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Digitally native or naïve?

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Date posted: August 30, 2012

Being a “digital native” doesn’t mean that kids don’t need our help when navigating through torrents of information and multiple devices. In fact, they may need adult guidance more then they realize. That’s some of the interesting thinking in a Scientific American blog (thanks to EdSurge for pointing it out) by Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters, and it’s an claim borne out by research.

Playing games is different from using smart phones is different from searching the Internet. Each demands different skills and provides different rewards. Assuming kids have a native fluency in “all things digital,” mistakenly places everything in the same bucket, when the approach to each may be very different.

 kids_and_tech One area, research, is of particular interest. While adults may remember sifting through reams of books and journals and then determining what information was most useful, kids only know a world where anything you want to know can be found with the click of a button. Without basic Internet search skills, however, one can become overwhelmed by the amount of information available. Some take the top results from Google and go no farther. Some, as detailed in Project Information Literacy’s research, developed highly idiosyncratic and hit-or-miss ways of finding necessary data based largely on what might have worked before.

“[I]f students are not able to find answers to an Internet search in the first few results pages, they say “I can’t find it,” instead of adjusting their search, or reexamining the results in depth,” Passanisi and Peters write. “They are accustomed to working with intuitive electronics that provide instant gratification, and when they are not able to be ‘done’ quickly, they tend to become discouraged.”

Success in an academic activity may be “predicated by the amount of patience and determination required to complete a given task.” Kids don’t necessarily approach classroom technology or research assignments “with the same tenacity that they put towards” figuring out how the new app works or reaching the next level in a game.

The problem, then (oversimplified and generalized), is threefold.
• Students are not universally fluent with all technologies;
• They lack some of the information literacy skills needed to effectively find, evaluate and use information; and
• Absent the instant gratification they’ve come to expect from digital devices, kids often lack the perseverance to deeply engage in learning tasks.

Some of these problems are not new. Back in the 1980s and 1990s when I taught middle school math, there was some speculation that, because kids watched so much television, and because problems on TV shows were typically solved with relatively little effort within the confines of a 30- or 60-minute program, students’ tenacity in mathematics problem solving was decreasing. If the first or second attempt at a problem did not produce the solution, then the question was impossible, too hard, and not worth further investment of time and energy.

Rote learning, teaching to the test, and meaningless assignments with no relevance to students’ lives exacerbate these problems. Yet kids will spend hours figuring out the mechanics of a game, an app, or a new piece of technology.

Students can be challenged and deeply engaged if the tasks are authentic and relevant, but they also need help developing information, media, and technology literacies. And, as Passanisi and Peters say, “[i]t is our role as teachers to help students develop the skills to problem solve independently and collaboratively use 21st-century skills while not relying on technology to do all of the thinking for them.”

Our students’ future, and that of our nation depends on it.