The Myth of Digital Natives

For the last twenty years, there has been a discussion in education circles about how today’s students are fundamentally different from students of previous generations. Today’s students are “digital natives”—they have grown up swimming in a sea of digital media and constant stimulation, and they require a different kind of education than their predecessors. Such students are seen as having unique cognitive abilities, most specifically an ability to process information coming from multiple sources simultaneously. In other words, they have the ability to multitask—and unless we provide them with an education that speaks to this ability, these students will lose interest in school and disconnect completely. At its most extreme, this suggests current students’ understanding of technology and its use must be deeper and more fundamental than that of “digital immigrants,” who have come to such systems later in life and will never be truly fluent in this language.

This view, while intuitively appealing to some, turns out to be simply wrong. Not only it is wrong, but there is an increasing body of scientific research that shows that this myth negatively impacts our students. Our own experiences at Quest Forward Learning support these findings.

While today’s students are certainly awash in media and technology, their experience with these tools is overwhelmingly passive in nature and limited in scope. Students arrive at Quest Forward Academy proficient in using their smartphones to message each other and post to social media, and though most are well-versed in Minecraft, a much smaller number show proficiency with software tools, such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office. It is clear that these are learned skills, driven by necessity, and that in their daily lives students have not found a need to develop them. Students utilize technology largely for personal entertainment and empowerment—staying connected with friends, for example—but that does not translate to digital literacy. Nor does it lead to the ability to make critical use of digital resources. Even though students have spent much of their education on the receiving end of PowerPoints and internet searches, they still need to learn effective strategies for information retrieval and assessment. They might know how to find just about anything online, but they are more likely than not to stumble onto fake news and other unvalidated sources.  

These types of higher-level thinking skills must be consciously learned and refined. The belief that just because students are steeped in technology they will become intuitive critical users of it is no different than a belief that a student bingeing television on Netflix or obsessively reading fantasy novels will become a critical user of those formats. Critical thinking must be learned, no matter what its domain of application.  

What about multitasking? Surely today’s students are better than their predecessors at doing two things at once?  

Actually, they are not. In fact, no one is. From the late 1980s onward, there has been a steady stream of research that has shown that people trying to carry out multiple tasks simultaneously are less efficient than those carrying out the same tasks sequentially. In fact multitasking, focusing on more than one thing at a time, is simply not something that humans are capable of. Multitasking is better known as task-switching, which is a cognitively demanding process that requires a constant switching of focus and intention, along with a lot of associated cognitive processing. While many of us think we are good multitaskers, in reality we are generous in our self-assessment.

Why, then, do modern students often seem disinterested or disengaged in school? It is not because of the absence of devices so much as their presence. The sea of media and devices has resulted in diminished attention spans. And the desire to respond immediately when our devices beckon has led to a reduced ability to focus on one thing at a time. With an earlier generation of students we might have spoken in terms of needing to switch things up every seven minutes or so, to correspond with the traditional pacing between commercial breaks on television. Today, if we are giving a lecture in the classroom, we keep it to two or three minutes, as students’ ability to sit passively and receive information non-interactively has continued to erode.  

To confront this, Quest Forward Learning requires students to be active, to focus, and to create. Students have fewer opportunities to disengage, and over time they build up a stamina for remaining focused. Passive reception of content, whether through single or multiple channels, also misses an important point. The goal is not the consumption of information by students, but the cultivation of skills. This is why a skills-forward approach is so crucial to the success of Quest Forward Learning.   

For an excellent scholarly treatment of this topic, see “The myths of the digital native and the multitasker” by Paul Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere in Teaching and Teacher Education 67 (2017) 134-142.  

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