There's No Such Thing As 'Digital Natives'

And the myth that they exist is hurting the entire workforce.
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Author Marc Prensky coined the phrase “digital native” as a descriptor of someone proverbially born with a smartphone in hand.

The prevailing thinking has been that older people have to “adapt” to technology, while Prensky’s digital natives ― defined as those born after 1984 ― just somehow intuitively know how to use new technology because they never lived at a time when it wasn’t omnipresent.

On a practical level, digital natives are the younger people to whom older people believe they’ve lost jobs. It’s a term that has worked its way into job descriptions and as such, drawn criticism from older workers, who see it as blatant age discrimination.

Now there is some science to support what Boomers and Gen Xers in the workplace have known in their collective gut all along: Digital natives don’t actually exist. And not only does the myth of their existence contribute to ageist practices, it also does a disservice to those younger workers who could benefit from having someone with more experience around. The Harvard Business Review noted that last November that workplaces that lack age diversity are at a competitive handicap.

In essence, suggesting that people born since 1984 somehow have innate technology skills not only harms older workers, but it actually keeps those younger workers from succeeding, said the HBR.

The same may be true in the classroom, said Paul Kirschner, a professor of educational psychology at the Open University in the Netherlands and co-author of a study in an upcoming issue of the journal Teaching and Teacher Education. He argues that we hurt students, rather than help them learn, when we assume they have certain unique technological skills.

Kirschner’s report, discussed in Discover magazine, noted that educational policy and practice are often based on the faulty premise that students who were born in the age of digital media are fundamentally different from previous generations of students.

“They’ve been ascribed the ability to cognitively process multiple sources of information simultaneously (multi-tasking),” he said, and have been attributed with innate knowledge of all things digital. And as a result of this thinking, they are seen to require an educational approach radically different from that of previous generations.

But that’s poppycock, said Kirschner. “There is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because (s)he has never known a world that was not digital,” he told HuffPost. “There is no evidence to suggest that [so-called] digital natives are more tech-savvy or good at multi-tasking than older generations.”

Kirschner minced no words about the impact the concept of “digital natives” has had on education and workplace expectations.

“These and other educational myths perpetrated by ‘edu-quacks’ are like virulent zombies. It doesn’t matter what you do and say or how much evidence there is to disprove them, they keep coming back to destroy us,” he told HuffPost in an email.

“These myths aren’t just harmless little white lies. The myths of the multi-tasker and the digital native are toxic to teaching and learning, in that respect to our futures, and especially the future of our children.”

The idea that digital natives are different from older workers has influenced everything from the way curriculums are designed to how companies shape their corporate work environments.

Prensky says much of that misses the point. There are older people who are tech-savvy and younger people who aren’t, he said.

“Digital natives is a metaphor,” he told HuffPost. ”[It’s] not about age, but about profound shifts in cultural attitudes. Young people today are part of a new ‘digitally enabled’ culture, which has given them very different perspectives ― on technology, sharing, privacy, ways to meet people, ways to communicate, ways to get work, ways to travel, and a great deal more ― than the generation(s) that came before.”

He added, “In this new culture ― advancing forward far faster than humans have ever experienced ― the old attitudes and perspectives can often impede progress; hence the reluctance to put them into companies, except possibly like Eric Schmidt at Google as the ‘adults in the room.’”

After all, he noted, it’s good to have “some old and useful lessons from the past.”

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