Educating Digital Natives

My friend’s son, Carl, drawing a quick portrait
on his phone. He is only seven years old.

As a teacher who lived life as a millenial, it is probably hard to relate to: the zillenials. A generation makes a lot of difference. Here’s why.

Gen Zers are “digital natives,” a term coined by writer and speaker Marc Prensky. He originally used the term to refer to millennials born after 1980, as they were the first to grow up with interconnected computers. But Gen Z takes this term to a new level. Born in 1996 and later, they grew up not only with computers and internet access, but also with smartphones, social media, and mobile devices.

They don’t even view technology as technology — it’s just how they communicate. Technology isn’t anything special to them. It just is.

My nephew, Junhe, taking a picture of his cousin with his mini camera.
He is only 5 years old.

These digital natives are fast-paced, visually-oriented, non-linear, always-on learners. They have a built-in instinct to swipe right when reading e-books, and the pace of technological change doesn’t faze them. It’s no wonder the old rules of engagement don’t resonate with them, and, more importantly, aren’t preparing them to thrive in an unknown future. There is a distinctive, and almost uncanny and unpredictable, nature to their behaviour.

What does this mean for education?

In the past, teachers were the content providers because they were the only really reliable, ubiquitous form of delivering instruction. That’s just not the case anymore. Teachers become facilitators: they have to anticipate the way the students respond to new knowledge and changes, and they have to connect what’s out there on the WWW, to the learning objectives. It is certainly not easy to be a new of digital natives. Teachers have to be up-to-date, relevant and open-minded.

Always-On Learning

Digital natives want — and need — new structures for learning, and these pervasive demands are changing the game. In the past, if you wanted to learn something, you enrolled in a class. For digital natives, though, learning is triggered by the need to know, rather than the need to certify. They already have endless sources of information and would have already known how to obtain, at least, an unfiltered version of what they need.

Teachers have to be in the know: that digital natives are collaborative and connected — they can get in touch with anyone and everyone, right from their phones. And I’m sorry to add that they need instant gratification and frequent rewards, preferring games over reading. They embrace what gives them faster results. Today’s students prefer images to text, which may help develop visual-spatial skills, but can negate the potential for deep, reflective reading ability.

Misunderstood: A matter of speed

Today’s students also like to parallel process and multitasking. These may leave teachers wondering if they are too fidgety, hyperactive or simply taking short cuts. It’s rare for a student to have time set aside specifically for a solitary task, learning included. Millennials use technology the same way their parents do — as passive media consumers. Gen Zers are used to receiving information fast, in a random access manner, and resisting slower step-by-step logic, which can lead to quick, but less effective absorption of critical information. If you are a teacher, you can resonate with this.

We might also be critical, for these characteristics lead to digital natives being labeled as less focused. And I am sure we think they simply are choosing not to focus. How many of us realise that from the student’s point of view, it’s the instructors who make education worth paying attention to — or not.

With the internet as their school, digital natives have access to unlimited content, enabling learning to be constant. Learning now doesn’t depend on time, location, classrooms, or old-school lesson plans. Whether it’s watching an online tutorial, reading Wikipedia, or getting support and advice from others around the world via social networks, learning is something to be done — and it’s done on the go. I see this as an important point to note.

Change of Mindset in Educators

Amalia and me.
What would be her future like with the exponential rate technology is growing?

Still, it’s not necessary to throw all education theory out the window just yet. Educators need to shift from being providers or curators of content to leaders of learning experiences.

We really need to look at the way we’re getting students to think and understand. They need to be challenged in a way that they’re required to think critically and to create — that’s important because they have so much access now. Schools and educators must be pushed to focus more on developing how they teach as they engage digital natives in a way that’s consistent with their world — anchored in technology and connectedness. There is no lamentation that will make sense. Technology is here to stay and it will always progress.

We have to really rethink and make sure we’re really teaching them how to be learners, creators, and problem-solvers, and to distinguish between true and false information. Those are going to be critical skills that will help them survive in a complex world, doing things we can’t even anticipate now.

We have a clear example in the pandemic. For that, many jobs have been lost, many industries came to a standstill and employment rates have risen. On a positive note, we have the opportunity to raise a new generation who are self-empowering and possibly more resilient.

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