Cross-posted from Hypermarc

Bennett, Maton and Kervin do an outstanding job of breaking down the issues surrounding what I’m calling the myth of the digital native in their 2008 paper, The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence.  I have long been sceptical of the claim that there was a day when a switch was flipped and, all of a sudden, digital natives were born.  I wrote about some of my thoughts in this area a year ago on my blog and have had many discussions with colleagues around the claim that digital natives exist and if they do, what implications there are for education.  But never have I been able to articulate my thoughts in such a well laid out analysis as the authors have in this paper.

My hallelujah moments revolve around the concepts that digital natives are somehow significantly different than those that have come before them and because of this difference, education must change.  Simple understanding of evolution dictates that we must be wary of claims of any kind of abrupt change in human physiology or neurology.  We know that it takes many generations for humans to adapt to changes in environment.  Bennet, Maton and Kervin look at claims about digital natives being better able to multitask, a claim that has since been refuted by research.  They also look at the claim that students prefer to learn in digital, multi-media environments.  They claim that, while this is no doubt true for some, no broad generalization across the population can made based on this.  They so rightly point out that learning preferences are individual, not by demographic.

These arguments ring true for me as I have observed – admittedly in a very non-scientific manner – teens for the last 20 years and have worked with them as the digital native generation entered the school system.  I can’t say that there is any one teaching style that universally works for all students.  I talk to the students in my school and when teacher preferences are expressed, they are as much about personality and how the teacher helps the students to learn than they are about ability to to teach.  I have rarely heard universal complaints about any one teacher.  Some students, almost always are able to learn best with any specific teaching style.  If one teacher’s learning environment is based entirely in a digital medium, there will be some students who thrive and others who struggle and many in between.  The same can be said for the traditional lecture/note taking environment.

What has changed in the last 20 years is what opportunities are opened up by technology.  Students who have trouble retaining their textbook reading can often turn to video to view a more aural and visual delivery of content.  Those that don’t express themselves well through writing can show evidence of their learning in so many other exciting ways.  They can, if need be, dictate their essays with a fair degree of accuracy in order to make the writing process more efficient.  Experts can be pulled in to classrooms from all over the world through Skype, blogs or any number of other technologies.  Physical distance and often temporal distance (time zones) become much less of an issue.  These ideas should be embraced by education, not as the only educational strategy that digital natives will learn from, but as additional opportunities to address different learning styles and bring deeper content and greater context into the learning experience.

The other major topic that resonates with me in Bennett, Maton, and Kervin’s paper is the idea that the educational system must change.  Those that subscribe to the digital native myth claim that, because we are now educating a different sub-species of human, we must changing our teaching to be effective with them.  If we believe that there is no such thing as a digital native (or at least with all of the neurological and cognitive implications), then does education need to change at all?  The reality is that many of our teaching styles are stuck in the industrial era.  The idea that school is a factory and that there is an assembly line system that fits each student with the same knowledge in the same way is archaic and doesn’t line up with current understanding of how we learn.  Sir Ken Robinson discusses this at length in The Element and in many a video (my favourite being the RSA Animates version of one of his TED Talks).  Education is ripe for change and we need to look at all options available to us that speak to our current understanding of how the brain works and develops and that take advantage of the opportunities that all kinds of technology affords us that weren’t available when our educational model was developed.  We do not need to change education in order to address the teaching of a new sub-species.  We need to change education because it education is broken.

My favourite line of the article sums it up beautifully, “Neither dismissive scepticism nor uncritical advocacy enable understanding of whether the phenomenon of digital natives is significant and in what ways education might need to change to accommodate it.”  We need to spend some time looking at all of the issues surrounding the claim of the digital native, and try to better understand how advances in technology and our understanding of how all of our brains work in order to better be able to teach.  At best, the idea of the digital native gives us an excellent jumping off point to examine what we know about teaching and learning.



Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008, September). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786.

Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York: Viking.

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