head

November 1, 2007

The idea of the world being divided on generational lines between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” seems to be a widespread belief among educational managers. Its origin seems to go back to the American software developer Marc Prensky, who has written several books on educational technology. (You can access his blog from my blogroll.)

The problem is that for teachers working daily with the so called digital natives there appears to be scant evidence for Prensky’s claim. Yes, many adolescents are very skilled at using new technology and knowledgeable in a way their parents are not, but Prensky’s claim is a generalisation and like all generalisations it is very easy to disprove. Teenagers exist out there who can not use computers and cell phones and more importantly don’t want to. Nor are these all from communities which have turned their backs on new technologies. I’ve actually taught students who couldn’t use email but who had parents who were very computer savy; the exact opposite of what Prensky is claiming to be the case.

Now academics are examining Prensky’s claims in more detail. Gregor Kennedy head of the biomedical multimedia unit at the University of Melbourne says, “The data is showing that there is certainly a percentage of students who aren’t as technologically adept as some of the commentators make out.”

Prensky’s second claim that through their experiences using electronic media has meant that “digital natives” have their brains wired differently to the older generation. This is a view which resonates with me as the father of a thirteen year old with classic autism and profound intellectual disability. I might like to say his brain is wired up differently but the various brain scans and other neurological investigations didn’t find anything different about his brain or that of any other person with autism. The same is true with Prensky’s “digital natives.” This is not a “tribe that has lost its head” or found it again. Their heads are where they have always been, squarely between their shoulders. There simply is no evidence to back up Prensky’s claim.

Prensky’s loudest claim is that the education system is outdated and needs some fundamental changes to be able to cater to these new students. Well, the families who make up the autistic community have been saying this for years so I’m not going to argue with it, except to observe that these claims are being promoted by self-serving administrators who posssess the hallmark of the true reformer, a person who wants to change everyone but themselves. Ask Prensky’s more vocal disciples. What are they doing to show their commitment to changing the education system? Do they have a blog or use wikis to encourage collaborative and networked approaches to educational administration? Some do but many do not.

I’ve been in education long enough to see the way new approaches appear like new fashions in clothing and music only to disappear, as another new approach rises to take its place. This is a pity because personalising education does have the potential to improve motivation and outcomes for the students who are not succeeeding in schools. It would be a pity if this approach was to disappear now that Steve Maharey has resigned as Minister of Education and his successor, Chris Carter promotes some new enthusiasm of his own. However, I recall that “Parents as first teachers” lasted as long as Lockwood Smith was Minister of Education and I am not optimistic.

And let us also realise that Prensky’s claim is yet another generalisation. Our present system is working very well for many of our present students and there is no reason to believe it will not continue. Let us promote innovation not because all the old ways are not working, but because issues of equity demand that we do something for students who are not succeeding at school. Yes, we have students who are persistently truant and leave school without qualifications but these students have always been there. Once schooling was just for the sons of the nobility and gentry. After all, the word “school” comes from the Greek word for leisure. We have progressively extended the opportunity to attend school to the sons of the middle classes then to girls and finally to the children of working class families. The present group causing concern are part of a large underclass which we have created. When their parents left school before the school leaving age we just turned a blind eye. If we didn’t see it happening, we could pretend it wasn’t happening.  Now that is no longer acceptable. What has changed is not the students but our attitude towards underachievement.