Adrift in their own land

To say that modern children are digital natives, fluid and fearless in their intuitive understanding, is as witless as saying that everyone born after the Boer War could build their own Ford Model T.

When computers first became domestic possibilities, I loved my ZX81 so much I wanted to hug it. I learned a little machine code and wrote programs that made my name scroll endlessly across the screen. What a time to be alive.

But I was an exception in my school, not the rule. These days, I could no more point to the major organs of an iPad beneath its glossy synthetic breastbone than I could conjugate a verb in Farsi.

Of course, some children are prodigies in digital matters. There is probably a kid in your school who could make a decent fist of hacking your Hotmail, if not the National Security Agency website. But most of them can't. They aren't natives, if native means expert: they're consumers. A native English speaker can still be functionally illiterate.

A school liaison police officer I work with tells me that half his time is now taken up with responding to cyberbullying, usually revealing astonishing lapses in security. Some people breathlessly hail our children as the Shakespeares of coding, but most pupils don't even know how to manage their privacy settings on Facebook.

The phrase also implies skills that many children simply don't have. I have read a number of scholarly articles that describe how these new millennial learners (NMLs) "need" to be taught, with the implication that they have needs and appetites that can't be met conventionally, like exotic orchids. They should, for example, be allowed more time for research and group work, because NMLs are hungry for such things. But if I give a class a computer research task, guess what? Some of them do well, some of them stare at Wikipedia for 10 minutes, willing it to write for them, and some of them dive into the Flash games and pictures of Lana Del Rey in GQ. Sort of exactly what would happen if I asked them to use any other resource.

They certainly don't possess unusual levels of information discernment, as the Open University and Maastricht University pointed out in a study earlier this year (bit.lyDigitalNativesTES). In fact, many possess predictably immature levels of gullibility. Of course they do; they're children. That's what we're here for - to guide them. The internet is famously like a library, if libraries were full of horror, insanity and porn. The digital world requires far higher levels of cunning than the Encyclopaedia Britannica era.

No, the real digital natives are the colonists. They built the bloody country. Children born today have no more apprehension of the architecture of their era than a child born in a 747 knows how to fly the plane.

Why such a misconception? Lots of reasons: one of them is simply that older generations frequently don't grasp what children are really like. But they aren't different, just younger. They've always been younger than us, that's their thing. And teaching them - that's ours.

Tom Bennett is a teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference

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