and I'm all out of bubble gum…

Yesterday afternoon, I got to spend some time with a really thoughtful group of teachers in a local M.A.T. program, talking about teaching with technology. Midway through the afternoon, we fell into a discussion of the idea of digital natives and digital immigrants. And I had an epiphany that transformed how I think about explaining the fallacy of the digital generation gap.

The Complicated Abstract Reasoning Argument

This is often a sore spot for me: I see teachers bemoaning their own role as digital immigrants — they’ll never be able to keep up with their digital native students, who know so, so, so much about technology. I don’t buy this for an instant: I’ve worked with middle and high school students for a long time, and I am constantly appalled at the shockingly low level of technological literacy, media savvy and generally poor levels of critical thought demonstrated by teenagers. They’re not bad kids — it’s just that the car rental agencies are right: they won’t have any executive function until they’re 25 — that part of the brain ain’t physically there. It’s about where teenagers are at, developmentally and biologically.

Therefore, to say that these “digital natives” will outpace us is a fallacy: they know how to do things that are fun, but usually inconsequential (and here I must pause to salute students, teachers and individuals are the exceptions that prove the rule). The role of the digital immigrant teacher is to do the same thing that teachers have been doing since time immemorial: challenging our students to think a bit harder, analyze a bit more critically, and generally become less naive and more savvy — and hopefully a bit more knowledgeable about our own discipline. Note that technology and the digital divide don’t even come into play there: we digital immigrant teachers can teach this without needing to be “more digitally native” than our students. We don’t need to be the sage on the stage making the computer sing and dance: we just need to model critical thought processes and help our students aspire to be a bit more mature.

Immigration and Naturalization

That’s a long-winded way of saying what came to me naturally yesterday afternoon, in a room where the majority of the teachers were Israeli immigrants: let’s think about immigration in the real world. Let’s think about the naturalization process, and how much concrete information immigrants need to learn to become US citizens. Now let’s take a look at the natives:

Being a native in a country doesn’t make you smart, or resourceful, or a critical thinker… or even responsible. It just means that you feel entitled to be there. Immigrants, by and large, actually have to know how the system works and grok the abstractions of a new place from a more intellectual and analytical standpoint.

And so it is with digital natives and digital immigrants. Digital immigrants bring a lot of baggage with them, including maturity, experience analyzing media critically, abstracting complex arguments, and supporting their ideas with concrete evidence. These are exactly the same skills that the natives don’t have. Yet.

Grumpy Addendum

And these are the same skills that we call “21st Century Skills”… but which go back to the first art critic, sitting around the fire, arguing whether or not that painting on the cave wall really looks like a bison, or if it might be an antelope, and what was the artist thinking using that brown wash when clearly the horns are darker than that…

February 22nd, 2010

Posted In: Teaching

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This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

Particularly in my [media design] class, which is fundamentally more process-driven, but also in my more application-driven computer animation class, I want to push my students to think critically about their own work and the work of their peers, and to reflect on that feedback (and, potentially, my feedback) in a constructive, forward-looking, “lessons learned” manner. To this end, as we reach the end of a project or unit, and we critique work presented, I ask students to respond the criticism that their work has received (while simultaneously providing similar criticism to their peers). I have them post their responses to our class blog, and then ask them to review each other’s responses, posting comments on ideas or insights that are particularly interesting or challenging to them.

In the interest of “pre-thinking” big questions before students arrive in class, I may also present them with a big question and a list of resources as a starting point for beginning to think about that question. I ask them to post their response to the question to the blog as a way of ensuring some level of thought and reflection prior to class, and ensuring that our class discussion can go further and deeper, rather than getting bogged down in background material.

In Practice

This is definitely something that works better the more you do it. And initial forays will be deeply disappointing. The best advice I’ve ever received about asking students to be reflective (especially in public) is that you have to have one or two “throw away” assignments where the focus is on getting the process under their belt, without regard to the quality of the outcomes.

By the middle of November, I have really asked my students in [media design] class to critique and reflect on our class blog only a couple of times, at the ends of units. This is, perhaps, not frequent enough for them to develop real facility. I have interspersed the feedback reflections with the big questions, so that they stay in the habit of posting to the blog every couple of weeks.

I have found, however, that the process of pre-thinking (first espoused to me by my colleague Anna Reid at [my previous school]), is very effective. Particularly when done regularly (I have also used online reading quizzes in a similar way, asking open-ended questions based on the reading to focus their thought while providing mandatory accountability.) I found, for example, that when we sat down to discuss issues of copyright and Fair Use in class, the students who had posted had already developed much more nuanced and thoughtful perspectives on the issues, and that we had a much deeper and more informed class discussion than we had had on the introduction of the assignment before the weekend. (In fact, when presented with optional reading assignments, most of the students read them as well.)

The process of developing an online conversation, in which students are actively commenting on and discussing each other’s ideas and work also requires more development. I have assigned a couple of rounds of online commenting, asking students to post n responses to each other’s work, but have not had in depth discussions of those comments. I have modeled this commenting, particularly early on, although the process of commenting on every student’s work quickly begins to (at least) feel prohibitive in terms of time.


This is actually an area that I want to really hammer away at over the rest of the year. I think that the payoff — not potential, but actual payoff — is huge, in terms of helping students both learn to think critically about their own and other people’s work, and to develop their own perspectives based in evidence rather than hearsay. The big challenge for me, is to really embed this in the routine of my class. (I have mentioned this elsewhere, but the adjustment from 4-5 class meetings per week to just 2-3, is really messing with my rhythm… and I didn’t have terribly reliable rhythm before this.)

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Blogs, Educational Technology, Teaching

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