Posts Tagged ‘digital natives’

Digital natives or just lost boys?

September 21, 2013

The industry reporting new findings in research into brain development often teams up with the commentators on what makes the generations different.  Recently Rhys Blakely in The Times quoting The Wall Street Journal and HR Magazine commented on a trait of the Millennial Generation, an unwillingness to leave home.  Well certainly my son has returned to live at home but I hadn’t noticed it was a major new trend.

The journalists in question, however, are agreed on a cause and an explanation.  The millennials are the first generation to be connected 24 hours a day. When the Woodstock Generation went away from home they might call once a week.  Now everyone has a phone and they call home three to four times a day.  This higher connectivity translates into hyperdependence.

HR magazine asserts that computers and cellphones have changed brain development by altering the development of the pre-frontal cortex.  Millennnials don’t leave home because they are not yet ready to do so.

Well, we’ve heard that line before, that computers have altered the way millennials brains are wired, although I’m not sure Marc Prensky was  specific about the pre-frontal cortex; nor did he express concern about his digital natives delaying the moment when they left home.

The theory exposes itself right from the start.  Millennials, when they go away from home ring up repeatedly. Hang about – isn’t the claim that they won’t leave home?  So they leave home, develop this hyperdependency and so can’t leave the home they just left.

Next, do we have neuro-scientists who support this view? Certainly Rhys Blakely quotes other journalists so I guess the answer is no.

Can medical imaging show us that the pre-frontal cortex hasn’t developed? Rhys hasn’t mentioned this trivial detail.  We can assume he is correct and dispense with the need for scientific evidence.

When I test the theory against what I know, I consider that for centuries, families spanning several generations lived in the same household.  They still do in traditional societies.  I can recall here in New Zealand stories of people reaching the end of their lives,  having continued to  live with their parents and eventually take over the family home.  People who were behaving like millennials a hundred years before the millennium and all without cell phones and computers.  Then there were parents who wanted the child to stay home to look after the parent in their old age.  My aunt stayed home to care for my grandmother, but I never enquired about the state of her pre-frontal cortex.

Many of us left home for further study in other towns or to seek job opportunities.  Young people still do.  They go home to their families because it is cheaper.  Other young people leave home to have more freedom. Still others quarrel with their families and walk out, a sort of divorce. In fact, it is possibly because their pre-frontal cortex is undeveloped, that they leave home, not the reverse.

Then there is the argument that cell phones make us more connected. I can recall parents who – before there were cellphones – purchased a separate telephone line for their adolescent so that child could spend every free moment on the phone.   Then there were the rural households sharing a party line.  What do Rhys Blakely and his fellows consider to be hyperconnectivity?  Certainly the cell phone made it possible to be on line before we get home but excessive use of telephones is not something new.

Let’s just say that this claim is not yet proven.


Wise old heads

May 18, 2011

The commercial popularity of medical self help books seems to be a testament to the desire of the digital immigrant to prevent the spread of tropical diseases in the digital homeland, or at the very least to enjoy a greater quality of life than any previous generation has experienced.  Concerns about dementia, coupled with new discoveries in brain scanning can also illuminate a major theme of this blog: a critique of the Digital Natives Digital Immigrants model.

In a new book, Secrets of the Grown up Brain: the surprising talents of the middle aged mind (2010),  Barbara Strauch argues that brains actually get better at lots of things with age.  She challenges the factoid that we lose up to a third of our brain cells as we age.  In a healthy person, the brain stays reasonably intact.

As Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s  fictional detective was fond of saying, our brains consist of grey cells, but they do not work alone.  They are connected by bundles of nerve tissue, which are white in appearance and these white cells are covered in a fatty substance called myelin.  (So there is some truth in the insult hurled at Billy Bunter, Owl of the Remove at Greyfriars School.  We are fat heads.)  However, current thinking is that the more myelin we have, the better we think, because the myelin has some function in helping the white matter connect the grey cells.  Current research appears to suggest that the process of covering the nerve fibres with myelin continues well into middle age, and, moreover, that this is a good thing.  Strauch refers to the result as “great connected brains”, able to think better, see patterns, connect ideas.

If you follow this blog, you might expect that I will now link Strauch’s findings to Marc Prensky’s idea that young people’s brains are wired differently.  What all the brain research reveals, is that our brains are plastic, so Prensky is partly correct.  The net generation, through their exposure to and use of digital technology, do think differently, but do they think better? Strauch would suggest better thinking comes with maturity.  I think the more interesting conclusion is that our brains are capable of change throughout our lives.  It is not that the Net gen brains are wired differently, it is that all of us are changing in our mental capacities throughout our lives.  In colonial New Zealand, a British immigrant who adopted coarser colonial ways was said to have “eaten his toot”;  “toot’ being a corruption of the Maori word, Tutu, for a poisonous berry responsible for the deaths of large numbers of sheep.  It seems we can all “eat our toot’ and become digital natives.

It may be a fact that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but it is a factoid when we apply that adage to human beings. Toot! Toot!

Amazons or Athenians, what tribe is this?

May 17, 2011

In the legends of Ancient Greece. are the stories about warrior women, the Amazons, whose queen Hippolyta was finally subdued by the Athenian hero Theseus.  The story of their marriage forms the backdrop to Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream.  The moral for the Greeks, presumably was that men were the superior sex.  Modern thinking has debunked that view, but it comes to the surface again in pseudo scientific guises

In a book published in 2006, (The Female Brain) the science writer Louann  Brizendine developed a thesis that women’s brains work differently from men’s.  One piece of Brizendine’s  evidence was seized on by a large audience, the claim that women uttered 20,000 words a day against the 7,000 spoken by men.  The Daily Mail for example argued “It is something one half of the population has long suspected – and the other half always vocally denied.”  The Washington Post : “Women talk too much, and men only think about sex…you need a Ph.D. to figure that out?”   The book went into numerous translations with much the same effect .  The German publisher wrote in their blurb “Warum gebrauchen Frauen 20 000 Worter am Tag, wahrend Manner nur 7000?”

However, none of the people who seized on this claim actually bothered to look seriously at her evidence.  The Female Brain certainly is a weighty tome with about thirty percent of the text given over to footnotes, making the book look academic.   Fortunately, Mark Lieberman from the University of Pennsylvania did comb through the book looking for the evidence and found just one reference to support this claim.  It came from a book by Alan Pease and Allan Garner.    Pease is the author of self help books on letter writing and body language which always struck me as more entertaining  than useful.  Lieberman read their book Talk Language: how to use conversation for profit and pleasure  (2003) (Pease Training Corporation) and found that Pease had no evidence to support the claim either.

See Liberman’s blog

There is research however in the linguistics literature which argues the exact opposite.  Janet Homes, for example in Women, men and politeness found that men spoke more, on average, than women.  Liberman lists a lot of the research into the incidence of talkativeness and none of it supports Brizendine’s claim.  In the year following the publication of Brizendine’s book, a study published in Science tracked 210 women and 186 men and found that women used about 3.5 per cent more words than men.  Given the result, the size of the study and its methodology, this scarcely validates Brizendine’s claim.  Perhaps the most compelling argument is that Brizendine finally agreed to remove this assertion from future editions of the book.

Why then did so many people seize on this claim and why do commentators still continue to present it as fact?  In his study of this controversy (You are what you speak) Robert Lane Greene labelled this tendency the “intellectual id”, the eagerness with which people will believe something they almost desperately want to believe is true.  William James put it another way;  “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices. “  The fact is that we tend to form an opinion, then we look for evidence to support our point of view, while rejecting that evidence which contradicts us.

I suggest, that as with Louanne Brizendine, so with Marc Prensky.  As I have argued so often in this blog, his Digital natives, Digital Immigrants argument is fallacious.  There is no more evidence there is a generational difference in brain function than there is a gender one.

I want an iPad

January 19, 2011

Fleur Britten writing in The Sunday Times looks at the phenomenon of young children (i.e. under the age of five) using iPad.  Her discussion ranges over familiar themes:  the dangers of addiction, the question whether using iPad reduces the amount of physical activity, the value of interactive devices in cognitive development and in learning problem solving skills.  It’s a new device but the issues have a familiar ring going back to the debate about the educational value of television.

I thought it might be interesting to look at this from the Prensky analysis 0f Digital Natives.  Strangely neither Britten or her panel of experts uses this analysis.  Instead she suggests that it is Apple’s intuitive devices, the icons and the touch screen which means even a very small child can navigate the device.  Certainly there are Youtube videos of small children operating iPad’s.  Is this proof of Prensky’s claim about children being digital natives?  Well, there are just as many YouTube videos showing cats operating iPads.  I’ve never seen a cat looking at a television screen but cats can operate iPads because of the touch screen and the fact that they get a response.  It’s a little difficult to tell from the videos whether these are old cats or young cats, so we could decide if cats are digital natives or immigrants, or if this is determined by their age.

It’s great that small children can operate iPads but like Fleur Britten, I suspect that is a product of the clever design of the iPad.  I would expect older people to be able to operate one just as well.  The fact that one of the parents quotes in the article, believes her child is better at using the iPad in my view proves nothing.  This is one parent’s opinion and it can be explained by the child practicing more than the parent.

Another thought I’ve had occurred to me after my wife remarked about how her one year old grand niece could use a cell phone.  The parents of these under five year old’s are themselves the digital natives of yester year.  Prensky wrote his article ten year’s ago (2001) when today’s young parents were teenagers and certified digital natives.  If they are now digital immigrants, when did that happen?  Surely it is becoming more obvious that digital natives/digital immigrants is just not explaining what is going on.

Practice makes native

July 27, 2010

As we debate the validity of the digital natives/digital immigrants hypothesis, it is undeniable that younger users of new technologies seem more skilled at using it.  My point has always been that some older people can be just as skilled and that there are some young people who can not use computers.  Whatever is going on, it is not a function of a person’s age.

So how do we account for why some people have greater skill in using computers?   I think the answer can be found in the research into what makes exceptional people in any human endeavour: sport, games or more intellectual pursuits.   Anders Ericsson found that the key was practice.  These skills and abilities are achieved by practice. Rather than being the result of an evolutionary advance, (which is how I interpret Mark Prensky’s hypothesis) truly outstanding skill in any field is achieved with long practice which can not be done by cramming over several days but typically takes up to ten years.

The following exerpt from David Shenk’s The genius in all of us sets out the argument quite well:
“For those on their way to greatness [in physical or intellectual endeavours],
several themes regarding practice consistently come to light:

1. Practice changes your body. Researchers have recorded a constellation of physical changes (occurring in direct response to practice) in the muscles, nerves, hearts, lungs, and brains of those showing profound increases in skill level in any domain.
2. Skills are specific. Individuals becoming great at one particular skill do not serendipitously become great at other skills. Chess champions can remember hundreds of intricate chess positions in sequence but can have a perfectly ordinary memory for everything else. Physical and intellectual changes are ultraspecific responses to particular skill requirements.
3. The brain drives the brawn. Even among athletes, changes in the brain are arguably the most profound, with a vast increase in precise task knowledge, a shift from conscious analysis to intuitive thinking (saving time and energy), and elaborate self-monitoring mechanisms that allow for constant adjustments in real time.
4. Practice style is crucial. Ordinary practice, where your current skill level is simply being reinforced, is not enough to get better. It takes a special kind of practice to force your mind and body into the kind of change necessary to improve.
5. Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.

“Across the board, these last two variables – practice style and practice
time – emerged as universal and critical. From Scrabble players to dart players to soccer players to violin players, it was observed that the uppermost achievers not only spent significantly more time in solitary study and drills, but also exhibited a consistent (and persistent) style of preparation that K. Anders Ericsson came to call ‘deliberate practice.’ First introduced in a 1993 Psychological Review article, the notion of deliberate practice went far beyond the simple idea of hard work. It conveyed a method of continual skill improvement. ‘Deliberate practice is a very special form of activity that differs from mere experience and mindless drill,’ explains Ericsson. ‘Unlike playful engagement with peers, deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. It does not involve a mere execution or repetition of already attained skills but repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level which is associated with frequent failures.’ …

“In other words, it is practice that doesn’t take no for an answer; practice that perseveres; the type of practice where the individual keeps raising the
bar of what he or she considers success. …

“[One example of research in this field is] Eleanor Maguire’s 1999 brain scans of London cabbies, which revealed greatly enlarged representation in the brain region that controls spatial awareness. The same holds for any specific task being honed; the relevant brain regions adapt accordingly. …

“[Practice of the kind Ericsson described] requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond one’s capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again. …

“The physiology of this process also requires extraordinary amounts of
elapsed time – not just hours and hours of deliberate practice each day,
Ericsson found, but also thousands of hours over the course of many years. Interestingly, a number of separate studies have turned up the same common number, concluding that truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved in less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years’ time (which comes to an average of three hours per day). From sublime pianists to unusually profound physicists, researchers have been very hard-pressed to find any examples of truly extraordinary performers in any field who reached the top of their game before that ten-thousand-hour mark.”

Shenk, David, (2010) The genius in all of us, Doubleday, NY pages 53-57.

Ericsson, K.A. and Lehmann A.C. (1996) Expert and exceptional performance; evidence of maximal adaptation to task constraints, Annual Review of Psychology .

Maguire E.A., Frackowiak R.S.J., Frith C.D., (1997) Recalling routes around London, activation of the right hippocampus in taxi drivers, Journal of Neuroscience Vol 17 Number 18, September.

I’m in a google state of mind

October 29, 2009

One of the things I have been critical of in my comments on Marc Prensky and his Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants hypothesis is that there is no evidence which would  support his claim that Digital Natives by virtue of their exposure to computers and the internet, have differently wired brains.  Apparently, neuro scientists do believe in a concept they call neuro plasticity but that in itself does not support Prensky’s hypothesis.

In 2008 Dr Gary Small published a book iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the Modern Mind, along with his partner, Gigi Vorgon,  a freelance writer. Small is an eminent medical researcher who pioneered MRI scans to show there was physical evidence that the brain aged, and he was able to show evidence of Altzheimer’s Disease in living persons.  It would follow, therefore, that his adoption of the Digital Native Digital Immigrant model in his book would give much weight to Prensky’s case.

In iBrain, Small is writing about young people, Generation Y, but his research has been with older people, mostly, but not always, the elderly.  We see this in a paper he published in February 2009  in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychology. (I said he has lots of street cred!)

To this untutored person, what Small, Moody, Siddarth and Bookheimer found actually argues against the Prensky hypothesis.  The study asked a group of older people to conduct on line searches in Google while the researchers studied their brain activity, hence the title of their paper, Patterns of cerebral activation during internet searching.  The subjects varied in age, the youngest was 55, and some were experienced users of the internet while others were novices.  The conclusion was that all subjects showed changes in the ways their brains worked during and after their searching.  The trouble for the Prensky hypothesis is it argues that only Digital Natives will show  changes to their brains. Whatever you call the people born between 1945 and 1955, Baby Boomers, Woodstock Generation, Generation Jones,  they are all part of Prensky’s Digital Immigrants and this should not be happening.  The fact that this research was conducted by a researcher who had previously supported the Prensky hypothesis should give pause for thought.

Small, Garry W., Moody, T.D.,  Siddarth, P., and Bookheimer, S.Y., (2009) Patterns of Cerebral Activation during internet searching, American Journal of Geriatric Psychology pp 116-126.

Small, Garry W and Vorgon, Gigi (2008) iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind, Collins 256p.

We don’t ‘low no natives round here

August 21, 2008

I have just attended the DEANZ conference in Wellington, New Zealand and been struck by how criticism of Mark Prensky’s digital natives metaphor has now become mainstream thinking. While it is high time his views were subject to scrutiny and judged for their worth, I would be concerned that some of his less well promoted ideas might be lumped in with the digital natives idea and rejected without being examined.

In particular I refer to his ideas about the merits of cell phones as teaching tools.  While Prensky’s ideas of how cell phones could be used are not developed, he is aware of the huge potential.  I’ve covered this in earlier posts to this blog and in other media, but the reports of how cell phones are being used proliferate in the media.  The New Zealand Education Gazette 11 August 2008 reports how Nathan Kerr of Onehunga High School sends teaching notes to his students’ cell phones.

However, the merits of this initiative are reduced by Kerr’s Prenskian analysis of his project.   Kerr is quoted as saying “The most important thing to remember about the mobile teaching project is that it is student driven, they know a lot more about the type of technology than I do.”  Well, excuse me, but when did we last hear about a student compressing teaching materials and sending it to cell phones?   Surely what Kerr has done shows just the opposite, that he knows more about the technology than they do?  Prensky has a lot to answer for.

The second question about why other teachers aren’t using mobile technology is not answered in the media reports.   The answer to that question does swing the debate back in Prensky’s direction.  Many teachers and school administrators see cell phones as threats, not as opportunities.  Accordingly, money is not budgeted for these new approaches and teachers are discouraged.   When a teacher provides the resources themselves, they are met with obstacles, prohibitions and downright hostility.  As I have said in other posts, there are systemic obstacles to adopting new technologies, not so much the digital immigrants imposing their ways of life on the natives, but a Praetorian guard working to preserve the power of the elite, who talk the need for change while working behind the scenes to prevent any change threatening their way of life.

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.