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Prensky’s Teaching Digital Natives

Some concerns with his framing of teen tech literacy.

I read Teaching Digital Natives back in 2012 when it was being read by the teachers and administrators of a new type of course. I wish I had been given it at the beginning of our course development. After a year of trying to piece together the main ideas of the program from snippets of philosophy and examples of projects, it seems to me this book may be a bible of sorts.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with the Urban Dictionary’s entry for Digital Nativism:

Wow. I think Prensky hit a nerve. Let’s see how mistaken this belief really is.

FIRST, THE TERMS: On Digital, Native, and Immigrant

I had a friend who worked in an independent living centre. He helped people with severe disabilities live independent lives in an adapted apartment building. His many stories, however, of helping his clients’ digestive process via “digital stimulation” forever coloured the term digital for me. And stimulation. Other than that, it’s a pretty inert term implying something to do with fingers.

Native and immigrant are really loaded terms however. They have connotations that move far beyond the world of technology. When it’s suggested that the digital immigrants of today are technologically inferior to the natives, to those born immersed in technology, there’s an implicit denigration of immigrants as inherently inferior to those native born. I think it takes someone with either enormous cojones or a dearth of cultural sensitivity to use these terms in this context.


Beyond the terms, however, let’s look at his arguments. He offers three main premises: that kids today learn differently, produce differently, and must be motivated through passion. Then he suggests education must change to meet these pivotal alterations in our children. However, his claims are so ill-supported that, if this book was an essay I was forced to mark, I’d have the word, “Proof???” in red ink in the margins on just about every page. His evidence that we need to change the education system is the growing drop-out rate (“…almost a third nationally and half in the cities” p. 2), but his numbers don’t match other stats that suggest a decline from 14% to 8% over the last 30 years in the U.S. Canada’s drop out rate has been decreasing — from about 20% to 10% over the last 15–20 years. Maybe we’ve got a good thing going and shouldn’t mess with it! Or maybe there are just fewer jobs available to kids who don’t finish high school. Either way, according to reputable sites, the drop-out rate is in decline and nowhere near the 30% claim.

Many of his ideas are useful, and most effective teachers already do them, but his insistence that we compel students to do “rigorous” work is undermined by the lack of any rigorous research into his varied assertions that are rife with logical fallacies.

Way further down, below the premises, I explain why I think so many people like this type of book, some concerns with the author, and my own preferences in the classroom.

THE FIRST PREMISE: Students today process information differently than in previous generations.

“Despite what you may hear, or even observe, today’s students don’t have short attention spans or the inability to concentrate that they are often accused of having. Many of the same students who don’t concentrate in school will sit for hours, for example, totally focused on movies or video games. So, it is not our students’ attention capabilities that have changed, but rather their tolerance and needs.” (p. 2) “So the era in which this type of teaching — lecturing, presenting, explaining to all, or telling — worked has pretty much come to an end.” (p. 10)

Presnky suggests that since we can sit for hours in front of a screen, therefore our ability to focus hasn’t changed. Kids just have no patience for our boring lectures. He offers no support for this assertion, and it’s not rocket science to recognize that watching multiple images that move constantly on a screen faster every year is not proof that our attention span hasn’t changed. In fact, it suggests quite the opposite.

I know I, personally, have a shorter attention span than I once did. As a child, I loved Marx Brothers movies, but today they’re unbearable to watch (but watch that clip at that link anyway — it still kills me). The time between the set-up line and the punch line feels like an eternity. It’s entirely because movies, commercials, TV, and the internet all move faster that our expectations of everything moving faster have increased. If it takes more than ten seconds for something to load on my computer, I get antsy. The fact that media actually has affected our attention spans over the last several decades has been documented extensively (check out here, here, here, here, and here for starters).

Prensky makes so many poorly argued and unsupported claims like this in this book, that I would bore the most fascinated reader if I went through them all individually (maybe because of our shortened attention spans). This is just page 2 of his book. Instead I’ll stick to some of the bigger or more generalized ideas.

Prensky suggests that although their attention span is untouched, students’ ability to understand teachers is different. “Today’s students are no longer the student the education system was designed to teach.” In fact he says the gap between the digital immigrant’s use of outdated language is, “the single biggest problem facing education today.” The example he uses is that immigrants print to edit their work, and natives edit online.

I can provide a bevy of anecdotal evidence to the contrary (that I edit online, but kids still want handouts to cue them to do an assignment, etc.). Just Friday night, as our new school leaders chose the council team for next year, teachers kept suggesting they use online spreadsheets and other tools, but they insisted they had to have it all written out on many sheets of paper in front of them. What is necessary here is some empirical proof, some kind of a peer-reviewed study that tells us one way or the other. Luckily, at least two independent studies (2007 and 2008) determined that, “… the evidence that digital natives have completely different learning preferences from earlier generations is overstated.”

Prensky creates a false dichotomy by claiming we’re all either in one camp or another entirely determined by our birthdate. It’s a fallacy of generalization. Kids are a motley crowd, a heterogenous group, and this diversity is mirrored in the very different ways kids — and teachers — approach, use, and reflect upon media.

From The Economist (Mar 2010): “This is essentially a wrong-headed argument that assumes that our kids have some special path to the witchcraft of ‘digital awareness’ and that they understand something that we, teachers, don’t — and we have to catch up with them,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, who teaches media studies at University of Virginia.

Writing in the British Journal of Education Technology in 2008, a group of academics led by Sue Bennett of the University of Wollongong set out to debunk the whole idea of digital natives, arguing that there may be “as much variation within the digital native generation as between the generations.” They caution that the idea of a new generation that learns in a different way might actually be counterproductive in education, because such sweeping generalisations “fail to recognise cognitive differences in young people of different ages, and variation within age groups.” In short, kids today do not really have different kinds of brains that require new approaches to school and work.

Bennett et al suggest,

And, how about the claim that the single biggest problem in education today is our outdated language? Really? The single biggest problem? I haven’t found the language I use to detract at all from the ability of kids to understand the lessons. Not even a little bit. I don’t believe I’m such an anomaly, so if this is the biggest problem, why hasn’t it made headlines? Where is the proof?

THE SECOND PREMISE: Kids today produce differently and are better at multi-tasking.

“Why should we think of today’s kids as rockets? At first blush, it’s their speed; they operate faster than any generation that has come before.” (p. 11) He credits the multi-tasking style of today’s Digital Natives.

This one kills me because there is oodles of proof that multi-tasking doesn’t work for anyone. Not even students. At the beginning of the term, we had students watch a TEDTalk, and talk online about it as it played. The kids in my group couldn’t do it. They either watched and missed the discussion, or discussed without watching (and therefore discussed all manner of things unrelated to the topic). The average person’s brain can’t manage two things at once like that — not well at any rate.

Because students listen to music, and take multiple breaks from homework to chat or facebook or message or whatever, is not to say they’re effective at multi-tasking, and it’s definitely not to say that we should incorporated multi-tasking activities in the classroom. Some of the research in the links above indicate that the more kids multi-task, the more they’re driven to because — wait for it — multi-tasking actually decreases their attention span.

This is a great example of the dreaded naturalistic fallacy, or, as Hume says, moving from an is to an ought. Because students do try to work on many things at once, is not to say that students should try to work on many things at once. We, as teachers, should be guiding them away from this behaviour, not encouraging it.

Bennett et al suggest that,

An article by Colin Hill, at USQ, further clarifies that there isn’t any evidence of these premises — that students learn differently nor that students produce differently.

A recent study of 300 students found that even one glimpse at Facebook or a text (even one from a teacher) during a study session can dramatically reduce grades. The author of the study, Larry Rosen, suggests that we need to teach students how to focus by insisting that students spend 15-minute periods focusing on work with all phones and computers off (or no other pages opened and flashing somewhere on the screen), followed by a 1–2 minutes break (strictly timed) to check messages. We have to actively teach students how to stop multi-tasking in order to be more effective learners.

THE THIRD PREMISE: Students must be engaged by finding and following their individual passions. This follows the lead of Dewey, Rousseau, Summerhill, Montessori….

“All students and teachers know that students get the greatest reward for their efforts when things are individualized and customized for each student” (p. 17). Students are to discover the content, not be told directly by teachers. “The teacher never tells or lectures (no talking, worksheets, power points, etc.), even when giving instructions. Students always work on their own or in groups…using a variety of tools” (p. 169).

This fallacious argumentum ad populum states unequivocally that the classroom works best when everyone is following a customized lesson. Arguments like this are easy to dismantle with a single claim to the reverse. Since it’s the case that, as a teacher, I don’t know this to be true, therefore, at the very least, it’s false to suggest that we all know it to be true.

The reality, from this skeptic’s point of view, is that we don’t always know much of anything — least of all what our desires and passions actually are. Students in my class can take more time figuring out what they want to do than actually doing or learning anything. And I think it’s possible, even if we don’t want to believe it, that some students really don’t have a passion for much of anything.

This is a little besides the point, but something I just can’t let go by without comment: “To a great extent, partnering falls into the great pedagogical tradition known, variously, as student-centered learning…project-based learning…learning by doing. John Dewey famously espoused this form of pedagogy in the early 20th century, and it has probably been used, in one form or another, since Socrates” (p. 15).

I don’t think it can be argued that Socrates used a student-centered, project-based style. Had he said “since Socrates’ time,” he’d still be wrong because the sophists were also not into the whole student-centered thing. They didn’t give a fig about what students wanted to learn. They weren’t encouraging students to follow their passions. Socrates had a fixed agenda and he craftily sucked students into his arguments. He wanted to show them how little they knew about any topic. He only taught students interested in learning from him. We don’t have that luxury these days. So, some kids won’t want to learn about Socrates on the day I’m teaching it. And Prensky would take me to task for standing at the front of the room talking and getting into arguments with my students day after day instead of letting them design their own projects to do.

Prensky wants teachers to focus on “making our subjects real” as opposed to merely relevant. He’s essentially saying that every lesson should provide examples from specific events in the present rather than teaching transferable skills that can be adapted for use with a variety of events.

He claims to follow Dewey, yet he runs into some of the very problems Dewey warned against. In The Child and the Currirulum (4–5), Dewey says,

Dewey further clarifies that we should be child-centered, yet warns that relying too much on what the child wants can be equally detrimental to the learning process. We have to be strong guides to take them in the direction they need to go, not just let them lead us where they want to go or we’ll lose mastery of content ( 13–14). We must be careful not to tie everything in to one problem that needs to be solved: like the burgeoning use of technology. Education is far more complex than that.

But I’m not fond of Dewey’s ideas for the same reason I’m not fond of Rousseau. And, for backing, if we need to appeal to authority: I’ve got B.F. Skinner on my side.

Skinner refers to the Dewey/Rousseau/Montessori/FFP-type of education as the “Free School Model” and insists, “The free school is no school at all. Its philosophy signalizes the abdication of the teacher.” Skinner suggests that the student in a student-driven program, “The Emile”

To be clear, Skinner is strongly against corporal punishment which was a common tactic in his day. He knows, like most of us do, that to get people to learn something they don’t see as immediately relative or useful, we have to start with non-physical punitive methods if effort isn’t made, but, “the teacher can often make the change from punishment to positive reinforcement in a surprisingly simple way — by responding to the student’s success rather than his failures.” We should reward them for their efforts and have a punishment (no marks, failure to get the credit) that will movitivate them to learn. If I wasn’t made to learn how to multiply or to play scales on the piano, I would never have done it . I had no desire or passion to learn either. But I’m much happier now for the knowledge that was forcibly imposed on me.

Skinner also suggests, “programmed instruction is perhaps most successful in attacking punitive methods by allowing the student to move at his own pace. The slow student is released from the punishment which inevitably follows when he is forced to move on to material for which he is not ready, and the fast student escapes the boredom of being forced to go too slow” if a lack of production is due to pacing. This is something I’d support fully, but it’s not something we can do within the confines of our program. I have a few kids that could be doing grade 11 work, and other that need more than four months to finish the work we’re doing. But everyone is evaluated on their work to the end of June.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF MASS APPEAL: Or, why are so many intelligent people so sold on something so poorly researched?

When our last librarian left, he brought me a book on Summerhill, because I’m the only person who’s ever signed it out. I talk about it whenever I teach about Rousseau’s philosophies, but I also really love the idea of it. I love it because it would have worked beautifully for me. It’s a dream school that I wish I had attended as a teenager. However, I don’t believe I’m representative of the population at large.

This was a caution I sent to other teachers at my school recently after I presented all the positives of the FFP program at a meeting:

Bennett et al say,

As James McKenzie suggests, “His view is intellectually bankrupt, but simple-minded thinking is often attractive…Prensky’s labels are crude, inaccurate and based on no data. His gross generalization lump complex segments together as if identical.”

In the last ten years there are many that have taken him to task for, “his sloppy citations and the lack of a research basis for his assertions.” Yet here we are devoting a lot of time and money to following his path. Why?

I think it’s because we want to believe we finally found the elixir — the solution for the problem of how to reach all apathetic teens everywhere. We want to be the saviours. But we’re having an emotional, not rational, response to the desire to finally have found the answer to the problems in education. We want to be able to reach all the kids and have better success and be the best we can be. It’s very provocative to have a book that suggests we can do that. We really want it to be true. But that’s a fallacious appeal to consequence or appeal to pity even. It would be really nice if it were true, therefore it must be true. Even though there’s no proof that it works, people believe with an impassioned religious fervour. It’s easy to get sucked into these ideals. But I don’t think we should change the education system without some empirical evidence to back up the model or even some of the claims it makes.


This is all ad hominem stuff, but really, Prensky’s primary skill is inventing and marketing video games (“…designed and built over 50 software games…” p.xix), so he’s got a vested interest in convincing teachers that playing video games in class is a reasonable way for students to learn. He taught for three years, then quit teaching back in 1971. Some of the games he recommends have religious or white supremacist themes with neither context nor reason for inclusion provided. He might argue that it teaches about social extremism, but the goal of the games is to assist in a virtual genocide. Hmmm….


The type of instruction in which kids seem to learn the most and get the most from are not the ones they spend online. Many get far too distracted by mindless entertainment offered there. The best classes for learning and engagement are the ones in which kids are asked critical-thinking questions that make them question their assumptions, that push them further to a greater depth of thought. They argue in real time with real people with expressions and gestures right in front of them instead of typing into a void, unsure who’s reading and what they’re thinking. I’m talking socratic lessons — in the original sense of the word. Nothing new.

However, what is new is the many more creative ways students can display their learning. From scratching into rocks then pen and paper, the biggest shift now is to film. Everybody can make a video. If kids want to craft an essay or report in their head or with a few points jotted down, and film themselves complete with other visuals and music, then more power to them. That’s really cool. Videos demand an organization of thought that kids rise to — they don’t want people to be confused or to misunderstand their point. It’s essay writing in a visual form. It’s almost as if we’ve come full-circle back to oral traditions — but with ideas we can save online instead of having to memorize.

So in my classroom, I’ll be in charge of how they’re taught, and they can be in charge of how they show me what they learned. The education system, however, does not need to be transformed to allow this to happen. It happens already in many classes that aren’t running special programs. What does help, however, is access to computers.

Students also need due dates and a good reason to hit that date (yes, that means some kind of punisher or negative reinforcement). They need late marks taken off, or the threat of failing. If, in the workplace, bosses everywhere suggested the best times for employees to work and suggested timelines, but didn’t enforce anything or provide consequences, how many would be there at 9:00 a.m.? Some might, but most would choose to wander in and out, and productivity would diminish, things would fall apart. Most people need to know that if they don’t finish their work on a deadline, they’ll lose some pay or be reprimanded, and they might even lose their job. Most people are inherently lazy, and we need consequences to motivate us to get stuff done — even stuff we want to get done. “Most of us,” she said giving up a beautiful Sunday morning to write a book report that few will read.

Due dates aren’t the enemy. They make things work. Every Thursday in this program a different school is supposed to submit an online magazine for the rest of us to read. I expected to spend part of every Friday morning with the kids reading and commenting on the papers. The writers would get immediate feedback, and it would make for a relaxing final day of the week. But the papers aren’t being produced on any kind of schedule. We can’t book time in a lab to read them because we’ve got no idea when each one will be available. When we submitted ours on time, it didn’t matter because a routine couldn’t be established around reading all the others, so there were no comments or feedback from kids in other schools on our paper. Without strictly enforced due dates, things fall apart.

This project rallies against the “factory school” model that teaches kids to blindly follow instructions and be satisfied working on boring piece-work all day long. I don’t think enforcing timelines or grading quantity with quality necessarily teaches them to be cogs in machines. But what that enforcement does do, is to prepare them for the attitude necessary to get and keep a job — any job — in this wintery economic climate. The only job they could get without deadlines is one of the few at the Perimeter Institute.

At the midpoint in the course I asked students what they liked and hated:

What they loved? A variety of ways to produce projects. Overwhelmingly they liked that one civics project I gave them, where I taught a lesson at the board, discussed examples in terms they could relate to (the French and English in Canada became WCI and KCI), then offered a variety of ways for them to work with the information and feed it back to me. That’s a lesson and project I’ve been using for over ten years. It’s just good teaching to offer a variety of means of expression, and I learned that from my favourite teacher, Mr. Sinkins, back in 1979.

What they hated? Loose due dates. I put due dates on everything but without any consequences for handing things in late. The real due date, I told them, is the end of term. Many ended up swamped at the end of term. Now if that taught them to never do that again, if it taught them to make their own internally-enforced deadlines, then it would be worth the piles of marking I had in one weekend. But it taught them nothing. And I don’t think it would work on adults either. If you tell me I should work ahead and do a project now, but I don’t really have to do it until the end of June, it will sit on the corner of my desk for a couple of months. I think most people are like that. Plato would call it an inability to measure the long term pain of doing the work against the short term pleasure of doing something more entertaining. We all need external motivation to get things done.

What I love? The collaboration between schools — an opportunity feasible only with technology. Seeing what other teachers do is a most valuable learning tool for teachers, and knowing that I’ll be sharing all my stuff with them makes me step it up a notch. But I mainly love the collaboration for the kids because some kids are outsiders in their own class. Some kids don’t connect well face-to-face or don’t happen to connect with the people in the random assortment of kids they’re stuck with for two periods a day, and the internet gives those kids better odds for an opportunity to find a connection within a classroom of 400 kids instead of 25. Blogs, book clubs, and magazine creations are the forums that offer this kind of enlarged community. I also love the discussions on digital citizenship. And I love that with an authentic audience around the city, kids write better. These are things that should be part of every classroom.

What I hate? Reading tripe like Prensky’s book!



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