Forget homo zappïens - digital natives still need teaching

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Myth busting time.

  • Information-savvy digital natives do not exist.

Don´t kill the messenger. According to P. A. Kirschner and P. D. Bruyckere (in Teach. Teach. Educ.67, 135–142; 2017) , there is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because (s)he has never known a world that was not digital.  The “homo zappïens” is a myth, just as the Yeti is.

It turns out that the youngsters today, although digitally active, still need teaching to become digitally literate : in using technology to support their learning they seldom go beyond a passive consumption of information(e.g. Wikipedia, downloading lecture notes or reading their social media feed). Students today indeed use a large quantity and variety of technologies for communication, learning, staying connected with their friends and engaging with the world around them, but they are using them primarily for personal empowerment and entertainment.

The non-existence of digital natives is definitely not the ‘reason’ why students today are disinterested at and even ‘alienated’ by school. This lack of interest and alienation may be the case, but the causes stem from quite different things such as the fact that diminished concentration and the loss of the ability to ignore irrelevant stimuli may be attributed to constant task switching between different devices.

Which brings me to my second point.

  • Learners cannot multitask; they task-switch, which negatively impacts learning.

Remember those pesky teachers who insisted you cannot do two things at once? They are actually right.

The same article presents evidence that one of the alleged abilities of students in this generation, the ability to multitask, does not exist and that designing education that assumes the presence of this ability hinders rather than helps learning.

What students are indeed good at , is switch quickly and apparently seamlessly from one activity to another. The key word here is ‘apparently’:

When task-switching, a person first shifts the goal and thus makes a ‘decision’ to divert attention away from the task being carried out to another task...It has been broadly shown that rapid switching behaviour, when compared to carrying out tasks serially, leads to poorer learning results in students and poorer performance of the tasks being carried out.

Moreover, those who many considered “skilled”, or the heavy multitaskers who think can listen to class, and be on Snapchat, and have meaningful conversations, actually perform worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely because they are less able to filter out interference from irrelevant cues.

Even adults are very poor at this, and this actually impairs their productivity greatly. Multi-tasking is  allegedly worse for your brain then smoking marijuana...

Why does all this matter?

  • Educational design assuming these myths hinders rather than helps learning.

Did you ever hear someone say that teachers of these digital natives are digital immigrants who, through their lack of digital knowledge and skills, impede the natives' learning?

Well, they are wrong. To succeed, edtech must be at the service of teaching, not the other way around.  Education software is not making teaching obsolete, but makes the craft of a teacher even more important.

This does not mean, of course, that technology in the classroom is a bad idea, rather that the task of the teacher in a classroom where the presence of tablets and laptop can be disturbing is to know when and where technology should be present. A good idea for the digitally active  students is allowing a backchannel or a chatroom where they can go back to read instructions, share links, get back on track and reinforce task setting. Another one is to add off-screen learning extensions that students love, as for example in Zinc, where teachers often use the application during the first 10-15 minutes of class to get students into “study mode,” especially after lunch, and then direct the kids to read the rest of the text offline.

Teachers hold the key to both embracing and letting go of technological advances, and learning how to achieve focus should be included in the curriculum. The naturally occurring (i.e., not learned) acquisition of the metacognitive skills necessary for a multitude of learning strategies is simply not there, and needs to be taught, just like other relevant skills.

Mihaela is knowledge curator and co-founder of Newschool, embracing methods and developing tools that help students and teachers develop skills for the 21 st century.